Why You Shouldn’t Care Whether Your Book Is Still Relevant Today
If a book critic senses the nagging breath of the approaching deadline on the back of his neck, and if at the same time he is more than well aware of the embarrassing void pulsating wildly beneath his temples, there’s a good chance that he’ll survey his bookcase, like a hoodlum on the hunt for a worthy opponent to pick a fight with; he’ll gropingly look for any object even remotely resembling a book, and pull out some title at random. He’ll spread it open before him with that air of a rather dubious triumph, place it gingerly right next to his laptop, and start typing something more or less in this vein: “Is this or that book [fill in the blank] still relevant today?”
Then, amazed at his own staggering perspicacity, he’ll lean back in his chair, lace his fingers behind his head, as if it were a football, and he’ll savor the moment, as if he had just reinvented not the wheel itself but even that slightly angular and stony precursor of the wheel. An instant later, with the agility of a veteran contortionist, he’ll pat himself on the shoulder, now this one, now the other, and congratulate himself on the job well done. “You got them, mate! You certainly got them! They haven’t been expecting that kind of move for sure!”
An instant later, with the agility of a veteran contortionist, he’ll pat himself on the shoulder, now this one, now the other.
Well, they have, and, what’s more, they’ve already read it — perhaps not that exact piece but another one resembling it closely, too closely, I would dare to say.
And — I feel obliged to admit — nothing irks me more than such blatant nonsense shamelessly cropping up every now and then on various book blogs and other literary publications, like downy patches of mold on a misplaced sandwich.
It’s so maddening for one simple reason: This way of thinking propagates and strengthens the spurious and quite noxious idea that books — of all culture-related items — should be composed by authors, waiting day and night at the starting blocks of their writing desks, in direct response to the events taking place around them at an increasingly breathtaking pace. It implies that authors should patiently wait for the real news to come their way before putting pen to paper, like the employees of a funeral home waiting for someone to kick the bucket before being able to deposit that someone, along with the said bucket and all, six feet under. It also suggests that books should be deprived of their importance and impact on society after some undefined and elusive expiration date has passed, thus making the whole effort of writing them, of editing them, of pitching them to literary agents, of surviving a blizzard of rejection slips for years and years on end, of finally publishing them, not only pointless from the very outset but even irremediably futile from the point of view of the amount of time being devoted to it.
It implies that authors should patiently wait for the real news to come their way before putting pen to paper.
This outrageous misconception not so much strips as downright robs novels, if not literature in general, of that mystical aura of artistic impenetrability, of enticing profundity, of seductive mystery, while relegating them to the laughable role of short-lived commentaries on a host of contemporary themes and concerns, as if they were a political joke slurred over a glass of beer.
Of course, there are those — as there can nearly always be found exceptions to any rule — who manage to do it and even manage to do it well to much popular and critical success, who seem to be thriving under outside pressure, like an ant colony beneath an oppressive boulder: suffice it to mention authors like Michel Houellebecq, who must be living their whole lives before their TV sets, hunched up, tense, a remote control in one hand, a well-chewed pencil in the other, waiting for anything novel-worthy to be reported on the evening news program before pouncing on a blank sheet of paper.
It doesn’t alter the fact, not in the least, that a writer will invariably be a loser in this race, for writing a full-scale novel in response to some pressing or burning social issue that has erupted all of a sudden and taken everyone’s attention hostage without demanding any ransom will always take longer — much longer, in fact — than uttering a scathing or otherwise snarky comment on it on national TV. Thus, inevitably, such a book will arrive much too late to become a vital part of the public discourse; it will arrive when everything is settled, when the extreme emotions are long tamed and assuaged, and when the details of that disturbance are long forgotten, no matter how much effort an author may have invested into it or how much meth he may have been shooting in the process.
It doesn’t alter the fact, not in the least, that a writer will invariably be a loser in this race.
Because, let’s face it, books are not newspapers; they don’t have to be — and even shouldn’t be — up to the minute; they don’t have to follow the dictates of loud headlines; they don’t need to be tethered to the present moment in history, like a pitiful dog to its kennel. On the contrary, the more universal and timeless they are, the better, and the greater the chance of them attaining the true literary longevity and immortality in the realm of collective consciousness and imagination of whole societies. And that — and not a servile alignment with ongoing events — should be the main and major goal of every author, that forming of an artistic dialogue with the future and still unseen generations, and not that unmitigated fawning on the current one.
One of the book genres routinely living off the dominant political and cultural climate is that of thrillers, which invariably prey on the assortment of present-day fears and antipathies, like a lazy man child shamelessly mooching off his parents. It’s thrillers that expertly utilize and exploit the widespread moods inspiring an array of hopes, sentiments, and nightmares that accompany citizens and potential readers for their own gain, and, consequently, they also tend to enjoy the shortest literary lifespan of all. For instance, are you capable of naming the top-selling thrillers from three decades ago, or even from the last one? But — I’m fairly sure — you won’t have the slightest problem with giving a few examples of less topical, and thus more enduring, literary novels dating even further back that had not been that popular upon their first publication.
Being of current interest is a road to literary nowhere. It’s especially visible in the case of books tackling political subjects or being entirely woven around them that — if devoid of any redeeming artistic quality — are particularly vulnerable to the abrupt shifts and disruptions in the political landscape and are prone to being forgotten immediately after their political raison d’être (either for or against some person or ideology) has been dethroned, removed from the limelight, and thus ceased to grate on its opponents’ nerves, like a novelist whose unfairly (for such matters are nearly always unfair) handsome book royalties nettle her competitors.
On the contrary, the more universal and timeless novels are, the better, and the greater the chance of them attaining the true literary longevity.
Such an unenviable fate befell even the legions of writers in the countries that had, until recently, languished under the grim shadow of totalitarianism, in which the embattled cultural elites joined forces with the masses to oppose the inhuman oppression, and in which, after the demise of the tyrannical system, the works of those who wrote exclusively about its horrors and employed every single drop of printing ink to fight against it have lost the appealing sense of immediacy and become uninteresting, if not downright immaterial, to the present generation of youths for whom those bleak times are mere half-faded images from black-and-white postcards and photographs slipping out of their parents’ photo albums. If it happened in the countries of the old Soviet Bloc where people had been beaten, imprisoned, and shot at, it’s likely to happen elsewhere as well.
Thus, any self-respecting person of letters should leave dissecting and scrutinizing the affairs and crazes of the moment to the flocks of insatiable newsmen and newswomen who would laboriously, and often gladly, peck at every tiniest crumb of news or scandal until there is nothing left to peck at anymore, no matter how vacuous or puerile it may turn out to be in the end, and shouldn’t fall — at least not too easily — for the bait left by the more cunning book critics.
For if there’s a lesson to be learned from such cases, even from such terrifying cases, it’s that the last thing an author — any author, really — should care about is being heralded as still relevant, as capable of capturing the prevailing zeitgeist, and as an essential and major voice of today’s generation. Because he or she can’t possibly guess what will be said about those same works by tomorrow’s one.
Thank you for reading.
Copyright © 2019 by F. R. Foksal
F. R. Foksal is a Polish author writing in English, his second language. His short story collection, Hour Between Late Night and Early Morning, is available at Amazon. He believes that writing about literature doesn’t have to be boring and that books still stand a chance in today’s high-definition reality.