Part 1: The Novel of Ideas vs. Action, Action, Action!
I once heard a writing instructor at a major international writers festival tell his audience: “If Dostoyevsky were alive today, he wouldn’t be able to get published.” I took immediate exception to that statement, and proceeded to tell him how I read Crime and Punishment from cover to cover in a fevered rush over about two days. But then, consider the source: this writer was a former American intelligence officer who now makes his living grinding out Tom Clancy-style thrillers. I reminded him that these books were unlikely to last through the ages as will books by writers like Dostoyevsky. His cynical retort? “They get the reviews, we get the paycheques.” I thought to myself: Is this what writing in the 21st century has come to?
Admittedly, great works of art are often unrecognized as such when they first appear. To cite only one example, James Joyce couldn’t find a publisher for Ulysses—now considered one of the masterworks of the 20th century’—until his friend Sylvia Beach published it for him. (Though it had been serialized earlier in a magazine.) Admittedly, it’s a difficult, challenging book that at the time was shattering literary conventions. Others who found their work unappreciated during their lifetimes were Franz Kafka, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, William Blake… the list goes on. Like Joyce, they pushed the known boundaries of their art.
If these artists had taken our friend’s dictum to forget about art and opt for the big paycheques, the world may never have been gifted with their works of creative genius. This ‘writer,’ whom I refuse to dignify with a name, insisted that the role of a book is to concentrate on plot points, to move the story along as fast as possible. Forget about nuances, just give me action, action, action. It’s a dictum that seems to have taken hold especially on the big screen. Some of the best late 20th and early 21st century imaginative writing, in my opinion, was actually done by screenwriters, not novelists. In particular, screenwriters of science fiction. (Okay, so I admit to a bias in favour of sci-fi here.) Check out some of the complex, deep-delving storylines in just one series alone, Babylon 5, conceived by J. Michael Stracynski. But of late the quality of imagination even in sci-fi films seems to take a back seat to action, action, action. The new Star Trek prequel franchise, while getting the look and tone right for characters created by Gene Roddenberry, falls apart at the story level.
If our CIA man-cum-thriller writer is to be believed, there is no place anymore in literature for writers like Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kafka and, most distressingly of all—Aldous Huxley. While I can imagine the unimaginative author of potboilers allowing that Brave New World has a reasonably well-paced storyline, he would likely shudder at most of Huxley’s other novels. Books like Antic Hay, Crome Yellow, After Many A Summer, and—possibly the greatest of his lesser-known works—Eyeless in Gaza. These novels fall into the category of the Novel of Ideas, something our thriller writer seems to have been woefully lacking in. Although to judge by the current conformity of so many novels to prescribed forms and genres, he might have been right that the Novel of Ideas is unlikely to attract publishers these days. Unless you happen to be Margaret Atwood—both gifted enough and well placed enough to basically publish whatever she wants. Thankfully there are delightful exceptions to the rule, as with her Oryx and Crake trilogy and wonderful books like Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. But even Atwood adheres to a fairly standard plot structure to carry off her ideas.
Which is fine, but why does it have to be either/or? Have we as a society so devolved that we can’t tolerate BOTH linearly plotted novels and the more elliptical narratives found in the Novel of Ideas? Or is the problem something Walt Whitman hinted at: “To have great poetry there must be great audiences.” I understand that to mean that audiences must have been educated at least enough to interpret its forms. Maybe the ‘dumbing down’ of the populace has had its effect. Are there really fewer and fewer people capable of grasping novels more focused on ideas than action?
As someone whose mind craves constant stimulation on a wide variety of topics, I’ve always admired those writers who can discourse intelligently across a broad spectrum, and in a diverse array of writing genres. Writers one might call Renaissance Men or Women. I think Atwood probably fits that bill today. But the writer who first struck that spark in me was Aldous Huxley. It started in high school, when—incredibly—Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 were required reading. Putting them both on the English curriculum made sense, since each book portrays a different side of totalitarianism. Somewhat eerily, we seem today to be moving into a system that has elements of both dictatorial systems—the genetic and class engineering of Brave New World and the 24/7 surveillance state of 1984. Huxley’s follow-up to his most successful novel, a series of essays titled Brave New World Revisited, is a vital companion to this classic. It was Huxley checking the pulse of his vision some 20 years later and finding that much of the prophecy seemed to be coming true.
Over some 50 books Huxley’s intellect was given unlimited room to roam, through poetry, novels, essays, and travel writing. Although the grandson of Victorian biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, Aldous seemed from the beginning to be of a much more liberal cast of mind. So much of what shapes us is an accident of both genetic legacy and historical timing. For Aldous Huxley and many writers of his generation the formative event was the First World War, that globe-wrenching event that shattered all notions of civilized norms. Whereas Orwell writes from the perspective of the working class, the ‘proletariat,’ Huxley naturally wrote from the viewpoint of the privileged upper class of British society. He is perhaps one of the best satirists of the strange blend of hedonism and nihilism that took hold of this set in the postwar years, starting with his first novel Crome Yellow (1921). This thread loops through four more novels, finally reaching its zenith in the amazing Eyeless in Gaza, first published in 1936.
I once wondered why an obscure 1980s pop group named themselves after this novel. Now, having finally read it, I understand. History, politics, economics, philosophy, Buddhism, intellectualism, spirituality— Huxley leaves no stone unturned. He performs the writer’s vital role, searching for whatever gems of truth remain to impart meaning in the aftermath of a world war. Huxley offered an essential examination of the extremes of sensual self-indulgence some three decades ahead of the 1960s. He both anticipated and pioneered the use of drugs to expand consciousness, though he did not live long enough to see the limitations of that approach to enlightenment. But Eyeless in Gaza sets the tone for later works such as The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Having come to the logical end of cynical self-gratification by the conclusion of Eyeless, Huxley realizes: “An intellectually (legitimate philosophy) is not the same as a morally legitimate philosophy.” It was a realization that hinted chillingly at the atrocities to come just a few short years after Eyeless was published. Once again, the writer as visionary—far ahead of the curve. Not many plot-obsessed novelists can make that claim.
By the end of Eyeless, even Huxley’s jaded central character Anthony Beavis has had an epiphany, realizing that love is indeed the higher law. Quoting the 16th century Christian mystic St. Teresa, Huxley realizes that the development of spiritual values must become a core goal of any conscious being: “We shall accomplish more by contemplating the divinity than by keeping our eyes fixed on ourselves.” It was a subtle rebuke to the cynical, self-absorbed characters of the English elite Huxley was satirizing. Already in the 1930s Huxley in this novel is parsing the lessons of Buddhism alongside St. Teresa. But by the time he wrote Eyeless, he’d already published Brave New World, with its social order predicated on constant distraction and self-indulgence, its drug-like soma. Even as he was making his plea for sanity on the brink of another world war, he understood the barriers in human nature to realizing spiritual growth. And no surprise that today, in an economic and social order predicated on consumption and self-gratification, such spiritual advice amounts to heresy. Instead we have Saint Bush on the eve of 9/11: “The best way to show your patriotism is to go shopping.”
NEXT: Part 2: Twilight of the Renaissance Man: The Author as Visionary