Sunday, August 18, 2013

Has the Best Literature Already Been Written?

It’s very easy to fall into the mindset that there’s not much point in writing anymore, since the best writing has already been written. After all, who is going to write a lyric poem better than Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments...”? Who could out-do his Sonnet 55, “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme...” so bold in its claim, so democratic in its implications.

The Bard Guy
But imagine if all the writers since Shakespeare had thrown away their quills or pens or clunky manual typewriters with stuck keys and said, “No way I’m going to measure up to the Bard Guy.” Think of the many thousands of works of literature we wouldn’t have, from Wordsworth’s sonnets to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to Neruda’s poems of surrealist angst in Residencia en tierra? Make your own list. Probably the majority of great literature was written after the Golden Age of Petrarch to Shakespeare was ancient history.

You might still say that the works of even those more recent classic writers I just listed are out of reach now, since our daily speech has declined in the age of texting and singers with dollar signs in their names to the point where we can’t reach the peaks of the literary sublime. Maybe. But what an interesting challenge that is, to try to create a moment of heightened language and emotion in a world where that is not the norm, where new literary classics are as rare as pulling an emerald from the dirt!

Rather than assume that literature has seen its best days, why not think of what literature has not been attempted yet?

Have we melded literature as fully as we can with the other arts and technologies? Heck, no. (Who said that?)

Have we taken literature authentically into the realms of intimacy that have been so private up till now?

Have we written about the new shapes that relationships and families are taking in our world?

Have we laid out the radical equality and justice and sustainability that will allow our world to survive this age of splits—of faiths, families, nations, and atoms?

Yes, there may be a trade-off. We may not be able to duplicate the lacy sounds of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, or the intricate dance of Dante’s terza rima. But we have the benefit of hundreds of years of history and change since Jacobean England and Trecento Italy, change that has given us, I hope, new insights. There are new musics, new asymmetries of elegance to reveal.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer