Recently I came upon this essay on the subject of the dominance of tragedy in Western literature:
I must say I was intrigued with a good deal of the ideas here... both as they apply to literature... but also my own field of the visual arts/painting:
"The Greeks understood that comedy (the gods' view of life) is superior to tragedy (the merely human). But since the middle ages, western culture has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. This is why fiction today is so full of anxiety and suffering. It's time writers got back to the serious business of making us laugh. What is wrong with the modern literary novel? Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?
Brilliant comedies never win the best film Oscar. The Booker prize leans toward the tragic. In 1984, Martin Amis reinvented Rabelais in his comic masterpiece Money. The best English novel of the 1980s, it didn't even make the shortlist. Anita Brookner won that year, for Hotel du Lac, written, as the Observer put it, "with a beautiful grave formality."
The fault is in the culture. But it is also internalised in the writers, who self-limit and self-censor. If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode. When Amis addressed the Holocaust in his minor novel Time's Arrow (1991), he switched off the jokes, and the energy, and was rewarded with his only Booker shortlisting.
The tragic bias remains deep in the industry. And the more original the comic masterpiece, the harder it is to get it through the filters of western commercial publishing. Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, one of Ireland's three greatest novels, could not find a publisher in the author's lifetime. John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by 36 publishers, and Toole eventually killed himself. Only a decade after his death was it published.
What makes it much worse is that it is now being coached, reinforced. All of the writers on the Granta list attended university creative writing programmes. All, in other words, have submitted to authority. This is a catastrophe for them as novelists.
The novel cannot submit to authority.
But the universities are authority or they are nothing. As the west has grown secular, the university has, quite organically, taken over from the church as a cross-border entity claiming universality, claiming to influence the powerful but not to wield power. "Education" is the excuse for a self-perpetuating power structure now, just as "religion" was the excuse then. The modern universities could claim to have no single ideology, but the same could be said of the Vatican under the Medicis, or the Borgias.
The problem is not that the universities are malevolent; they are not. They have no sinister intent in taking over the novel, professionalising it, academicising it. Like most of those who colonise territories that were getting on fine without them, they believe they do no great damage, they believe it's for the novel's good, they believe they are benign, idealistic and quite a bit cleverer than the natives. As ever, none of these beliefs is entirely true.
The literary novel, by accepting the embrace of the universities, has moved inside the establishment and lost contact with what made it vital. It has, as a result, also lost the mass audience enjoyed by Twain and Dickens. The literary novel—born in Cervantes's prison cell, continued in cellars, bars and rented rooms by Dostoevsky, Joyce and Beckett—is now being written from on high.
Professionalisation will make poor writers adequate. And will make potentially great writers adequate. Great novelists write for their peers. Poor novelists write for their teachers. If you must please the older generation to pass (a student writing for an older teacher, a teacher writing to secure tenure), you end up with cautious, old-fashioned novels. Worse, the system turns peers into teachers. Destroyed as writers, many are immediately re-employed, teaching creative writing. This is a Ponzi scheme.
A comparison between The Simpsons and a soap opera is instructive. A soap opera is trapped inside the rules of the format; all soaps resemble each other (like psychologically plausible realist novels). What the makers of The Simpsons did was take a soap opera and put a frame around it: "this is a cartoon about a soap opera." This freed them from the need to map its event-rate on to real life: they could map its event-rate on to cartoon life. A fast event-rate is inherently comic, so the tone is, of necessity, comic. But that is not to say it isn't serious. The Simpsons is profoundly serious. And profoundly comic. Like Aristophanes, debating the war between Athens and Sparta by writing about a sex strike by the women of Athens and beyond.
With its cartoon event-rate, a classic series of The Simpsons has more ideas over a broader cultural range than any novel written the same year. The speed, the density of information, the range of reference; the quantity, quality and rich humanity of the jokes—they make almost all contemporary novels seem slow, dour, monotonous and almost empty of ideas.
So steal from The Simpsons, not Henry James.
It's not that contemporary literary novels are bad. Line by line, book by book, they're often wonderful. But in the same few ways. Who needs more of that?
You may think that to praise The Simpsons at the expense of Henry James makes me a barbarian. Well, it does, but I'm a very cultured barbarian. The literary novel has gone late Roman. It needs the barbarians.