I've been reading some new novels and some old novels the last couple of years, and I think I've noticed something worth mentioning. Yes, whenever I notice anything I think it's worth mentioning because of my tremendous ego, but this might actually be important. Anyway, if you compare the books of D.H. Lawrence and Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf with the books of Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth and Jhumpa Lahiri and Iain McEwen, for example, you might think that the older books (hell, Lawrence and Woolf did some of their most famous writing ninety years ago) are, well, old-fashioned and that the more recent books have their finger on the pulse of modern life. You might think that because modern writers are more casual in the way they write about sex, and appear to have less respect for the form of the novel, and are awash in a sea of metafictional irony, that they are more sophisticated than their forebears. And you know what? You'd be wrong.
For some time now, bouncing as I do from reading the most recent literary fiction to the classic works of the Western Canon, I have been feeling that something in today's novels is lacking. And what that is, I have come to see, is emotional depth and honesty. Yes, you have protagonists in Roth who are not charming and have selfish motivations and you've got people fucking around behind their significant others' backs in every other novel these days and you've got antiheroes and you've got explorations of madness and you've got people who are conflicted and hide their true feelings and you've got the constant irony of people not really knowing anything about those closest to them and being surprised when their One True Love is leaving them. But that's all very old stuff, and books that were written ninety years ago explored all of this already, and did a Much Better Job Of It and got A Lot Closer To The Emotions of the Characters.
Nowadays everybody who's writing literature is giving knowing looks and winks and there is a lot of insincerity and holding-at-arm's-length of characters and their emotions, and I think more of it's being presented as a sort of prettily written but clichéd entertainment (or--worse yet--social statement) than a real exploration of life. Freedom bothered me a lot because all of the action seemed to take place behind a wall of glass, as if Franzen was putting on a puppet show but didn't actually care a whit about his characters and really didn't want to get too close to them. They'll admit that they sometimes despise themselves and each other and that they're really all very selfish people, but that's as deep as the analysis goes. And I see that over and over in book after book. Modern writers, I have decided, are writing in too shallow a manner, too cowardly.
This is all a bit rough and not well thought out, I know. It's something I'm working on. But it does seem significant that Virgina Woolf and David Lawrence, writing ninety years ago, were able to expose more truths about the human heart than anyone writing today seems to be able to do. Literary writers of today: we aren't trying hard enough.