Illustration by Tim Biskup
Will there be literature in the next millennium? Do we really need it? When you think about it, with the spread of interactive electronic media, a man alone in his own home will never have been so well-placed to fill the inexplicable mental space between cradle and crematorium. Computer games and surfing the Web will surely make the existential problem a thing of the past. Isn’t that great! And in this promising scenario it seems only right that something so unnecessary as books should be pushed more and more into those moments of travel or difficult defecation that people still don’t quite know what to do with.
All the same, given the perceived dumbing down of such a world, when people do read they’ll no doubt want to feel they are reading something serious. For although the collapse of pretty well all collective illusions — religious and political — will have persuaded most people that it is better to turn their mental energies to problems exclusively technical, and all their emotions to the harmlessly superficial, still it’s hard to forget that qualities like wisdom and insight once carried considerable prestige. It would be nice to think one had them. And of course those qualities tended to be associated with something called literature. Result? You’re going to find fewer books presenting themselves as mass-market narrative and more assuming literary pretensions and being packaged, however incongruously, as works of art. Or even philosophy, or mysticism. To be spoon-fed the triumphantly mediocre while imagining we are grappling with the best that has ever been thought and said — this will be the most sought-after reading experience of an exciting new millennium.
Translators can only benefit from this desire for the presumably sophisticated. We can look forward to lots of taxing names and fantastic stories of foreign parts enthusiastically sustained by the overall piety of the “global village.” Much of this will be awful and some wonderful, but don’t expect the press or the organizers of prizes to offer you much help in making the appropriate distinctions. They will be chiefly and properly engaged in creating celebrity, the greatest enemy of discrimination, but a vital prop for the confused consumer. Every ethnic grouping the world over will have to be seen to have a great writer — now, this minute — a phenomenon, even a political necessity, that will lead to a new kind of provincialism, more chronological than geographic, where only the strictly contemporary is talked about and admired. Universities will, as a matter of course, include on their literature syllabi novels written only last year while, barring occasional exhumation for the Nobel, the achievements of 10 or only five years ago will quite reasonably be forgotten.
Of course, the most reliable substitutes for real depth and protracted reflection are cleverness and novelty. All that glitters does at least glitter. So you can expect as great a variety of genre and apparent eclecticism in your bookshops as you find in the restaurants on a downtown main street. More even. But just as a Mexican restaurant in London is decidedly for Londoners and a cappuccino in Detroit has little in common with one in Rome, so the apparent range of excitingly different styles will mainly serve to disguise an underlying conformity of sentiment and vision. Hey, the real thing would be scary.
Children’s literature is going to take off, to flourish, to boom beyond all reason. Invest in children’s literature. And adults are going to read it. Children are going to be encouraged to keep reading it, way beyond the age for which it was presumably intended. How wonderful to be reading “literature” and to be able to remain a child! Here’s an achievement. Once upon a time, centuries back, in one’s early teens, a young man or woman used to look forward to initiation into the sacred mysteries of the adult world. There were trials of strength and judgment, ceremonies. In my day, this had come down to reading Lawrence and Moravia and Sartre under the bedclothes with a flashlight. And that was still something. Actually, it was still a great deal. But now the awful truth is really out: There is nothing to be initiated into. Finding out that Father Christmas is Dad is only the first of a series of introductions to emptiness. God is soon dispatched. Love is quickly exposed as very much a serial delusion (you’re lucky, son, you’ll have two homes now). Which leaves safe sex, Ecstasy and a steady job. Give me children’s literature any day. Or let’s make adult literature like kid’s literature. One way or another, let’s stay innocent. A woman on the plane tells me she’s reading The Lord of the Rings for the 10th time. That’s a way to save money.
Planes! One strategy for making sure that nothing too serious or disturbing or genuinely new gets written will be to keep authors on planes, busily traveling the world to read from their books, attend conferences, seminars, receive prizes and generally feel less pessimistic about life. It’s well known that most pessimists only got that way because they didn’t have an adoring public till they were dead. So let them meet the public now. Let them be flattered. Literary festivals will abound. What self-respecting author of even mediocre success has not already received at least five festival invitations for the year 2000? Many will be looking at 40 or 50. Even people merely threatening to write will be invited to literary festivals. Minds will be kept busy making up prize-acceptance speeches. I predict lines of up to 200 yards at the children’s pavilion for Harry Potter’s signature. People will be distressed to find that the author is called something else.
Meantime, back on your modem, the Web will be stretched to breaking point with everybody’s poems and stories. Charitable organizations will be set up to visit Web sites regularly so that people feel their material is being read, or at least looked at. Oh the joys of Web-site writing schools! Invest in them. They’re coming. They’re here. Now that we all know we’re not going to heaven, who can deny people their shred of immortality on the page, or at least in the memory bank. People will do deals to guarantee that their novellas stay out there in hyperspace for all eternity. If there was a God, he would be envious. Be assured, as religion shrinks to no more than the refuge of the seriously nutty (though their number is rapidly increasing), absolutely everybody will write! Without exception. Festivals will not be slow in inaugurating online events. For children. But come on, we’re all children, aren’t we?
In short, you can’t go too far wrong when predicting more of the same. And of course with all the technical expertise we have these days, that means much, much more than anyone would wish to contemplate. But there is a positive side to all this, and that is the inevitable reaction against it. The practical things that any sensible person would like to see happen in the world of literature — publishers seeking less to generate celebrity through large advances and extravagant advertising, newspapers and magazines giving space to reflective, nontopical pieces — those are rather more improbable than the Second Coming.
No, it’s really not worth even discussing the practical ways the publishing industry could be improved. Life is too short. But dullness never quite darkens the whole planet. In their own idiosyncratic fashion, a few writers will always be looking for new departures. Someone out there will have the courage not to go to all the festivals, to shut the world out, to turn down all the silly assignments the press are throwing at him. Someone sitting alone in his or her room, concentrating, allowing days to pass without feeling the need to see something in print, something added to the Web site, reflecting, trying first this, then that, pondering, imagining — someone, somewhere, one day will say: “Ha! What about doing it this way?”
So I can safely predict — and funnily enough, it’s the safest of all these predictions — that one day not too far into the millennium I will pick up a book, and by the fourth page sense that here is an entirely new way not only of looking at the world, but of writing about it. Impossible to predict the subject matter. I suspect, but it’s only a guess, that it will be about the workings of the mind, though in ways Woolf and Joyce never dreamt of. I will be tremendously excited. And no doubt, like a fool, I’ll immediately try to copy it. In any event, one discovery like that every five or 10 years will be quite enough. I remain optimistic.
Tim Parks is the author of the novel Europa and the essay collection Adultery and Other Diversions. His new novel, Destiny, will be published by Arcade in April. That month, Parks will read at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.