Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Spirit of Our Times: drinking beauty from broken cups

“He never chooses an opinion; he just wears whatever happens to be in style.”

Almost, but not quite a year ago, we began our discussion with a post on taste and objectivity. In it, Jenna mentioned the effect our time and culture has on what is published and on what is loved. A commenter agreed with her, writing that her rejection of what is praised in contemporary literature is “why I have no Oprah picks on my bookshelf, but lots of good books. I like beautiful writing, but I want good story too. I'll take the second over the first.”

I’m rereading some of our old discussions, in part to avoid cycling through topics too often, but primarily in an attempt to dig deeper into some aspects that seem to have potential for discussion, and these too remarks caught my eye. Particularly the latter. Oprah’s book list is not where I would look for beautiful writing, but the commenter, Arabella, is not the only one who links the two.

“ours is the age of advertisement and publicity”

Advertising and publicity really do define our age. Oprah pushes books - calling them moving, inspiring, or life-altering, and we believe. Writers mistakenly think that over-loading on adjectives and describing in painful detail everything a character has on will make that character “real”. In a cafe discussion recently, a friend recommended a book to me as a “smart and really deep read,” I’d already read it, with the opposite reaction. When I asked what it was she liked so much about the book, my friend confessed that she hadn’t actually read it, just heard about it online. But she'd absorbed the review so completely that in a half hour's discussion, she'd given the distinct impression that she was sharing her own impressions of the novel.

So, what effect does our time and culture have on the books we write, or read, or love? The effect on my reading is often to encourage retreat. I’m not interested in shallow romances, wandering prose, or undisciplined imaginations. I’m not interested in weak images or book versions of country songs, so I sometimes fall back into isolation - reading authors I love, or authors loved my favorites. But I’m also not going to abandon my own age - there is beautiful writing being done all around us, and I can forgive an author a good deal if he can form his words well, occassionally I react against this self-imposed isolation and collect around me the books I'm told are "today's best".  But the general effect of the spirit of our times on what we read is that the overwhelming presence of media in our lives encourages our natural tendency to absorb the opinions of others. We swallow what is sold to us, without thinking and convince ourselves that Oprah’s picks really are good, that the bestseller list is the place to look for quality fiction, just as the top-rated t.v. shows are the best of television. That's not to say that popularity is always an indication of bad-quality, but sadly, in "these our times" I think it often is.

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