Where have all the “great authors” gone?

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

It is curious to see how easily even the incredibly lucid can deceive themselves. This is a common enough phenomenon, but it pops up in a embarrassingly conceited way when dealing with art, notably literature.

In mid-July the Globe and Mail ran an article detailing a book club that has grown up around the late David Foster Wallace’s thousand page plus masterwork Infinite Jest. Dubbed “Infinite Summer,” a group of four friends undertook to read 75 pages of the novel per week to finish by September 21. Infinite Summer has, thanks to the ease of communication through the internet, come to include thousands around the world.

Around halfway through the Globe article, while describing his prime motive for reading Infinite Jest, John Barber drew upon a theme which unfortunately crops up fairly steadily concerning literature: that contemporary fiction simply does not stand up to work from the past. He notes that Noble Laureate V.S. Naipaul had stated the novel was “over” some years back and that Naipaul’s editor, Diana Athill, had decried the modern world’s dearth of writers of titanic genius, in the vain of Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust, in her recent autobiography. Handily unraveling her own point, Naipaul’s editor then identifies Wallace, specifically Infinite Jest, as an exception to the general mire of modern fiction.

It doesn’t take the sort of exceptional mind Athill lauds to immediately recognize the incongruence of this belief. The fact that she uses the word “extraordinary” in her elaboration of what holds those old giants apart has clear implication here. She is not comparing the general body of literature that was produced during the period in which Tolstoy and Dickens and Proust were writing. Yet, she is holding those exemplars against the mass of literature from the present. The binocular vision with which we see the past limits out contemporary view of those older literary periods to the masterworks, which obviously tower over the great bulk of recently published fictions. But this is merely a trick of the historical imagination. Foster Wallace, exempted by Athill as he is, demonstrates in his very exception that our literature remains vibrant.

As a writer’s work reflects and encounters the historical period in which they are working and its experiences, fixations and crises, there will continue to be an object for literature so long as there are issues to be dealt with. And a cursory knowledge of the present day should clearly indicate there is much to write about. Indeed, this may prove to be one of western literature’s most penetrating periods; as the unquestioned supremacy of the west fades new cultures and their ideas must be dealt with.

It is hard to imagine that the concerns that led to the fiction of Austen and Bronte could perpetually eclipse literature’s future. But perhaps that is why Foster Wallace chose to exit as he did.

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