First Things - Revisiting the Novel
The post above, from the very readable First Things blog, is a complaint by someone about how he has lost interest in novels, and is finding it hard to get back into them. (He's doing that by reading Jane Austen, though, which certainly wouldn't be the approach I would try.) My weekend thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird has also inspired me to get around to posting on this topic.
I too have developed something of a problem with finding engaging fiction in the last few years. I used to read a lot of science fiction up to about the end of the 1980's when, despite the apparent good news of the end of the Cold War in the real world, it seemed that science fiction went pretty deeply pessimistic and ugly. Old optimistic authors I used to like (Niven and Pournelle, for example) stopped producing really good work. Arthur C Clarke's prose style (never a strong point of his books anyway) became ever worse, and as for Heinlien's last rambling novels of the 1980's, the less said the better.
I still get a hankering to read science fiction from time to time, and not being aware of any current American authors to my taste, in the last couple of years I have tried a few British science fiction writers who seem to be well reviewed. Peter Hamilton can be good in parts, and I quite like his future technology ideas, but I feel he often badly needs more editing. Ken McLeod's underlying socialist politics is just too obvious. "Blindsight" by Peter Watts was another go at the "first contact"sub-genre that I felt pretty much went no where. (For some bizarre reason, he thought it a good idea to have a main character who is literally a vampire, which the novel treats as a real human sub-species.)
I am presently reading the first novel by Charles Stross (The Atrocity Archives), and while it is passable so far, it immediately struck me as being like a novel length treatment of ideas found in Heinlein's novella "Magic Inc". This is, I suppose, the fundamental problem for new science fiction: all the major themes were done by great novels within the first 50 or so years of the genre. It surely is a challenge to re-visit the sub-genres in a way that is fresh and worthwhile.
The thing I find common in these authors is the lack of readily likeable characters. Perhaps Peter Hamilton comes closest in this regard, but as I say, I think he has other faults.
Away from science fiction, I find the themes of most recent novels don't appeal. Probably due to my interest in religion generally, examinations of characters' lives from a purely secular point of view just seem somewhat lacking in significance to me. (This is a major fault in Australian film too: religion as something important to the characters is rarely present, or if it is, it is only ever portrayed in a negative light.) That there would be consideration of the "bigger picture" could be expected of the famous Catholic authors of the 20th century, but as First Things commented in June, those days seem long gone. I tried Shirley Hazzard recently, who seemed to be reviewed as if she had many of the qualities of older, mid 20th century fiction, but (as I have posted before) I actually found her style woeful, despite the high praise she generally receives.
As for the famous Catholic writers, by the 1990's I had read all of Waugh. However, I have only recently just read my first Graham Greene novel. (The Bomb Party, a short, less well regarded work.) It was pretty good, and I liked his style. I think I will be trying more. But it is kind of depressing that I have to be dipping back 60 years to find fiction that appeals.
So the point of this ramble is that it has occurred to me that, just as nearly everyone in their 40's starts thinking that popular music has peaked and is in decline, it seems to me that almost no good fiction has been written since around 1990.