You should have been a poet

One of the most popular books of the year has been about finance. Piketty’s book on wealth in the 21st century surprised many that it could achieve that rare quality of being talked about and selling. Clearly it had tapped the Geist and a sense of Weltschmerz.

I have not read the book – I may do sometime. I have read around it; that is to say, I have read lengthy critiques and other commentaries, along with the not very convincing rebuttals. One of its themes is the concentration of wealth, a transfer to a few, while the bulk of the population struggle to keep up. If this seems as if it might drift into polemic, it won’t.

To a large degree Piketty’s argument has been proved true with some writers. Only last month such eminent authors, such as Will Self confessed that their incomes have fallen away to drastic levels. At the same time he and Tim Park wrote well and without rancor on the decline of the literary novel.

There was more than mere self-interest to the comment and the financial condition that was exposed at the same time. There is an information paradox as Park and Self identified it: the complex book is no longer wanted, it is surfeit, it has no readers, and the paradox inherent to this situation is that we produce more information each year than the previous millennium, but it is getting simpler.

The hypothesis from Park and Self is borne out by not very scientific surveying. Compared to mid-twentieth century fiction, and even more commercial nineteenth century fiction, some vaunted contemporary literary works are quite simple. As a generalization that statement is fraught with reliability. It’s best to read it as though it was a bell curve distribution and not fuss over statistical confidence levels.

Why simpleness, or perhaps it’s really much stronger clarity reigns is not certain. There may be many reasons, not just artistic, but it may be economic; and as novelists, Self and Park may have the right measure of the trends, both financially and artistically. What is likely is that those type of novelists will have to redefine themselves or face being redundant, just like anyone in a profession where the market and technology has superseded their usefulness.

Having realized this we can all be country singers and lament how good the old complex modernist literary novel was, and how there are no more like ‘em.

For most people this might be a matter of complete indifference. Despite fostering many good writers and possessing a large block of world real estate in the nineteenth century Britain was tone deaf in the quality music area. There are no composers or musicians who made any impression. People at the time weren’t too concerned, which shows that once something is gone it’s missed, but not if it never existed.

Whether Piketty’s analysis has anything to say here is not certain. Another economist, Schumpeter had the phrase ‘creative destruction’ which might be more applicable.

Writing, though, has never been a sure gig. Indeed, it has always been thus. When Vladimir said to Estragon, you should have been a poet, the latter gestured to his rags.

Guy Cranswick
26th July 2014



What probably started as a comment over a few beers and a running joke has become an organized thing. About a dozen years ago it was obvious to many that movie titles used a formula, the adjective noun. It’s developed into an online game which isn’t so bad, but seeing it coded into a formal game with points is a little disappointing. It’s probably how the original punks felt when they saw Boy open on the lower King’s Road and their basic idea was being taken from them; though not full blown Weltschmerz, it’s enough to make you go to the World’s End and order a snakebite.

Something similar crossed my mind last week as I completed American Pastoral, a fine work, though I would have some reservations in parts, there was a larger question as I finished it, and that is what is the aim of the title. A pastoral is a known form and this book barely fits within that style and never adheres to that genre.

The real emphasis, however, is on the adjective and that seems more puzzling than purposeful. Other people feel as I do about the proliferation of titles that add American as if it will render the work, either more specific to the situation of contemporary life and/or more portentous; which may make the book more appealing, although whether that is true is not certain as the idea is more speculative than founded on a tenuous fact.

The first thing is whether the writers choose this form: Adjective/criminal, action, thing, person, place, or if sales numbers prove that a title in this form is a real success outselling anything remotely and lamely titled, such as, for example, La Jolla Psycho or Detroit Beauty. These titles work as well to me, and I’m not saying that because I wrote them. They are ironic and moody, brooding even with a sense of disquiet and menace which may be attractive to a reader who believes they have seen everything.

Overcoming disinterest is the reason use of American. It is intentional, implying in the word a burden of conscience. Hence in American Pastoral it determines the schisms of the last forty-something years. In American Tabloid it retold the political ruptures of the 1960s. The title is almost slyly announcing that the work is not a novel, not a frivolous waste of time with invented things and events, but a review of reality, a depiction of history which will make sense of the events of the past to the reader. It may seem so on a first look. Psychos, gangsters and all the other phenomena of the society are magnified and made special, cast within the context of the society but there is no greater perception and no universal truth. The adjective does not quite achieve its aim; it is disingenuous because it is a marketing device and by default, pompous.

America is a large place, large for its citizens and for those us outside its borders, who share a sense of its bigness through music, movies, TV and literature. Being big can confer special qualities, somehow. All the same, it might be time to put the title aside.

Guy Cranswick
6th July 2014