I picked up my new glasses today, in a new prescription, and I’m seeing all sorts of little letters I couldn’t see before. So bring on the wee footnotes, folks–I’m ready.
The optometrist’s office is conveniently located in the same shopping plaza as my favorite book-and-mortar bookstore, so naturally I went there afterward, eager to try out my new specs. One of the few authors of contemporary literary fiction I like has a new book out, so my intent was to buy it and start reading my new acquisition at lunch.
That’s not, however, how things worked out. First, I looked at the price (over $25) and the size of the book (about 200 pages), and got an instant case of tight pursestrings. I don’t mind paying a little extra for a small-press book, a university-press book, or a self-published book, realizing as I do the economics involved, but this novel was published by a big New York house. Worse yet, the historical novel that was on the table beside it was being sold for the same price, but was about 300 pages longer–and was published by the same big New York house. Having just spent Major Bucks on my glasses, I couldn’t quite bring myself to spring for the historical novel either, but if I had, at least I would have thought that I was getting my money’s worth in word count if nothing else.
I might have overcome my Inner Cheapskate had I flipped through the book and been engrossed by what I saw, but my flip-through was rather discouraging. It seemed that the author was rehashing a plot he had used in an earlier novel–a clever rehash, but still a rehash.
Most important, however, I found that I just couldn’t muster up the interest to buy a novel set in contemporary times. It would have probably been different had the author been Anne Tyler or P. D. James, mind you, but this novel just didn’t exert enough force to pull me out of the past. So I let it sit there. I may well change my mind if the money tree blooms or when the book is discounted or comes out in paperback, but for now, I’m sticking with historical fiction–which is what I ended up buying today.
So why has contemporary fiction lost so much of its appeal to me? Part of it, I think, is that so many of the characters in contemporary fiction, particularly women’s fiction, strike me as self-absorbed or trivial. Another reason, I suppose, is some form of escapism. Even though historical fiction might deal with some very grim events, they’re events that are safely in the past. Given a choice between reading a novel about the Hundred Years’ War and the current wars in the Middle East, I’d take the former any day. I suppose the elements of time and distance also play a part–I’d rather read a novel about adultery in Charles II’s court than a novel about adultery in modern-day Hollywood or the Hamptons.
Yet another reason, though, is that a lot of contemporary novels, especially literary novels, have become too much alike and feature an increasing narrow range of themes and characters. There’s the novel about a middle-aged person trying to find meaning in his or her life. There’s the novel about someone trying to cope with some sort of disaster. There’s the novel about someone abusing drugs or alcohol. There’s the novel about bored and alienated people in the suburbs, the novel about bored and alienated people in the city. There’s the novel about someone who’s been sexually or physically abused as a child. There’s the novel about mothers and daughters, the novel about fathers and sons. There’s the novel about someone discovering his or her sexuality. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but for the most part, when I read a review of a contemporary literary novel or flip through one at the bookstore, the words that come to mind are most often, “Been there. Done that.” Perhaps, then, I’m finding in historical fiction what I’m not finding in contemporary fiction–the whole gamut of human behavior and emotions.
ADDENDUM: Daphne (and Carla in her comment) have some nice thoughts here about historical fiction.