Over at Elegant Variation today, Mark Sarvas has a self-searching little essay about the way his literary tastes are changing as he grows older. The spur for his ruminations was reading two very different books in succession–David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire–and discovering that the artistically conservative Hazzard did a whole lot more for him. On the verge of turning 40, Mark’s not so sure how he feels about this:
But the truth is I like things a little quieter, a little slower. I like to linger. I like to peer inside. I don’t necessarily mind books where nothing much happens; because in life, it’s often the case that nothing much happens. I find that for my taste–and it is not much more than a question of taste–I prefer the quiet truths. I was struck by Stephen Mitchelmore’s recent post on his splinters blog, where he said: “Is there anyone else who gets excited, instead, by very short novels that do not rely for effect on clinical mastery, faux-naivete, ‘very old-fashioned entertainment’ and/or bad faith?”
When I read that, I jumped up and down pointing at the screen, shouting, “Yes! Yes! Exactly!” (It’s worth pointing out that [John] Banville closes his review of The Great Fire with these words: “Yet when the narrative leaves love to one side and concerns itself with depicting a world and a time in chaos, it rises to heights far, far above the barren plain where most of contemporary fiction makes its tiny maneuvers.”)
Still, these leanings trouble me. I often ask myself what I would have made of cubism when it first appeared. I’m a great devotee of Picasso and Braque today but I recognize that it’s with all the benefits of hindsight. Or would I have embraced Jackson Pollock forty years after cubism, or would I have derided him as Jack the Dripper? I like to think I would have recognized genius for what it was but I’m just not certain. (When I played in a rock band, I used to promise myself that my outlook would always stay young; that I’d one day be the sort of parent who knew and listened to the same music as my kids. Perhaps the fact that I played in a band that exclusively covered the Beatles should have been seen as something of red flag, but it’s hard to be heard above youthful intransigence.)
I’ve recently noticed some shifts in my own reading tastes that seem to signal nothing so much as that I’m getting older. For me, though, it seems a matter of wanting windows where I used to want mirrors. I’ve read enough novels about people like me having experiences like mine. Now I want to find out about the rest of the world. Much like Sam Golden Rule Jones here, I want, these days, to find the world itself in a novel. It might not be going too far to say that I want information from my fiction, however much that makes it sound like I should be reading the newspaper.
If it’s any comfort to Mark at all, I think there’s a way to see an artist like Hazzard, however traditional her methods, as anything but conservative. I haven’t read The Great Fire yet; I’m saving it up for a moment when I need some surefire rapture. But what was so enthralling to me about Hazzard’s Transit of Venus was that it dared to try to be true–always a long shot. That sort of vision, and conviction to it, is a hook that postmodernism can make it easy for a writer to–rather conservatively–wriggle off of. So stop worrying, Mark, and have a liberally pleasurable birthday.