The previous post about the near-impossibility of their being a Star Wars for the current generation brought back to mind a precusor topic. Authors who try to resurrect literary modes from previous times — for instance, writing a modern-day take on the Victorian-era social novel, or what have you — make something of the same mistake with their own work.
Longtime readers know I trot out a formulation to explain this: the artist is as much a product of his moment in time as his creations are a product of him. We are not the same people we were a hundred years ago (for the better, I hope), and consequently we don't have the same things to say to the world around us.
This is part of why many attempts to write novels that have Cultural Relevance shoehorned into them fall flat on their precious faces. It's not that the writing is bad, or that people have by and large moved on from the novel as a forum (and form) for the examination of an age, although all those things can and do happen. It's that there are presumptions about the whole mission which never come out into the light and get examined properly. We can't talk about the world around us in 2013 the same way we did in 1919, 1947, 1965, or even 1992 — and not because we can only talk about it now by dropping references to Twitter or writing novels in the form of emails, or what have you.
Let me reframe this as a discussion from the SF/fantasy side of things. If people today wrote something in the vein of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman books — straight up, without irony or winking — people would either be forced to think of them as quaint homage at best or mildly tasteless at worst. The books, as seminal as they are, are embarrassing products of their age's attitudes about things that had nothing to do with their story (which made them all the more difficult to detect and own up to in their time). We don't write stuff like Lensman anymore — again, except maybe as homage or an invocation of the flavor of the story or with tongue planted impossibly deep in cheek — because we've moved on, culturally. Not from those kinds of stories per se, but from the unspoken assumptions that made it possible to tell such a story with all of its attendant xenophobia, sexism, juvenile plotting, etc.
There are good examples out there of books that are written both in the setting and in the mode of a past age, but they are few and far between because such a thing is difficult to execute without being redundant. Robert Graves's I, Claudius comes to mind — it sees the past through the lens of the present, but with empathy and insight instead of condescension or (worse) romanticism. It helped that Graves was a scholar and a poet, but also that he had a firsthand sense of the frailty of human endeavors no thanks to the shadow of World War I over his life (c.f., Goodbye to All That).
A similar discussion seems to be brewing over the new Superman film, where some say that an emotionally-realistic take on the story goes against the whole premise — that Superman embodies a kind of idealism and naivete that needs to be preserved. The easy argument is that we're such cynical little stonehearts now that depicting such things will only seem silly. The more complex, nuanced argument is that we do have those qualities — when do we ever not have an idealism or naivete about something? — but that we don't embody those qualities today the same way we did seventy-five, fifty or even twenty years ago. We will always find a new way to be wide-eyed.
The least we can do about having been born into a given time and place is to hone ourselves — intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually — in transcending it. We can't ourselves escape our moment, but we can at least point a way forward for others.
Other Lives Of The Mind