When the end-of-year ‘Best books of 2010’ polls are over, there are bound to be votes for David Shields’s Reality Hunger.In it, Shields outlines his discontent with the novel, going as far as to suggest it’s effectively finished. Or at least finished in the form most of us are familiar with, which is a descendant of the well-made nineteenth century classic realist text. He outlines a number of alternative modes, one of which is as old, maybe older (depending on how you date these things), than the modern novel: the essay.
Shields is but one of a growing number of writers expressing discontent with the current state of the novel. There’s a sense its practitioners have lost touch with the multi-stranded nature of reality. Too many books about Islington and adultery and childcare, the cliché might go. Or if you want the Scottish version, too much working class misery and addictions of various stripes. It’s not entirely true – but it’s not entirely false either.
The next few years are going to be tough economically. Normally at such times the hunger is for less reality, not more. Doubtless there will be novelists who will deal with the hard times to come. The question is, will publishers, who already have little stomach for finding ways to sell experimental or difficult books to the public, publish such novels? Will novelists, knowing this, consciously or otherwise, censor themselves?
The essayist might not fare any better commercially. Despite the demand for memoir and history, general non-fiction appears to confuse shops and readers. “Booksellers and customers often complain about the difficulty of knowing where to stock or find my books,” Geoff Dyer writes in the introduction to his thought-provoking new collection of essays, Working The Room. It says something about these times that not knowing how to categorise a book is a black mark against it.
Nevertheless the SRB will not be surprised when this period is over and the historians look for evidence of what life now was like, that they may find richer pickings amongst the essayists than the novelists. Because of the way publishing pressures writers who want to make a living out of their craft, there’s a certain sameness about the settings, mores, and characters found in fiction. Essay subjects are by their very nature highly variable. They reflect their author’s interests and events in his or her life, the combination producing works that are idiosyncratic and which map inner and outer realities.
You only need read this issue of the SRB to see this is the case. Within these covers, for example, you will read Kapka Kassabova on the tango and Martin Belk on rehabilitating youth offenders in Scottish prisons. Kassabova’s impressionistic piece reflects upon the nature of dance and the price writing demands of authors, a fee she is willing to pay for the insights it gifts and the places it takes her – but it is a fee nonetheless. Belk, on the other hand, passionately argues from his experienceof working with young offenders that the public needs to engage with them if it wants to see them turn away from lives of crime. Both pieces are essays; both are very different.
The essay is a highly malleable form whose potential only feels half-tapped at the moment, although it is centuries old. The field of essay-writing contains masters as diverse as Orwell and Borges. It can straightforwardly report on the author’s experience of travelling to a war zone or it can be a segment of childhood biography. It can be about something seemingly whimsical like a pet or postcards. You could say that the novel has the same scope for invention, and it does, but that scope needs infusions of new ideas, and right now, essays are making all the running.
With that in mind the SRB launched a competition earlier this year. We invited readers to write an essay with the title of ‘On Being Modern-Minded’. We take pleasure therefore in announcing that the competition’s winner is Terry Delaney from Stromness, whose interpretation of the subject is published in this issue. Ms Delaney’s essay does what all good essays do – it encourages us to regard something familiar in a fresh light, in this instance how we look at the past; how we pick and choose elements from the long-ago to flatter our sense of self today.
With lean times ahead, we hope and trust Ms Delaney, and Messrs Shields, Dyer, and our contributors, will continue to stay hungry.