Monday, 20 August 2007

Maturity and literature (from a reader's perspective)

Having considered Martin Amis one of my favourite contemporary novelists, it was with a degree of surprise and alarm that I discovered I found Yellow Dog and House of Meetings jarringly over-written and tiresomely contrived, when I read these books more recently.

I am currently reading Douglas Coupland’s J-Pod and it is with increasing dismay that I realise that whilst I loved Girlfriend in a Coma, for example, and found it profoundly heart-breaking, I’m finding J Pod just as profoundly irritating. Coupland’s irony drenched techno geeks no longer engage me at all. They are deeply annoying stock figures. The “Zeitgeisty” tics Coupland’s books employ, the stream of consciousness nonsense used to break up the prose and the computer / adspeak rubbish used for the same purpose are so self-conscious, so contrived, so exasperatingly IRRITATING, that I wonder will I be able to last through to whatever trademark heart-rending, life-changing, epiphany-heavy ending Coupland has in store for his main character, Ethan.

I can conceive of two rational explanations for this. Perhaps some writers are largely one trick ponies and it simply becomes tiresome plodding through another book of similar content, written in a similar style. I believe this must be true to some extent, but I also feel that as readers get older we can change just as much as the novelist and I’m convinced that I read differently and have different tastes in fiction, than I did when I was 19 for example.

I look back at some of the things I read and which made an impression on me in my teens and early 20s with something approaching horror. I make no apologies for proclaiming, and can prove empirically and indisputably, that nothing written by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs or almost any so-called “Beat” writer is of any literary merit whatsoever. How I sat through Kerouac’s barely punctuated prose, Ginsberg’s flatulent poetry or Burroughs quasi-pornographic, drug-addled ramblings, I can no longer conceive.

Perhaps it could be argued that I simply becoming more cynical and read with a more hackneyed eye. The flaw in that argument is that I was perhaps even more oppressively cynical when I was younger. My tastes have not become more conservative particularly. I read Bulgakov or Joyce or Grass with as much joy as ever. I think it is simply that as a reader becomes older, he / she has read more and can more discerningly distinguish what is truly exciting, fresh and innovative and what is worthless nonsense

It saddens me to an extent that Coupland and Amis are becoming tedious to read, because these authors are talented and have provided immensely pleasurable reading experiences for me in the past. I still believe that at their best, these men produce intensely beautiful prose and in these particular cases I do believe that it may be fatigue with their themes and style rather than any intrinsic weakness in the original work.

Perhaps there is also an element of the world moving on beyond the subject matter both men dealt with best. Amis in my recollection, was the consummate laureate of 80s and early 90s consumerism, producing hilarious and moving novels peopled with dislocated and damaged characters. Money and London Fields contained comic riffs which had me doubled over with laughter. I’d hate to think that was just the na├»ve perceptions of a young reader. Similarly Coupland seemed to capture something important and profound about a generation obsessed with technology, unanchored to any serious beliefs or philosophy and unaccountably nostalgic for the very recent past. Coupland is older than the generation he now writes about and perhaps his style creaks under the strain. What he writes feels to self-conscious.

I’d love to hear from anyone who continues to enjoy these writers and feels that I’ve been unfair in my evaluation. Similarly anyone who agrees with me, or has found their own tastes in literature changing.

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