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Good article.

This is definitely something I've thought a lot about in my own writing. I'm strongly influenced by 19th and early 20th century horror, but I'm also aware that I'm writing for a modern audience with very different taste.

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Yes, this is very much a dilemma for me too. All my favorites and my influences seem to be between 150 and 50 years old. Yet a writer must find ways to communicate with the audience of their own time. I often find myself wondering how much others feel the way I do about the state of modern literature and long for something different. And if they do, where do I find them? That and perhaps the more profound question of how much an author should seek to shape their audience and how much to conform to them.

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I'm admittedly a snob, but I've been unimpressed with a lot of what's been published in the past 8 years or so. Even stuff that's ostensibly for adults has felt strangely juvenile. I think part of it is the fact that so many authors seem to have an agenda now. It's really hard to write well when you care more about promoting your views than telling a good story.

On the plus side, Substack doesn't seem to suffer from this as much.

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Very much so. It has become largely about being on the right side. It's not that there can never be great art that has an agenda. Steinbeck had an agenda in The Grapes of Wrath. Dickens had an agenda in Bleak House (and other works). But they understood that they could best promote their cause by simply showing the truth of human experience. There is not a lot of that going on today.

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I think it comes down to trusting your audience enough to let them come to their own conclusions. That, and writing characters you personally disagree with as fully fleshed out people instead of caricatures.

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Oh, yes, once you start to worry that the audience will miss your hidden "message" and decide to hit them over the head with it, all hope of art is lost.

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Great work, guys. Look forward to the unfolding. My approach is to sneak (ethical) foie gras into the burgers and watch what happens over time.

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I like that approach. Let us know how the taste test works out.

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This is a fantastic essay. Very interesting: The classic novel was not addressed to the senses but to “memory.” The task of the classic author to “evoke.” Modern fiction has become the equivalent of a “happy meal.” So much to chew on here, and so much more nourishing than a happy meal.

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Glad you like it! I'm fascinated to see what Joseph will come up with next.

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It's occasionally useful to remember how any communications media is influenced by any *other* media in use. Classic example is how residual orality stalled the adaptation of prose to storytelling and entertainment in the West. More recent & poppy examples: how the comic books of the 1930s & 1940s were written as though they were radio dramas with pictures, and then how heavily superhero books books of the early 1990s started taking their visual cues from action movies and music videos.

Should have begun by saying so, but—wonderful piece.

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Indeed. Storytelling does need to be reinvented for each new media. And that should make us very cautions about applying the lessons and slogans of movie storytelling to the novel. Just as novel storytelling did not work well for the movies, and we had to invent a new form of storytelling for the screen, so the novel requires its own form of storytelling and should not feel the need to bend the knee to the technique of the movies.

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In both of these essays we get a few examples of "classic" literature but, as far as I can recall, no examples of "modern." I'm a little confused. To me, "classic" means the canon, the most influential works studied in literature departments and generally I think of them as books written before the 20th century. That's what classic means to me. "Modern," selfishly I guess, since I was born in the middle of the 20th century, means books that were published since world war 2. I also think there are 19th Century authors who feel quite modern to me. Chekhov and Knut Hamsun are two examples. Note that I say they "feel" modern. I'm no scholar and I do not have any sort of empirical criteria to judge something as modern or classic beyond its date. What I'm picking up from these two essays is that by "modern" you guys are both talking about genre novels. Based on my experience in sending work to publishers, this makes sense in a way. Agents/publishers these days seem more interested in knowing one's "genre" than anything else. Having the wrong genre or, god forbid, no genre can be the kiss of death. But I don't think it's true that ALL modern novels are genre novels, or at least that wasn't true until fairly recently. There are a lot of "modern" books that I've enjoyed and been influenced by that defy labels. Here are a few writers that come to mind: Alice Monro, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Debra Eisenberg. Perhaps you might counter by saying, "the genre you're talking about is literary fiction." And maybe that's how the publishing industry categorizes them but I don't think the four I mention here are using the any standard tropes. I think they all have distinct voices. I think their work is interesting on multiple levels, right down to the sentences themselves. There is some true craftsmanship at work here.

In short, I feel like you guys ought to date some dates and name some names. I may not have read the exact authors you mention, but I think knowing which "modern" authors you particularly admire (or hate) will help me understand both of your positions a little better.

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Jul 19, 2023·edited Jul 23, 2023Author

This is fair. All categorization is invidious. And yet if we do not categorize, we cannot speak in generalities at all. To generalize is to falsify, at least in part, and yet if we cannot speak in generalities, we can barely speak at all. (This, of course, is a generality.)

Speaking in specifics is difficult too. I have not read any of the people you mention. I bet I could reel off a half dozen names that you will not have heard off. The field is just too absurdly vast today. If I draw a lot of my references from Pride and Prejudice and Lord of the Rings it is only because I reckon there is better chance of all my audience being familiar with those particular works. And when it comes to works I don't like, I find I grow tired of them so quickly that I can't get far enough into to justify my dissatisfaction with them -- as in the case of _Tomorrow and Tomorrow_ that I discussed back in January. (https://gmbaker.substack.com/p/why-does-contemporary-fiction-not)

Modern is a confounding word as well. There is a specific school called literary modernism, there is the generality of recent (how recent?) and there is that period in which whatever characteristics we now consider modern can first be detected. In any field one can identify things that seem like hallmarks of current practice only to have someone else come along and point out that the ancient Assyrians did almost exactly the same thing.

So time is not really the criteria. There is not one date by which I can say, I like everything before this and I hate everything after it. There are only trends and fashions in publishing some of which I find distressing or uninteresting. To pick an example almost at random, what is called head-hopping -- expressing the thoughts of more than one character in the same scene -- is now considered the height a literary crimes. But I have been reading Larry McMurtry's brilliant _Lonesome Dove_, and he moves from the thoughts of one man to another of his cowboy crew in every other scene -- with perfect grace and clarity -- and he got a miniseries and a Pulitzer price for his trouble. But more on that in a later essay.

The other point worth making here is that there is a difference between the kind of work that has been published in, say, the last 50 or 25 or even five years and the kind of work that is being published today, and there is a difference between the kind of work that established writers can get accepted and published today and the kind of work that unknown writers can get accepted and published. Harris and I both fall into that unknown writer category, and so our concern is very much with the narrow gate through which aspiring novelists must pass today. In that sense, "Modern" means, what do junior agents want to see in their inbox tomorrow? And if Lonesome Dove appeared in most Agent's inboxes tomorrow, they would probably turn it down because there would be, by their code, too much head hopping.

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