I was watching novelist Ian McEwan on the Charlie Rose Show, the other night, thumping his new novel Solar. I admit I haven’t read any of the author’s books. I did, however, listen to him talk, and quickly formed a positive opinion of the man, despite his being a Fellow of this and that, and winner of a Shakespeare Prize, with a “Distinguished” thrown in for good measure. Why novelists win Shakespeare prizes is beyond me. The man was a dramatist and poet. We just don’t get these things right anymore. I kept trying to figure out McEwan’s white shirt cuffs, which resembled little bow ties.

In a work, I’d call him shrewd. Shrewd in his opinions, judgments and observations. He said that “what we want the novel to do is investigate nature,” which is certainly true. He paid his proper respects to John Updike (“He really noticed the world.”), and picked out the closing passages of Joyce’s story “The Dead,” a short short by Hemingway, and the long happy beginning of Anna Karenina, as highly special in literature.

He had me going, nodding and agreeing out loud in front of the television set. Which set me off thinking.

I have a pet theory about the novel. It more or less peaked in the 19th Century. Greatness spilled over into the 20th Century, and petered out more or less with the rise of The Media, film and television. How so?

The 19th Century was not a quiet century. Europe seethed with revolution in the 1840s. Dickens’ London teemed with prostitutes, crime, villains and the sad tales of the unfortunate. There were upheavals in the arts and sciences, the creation of bohemia, birth of the modern. However, nature was more or less intact, and that was important to the novel. Think of all the long walks through the English wood, by the river, the seacoast, by characters in the novel. Heathcliff is unimaginable without the moors. Nature was inextricably part of Jane Austen’s sensibility and the search by her heroines for husbands and happiness.

I think life, or the apprehension of life, was more orderly in the 19th Century. Order made it possible to assign value, to call things by their by their names—abhorrent to 20th Century ideals of equality and freedom, you might say—but novelists are not so much concerned with these qualities, with happy endings, as with authentic relations of man with man, man with woman, man with nature.

We see types, stereotypes, archetypes in great novels; monumental struggles with evil, fate, destiny. Soul food to the reader. Great storms, great pathos, great stuff. Many of these stories percolated during long walks.

Writers of the early 20th Century looked back at the lengthening shadows of the 19th Century for comparison. Hemingway imagined getting into the boxing ring with Turgenev. Hemingway was a Modernist, more so than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who found little peace in life, maybe at the seashore with his family before things went real bad with Zelda.

I don’t mean that the quality of the writing gradually, or precipitously, declined in the 20th Century. I mean that the quality of the vision of the world fell off. In painting, the picture plane was shattered by Cubism. By the time we get to mid-century, Norman Mailer asked: Who are the bad guys?

In American literature, we have had great roarers. Thomas Wolfe striding the streets of New York proclaiming, “I wrote ten thousand words today!” Strong writers like Dos Passos piling up long lists with Russian, energy. And poetic prose specialists, like Updike, writing with some of that flood energy and also nailing the just mot. Very good, but not great. Sorry.

There is a good long road passage in Updike’s novel The Centaur. Good flash images rushing by. The 20th Century goes down the road. Kerouac and the Beats. The deep stream of creative consciousness is hurried, harried, distracted, thrust forward by gasoline-fueled visions of nirvana—athletic, reckless writing, spooling it out. Shooting the breeze.

Why not great?

Maybe it’s a thin blue line, or a shadow, that divides. No, more likely it’s the noise. The noise is now picked up along with the image by the machine. It all happens too fast for the writer now, for the naked eye. The writer rewinds the reel and plays it back to get the details for his crime novel. The writer now competes with the machine, with the Hollywood director, within himself. Some say that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a perfect novel. Nothing is perfect. It’s very good. One can admire its chiseled prose, like very fine statuary.

The novel was written with steel pens; before that, goose quills. Hemingway was a hunter and pecker on the typewriter. I have typed on practically every keyboard instrument in the business. Sometimes I sit in front of the computer, thinking I am about to begin an essay, and become embroiled in technical issues. Early television was reverential toward the arts. I remember “Omnibus,” which won seven Emmy Awards and was hosted by Alistair Cooke, good English-Irish quality; crisp pronunciation, good diction. There is a fair amount of smart TV writing today.

You could think of it like this. The violin rose to prominence in the 17th Century. The instrument was perfected in Cremona, Italy, by a small family of masters who knew and mentored each other: the Amati’s, the Guarneri’s, the Stradivari’s. They built masterpieces for the master works of Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Purcell, Pachelbel, Scarlatti. It all came together back then.

Now, violin making is an art. Physics has investigated it quite thoroughly. Contemporary violin makers create an excellent instrument. You can purchase a fine violin by a son of Cremona today for $8,500.00. The masters like Isaac Stern play original violins built by Antonio Stradivari more than 200 years ago, worth millions, today.

You could call some latter day stories great, if you really want to. I was impressed by Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, when I was starting out. It’s still considered one of our best political novels. I smiled by way through Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. I enjoy the novels of Milan Kundera.

It’s easy to find fault with most writing today. You see the politics, the work-shopped prose, false angst of young strivers. If you have an ounce of talent and the right software program, it’s rather easy to learn to write serviceable prose. Everyone is a wordsmith or blogger, today. You too can write The Great American Novel.

Hemingway retreated into one of his last private places to tell the tale of the old man, Santiago, and his struggle with the large fish that the sharks got. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for The Old Man and The Sea. In Humboldt’s Gift and Gatsby and All the Kings Men, the sharks get their comeuppance or die. Kundera’s sharks still disturb the water after their time has passed.

I guess I like novels with shark characters.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.