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Withering Heights: The Decline of Literature?

Each year, tens of thousands of tourists visit Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Shakespeare’s birthplace and home. The town itself receives nearly three million tourists a year due to the stardom and renown of the playwright. His works have been translated into 80 languages, and he introduced 300 new words to the English language. His plays have survived societal change in nearly every manner in the last 400 years, continuing to be acknowledged as one of the greatest writers to have ever lived.

But the question remains, was a writer that we now acknowledge to be as great as Shakespeare, ‘great’ in his own time? His contemporaries, Ben Jonson and John Dryden would disagree, the former scornful of Shakespeare’s frivolity and dramatisation of history, and the latter denouncing the implausibility of his romances. Writer Samuel Johnson would go on to express distaste for the Bard’s use of puns and improbable plots. Really, it was only 200 years later, in the Romantic Period, that we see great literary figures express a wholehearted affection and admiration for Shakespeare. Appreciation for the playwright would later fuel the twentieth century surge in scholarly explorations of Shakespeare’s life and biography.

Why, then, is so much time necessary for us to appreciate poets, writers and artists? There exists a scene from Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, where the titular character encounters a slightly disappointing image of a writer, named Nicholas Greene. Upon hearing of Orlando’s fascination for Shakespeare, Greene laughs and dismisses this as a fancy, claiming that the real ‘greats’ of literature were the Greeks, insisting that “now all young writers were in pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell”. Interestingly, this sentiment of dissatisfaction with contemporary art and literature, the feeling that modern writers have no regard for profundity, but only for pay, has permeated the thoughts and opinions of artists and intellectuals throughout history.

It seems that a dissatisfaction with contemporary art forms part of a wider picture, that of discontentment with the world one lives in. In particular, it seems that art and literature of the past serve to remind us of the insecurities we have pertaining to our own times.

The argument against contemporary novels, and for novels of the past, is that ‘classics’ have stood the test of time. The beauty, emotion and feeling expressed in them strikes a chord within us still, despite however many centuries and social differences stand between reader and writer. Contemporary novels, written in our day, pose a different problem — we are unsure of how much to trust their political undertones and motives; we are uncertain of their quality of writing. Many feel today that there is a surge in ‘guilty pleasure fiction’ and romance taking over the publishing industry, pushing out space for genuine works of literature. However, these problems have always existed — every era and period of writing has produced frivolity as well as greatness, but it is through acknowledgement of worthy literature that those novels can live on.

Perhaps there are Shakespeares that might be sitting just before us, unknown and undiscovered. It is up to us to carry on the tradition of reading, discovery, encouragement and criticism. It is by engagement and enthusiasm that art is kept alive. When it comes to who the great novelists of our day are, it is up to us to decide. We live in turbulent, rapidly changing times in the twenty-first century, and change and instability invariably give rise to powerful art.

Towards the end of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Nick Greene reappears some hundreds of years later and proclaims that “the great days of literature are over”. That of the “heroes and giants”, “all, all are dead now”; Greene scorns Tennyson, Browning and Carlyle, who “turn out any trash that serves to pay their tailor’s bills”. I believe we all see ourselves a little in Nicholas Greene, and I believe if you put the space of a couple hundred years between us and contemporary writers, we would have much greater appreciation for them. It is still up to us, however, to see greatness when it is before us, and acknowledge it as much as we can.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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