Is new fiction ‘new’?
On April 13, The Guardian published an article detailing the ‘most interesting books’ that were revealed at the London Book Fair. The resonance of old literary giants: that is, the number of new books that explicitly incorporate aspects of older works, was quite alarming.
In terms of what this means for content, especially in a world where films like Ready Player One are derided for pandering or being unoriginal, is vastly overblown. Of course, if consumers want original material, they should probably invest in it. Literature should be a conversation rather than a few rigid staples of the canon, so any works that attempt to engage with others should be approached open-mindedly.
Literature should be a conversation rather than a few rigid staples of the canon
The list even alludes to a prophetic example of the positive implications of this reliance on earlier literature, Max Porter’s new novel Lanny, a seemingly less intertextual work compared to his Grief Is a Thing With Feathers (2015). The latter novel perhaps provides a great blueprint for engaging with earlier work, featuring the Crow character from Ted Hughes’ poems in a wildly different context of grief-stricken prose and poetry segments. The intertextual form of the novel highlights the intrinsic links that the father in the novel finds between loss and this bird. Hughes’ Crow poems are ultimately a morbid creation story, but they also deal with domesticity, grief, and loss. Despite these similarities, Porter’s prose is understated and simple, showing an intelligence and inventive craftsmanship that bodes well for his future work.
If Porter’s prose ultimately removes any doubts in relation to an inauthenticity or reliance on earlier work, then Christopher Reid’s Old Troffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs should also seem relatively harmless, acting as a sequel to T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). This should offer Reid, the Costa Award winner, to explore plenty of humorous and witty observations about dogs. It is such a loose concept that it is essentially in his hands to write a fun book about the animal. I would perhaps be more cynical over sequels to novels or narrative poetry written by different authors, which is likely to produce less room for experimentation.
Culturally, people often worry there are no original ideas, which I think, if anything, these referential works can often serve to disprove. Indeed, since modernism (and often far before) authors have been presenting stories in innovative and subversive ways, and this is pretty much limitless. Often thought of as a symptom of postmodernism is a rampant awareness of texts and forms, and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein is set to explore sexuality through this classic novel. Additionally, The Fall of Gondolin, a Tolkien story, is set to be released this year, which will likely please the people who still care about the extended Tolkien universe.
This obsession with the past could be very isolating for people who want to have ‘new’ work published
So, should this be alarming? In terms of finding good literature, no. These books could be good or bad, and (as with any text) it is very much down to how well the author grapples with the ideas set about by these premises. On the other hand, this obsession with the past could be very isolating for people who want to have ‘new’ work published, and also people who want to start reading novels and poetry, but are not familiar with much of the western canon.
We shouldn’t foster an environment based on exclusivity, especially with how neglected mediums, like poetry, are in our society. Self-awareness and using other works may seem like the logical concern of literature in our interconnected modern world, but there are huge and very interesting contemporary concerns that could be better approached in a more isolated and less metatextual fashion.