Hark! Today, I shall be talking about 20th Century Literature and giving my thoughts on it. Not quite ALL literature written then, nor ONLY literature written then, but a particular genre which fixates on miserably moping about the 20th century.
There were plenty of other things written back then, but somehow, by the time I went on to study 20th Century Lit in university (among other more enjoyable subjects), the texts I studied almost entirely covered the miserable injustices of life. Racism, sexism, elitism, classism, this here appeared to be the primordial, eldritch ooze from which Social Justice Warriors evolved: all noise, no substance.
Obviously, I’m very much AGAINST it and I’ll explain why after I explain what it is. So watch out, netizens! Here there be opinions!
What Is It? Identity Is Just A Label Used To Oppress The Weakminded
Alright, let me dial it back and get down to business. What IS 20th Century Literature? Or rather, the specific types of literature which would dominate what people saw in the 20th century, as iconic as Lord of the Rings became for Fantasy? In a whole world, a whole century of other writers, how did they become the poster boys like edgy goth boy bands, large shoulder pads, and EXTREME cartoons in the 90s?
Well, let me give you a crash course. Overall, 20th Century Literature is often some form of serious historical fiction, taking place in real world settings. Like that unbearably passive-aggressive person you know, they tend to really, REALLY push a message in your face without actually saying the message aloud. REPEATEDLY.
You can often identify it by the following traits:
- It takes place in the REAL world. Probably for the best, I don’t want to see Gor’Mok The Savage spend three chapters having a debate with Durgamar The Feldrake about the ethics of using sentient beings as mounts.
- It has a very serious, depressing tone, theme, plot, and message. By the end of the book, if you haven’t taken away the message that SOMETHING is bad, you probably missed what they were trying to say.
- It often has a highly descriptive style, perhaps excessively so, putting in absurd amounts of effort detailing the settings, probably so the author could prove that they did their homework. I’d gladly sacrifice all of that for sympathetic and believable characters.
- It deals with the evils and woes of the time period it is depicting, whether the Victorian Era or the 20th century. These are often postmodern ideas, which is a fancy phrase for “that stupid edgy teenage phase where you hated everything, thought you were the only one who saw the truth, and believed that made you deep and interesting.” That usually means one or more of the following: Racism, Classism, Sexism, Any Flavour Of Discrimination, Religion (And The Loss Thereof), Politics, Anti-Authority Attitudes. And naturally, the book is the prophet that will enlighten you to these things.
Using these foundations, 20th Century Literature made a niche for itself writing grim, gritty, ‘realistic’ stories of all lengths, shapes, and sizes. Plenty of writers approached this differently, from the structured, long and boring, to the fragmented and incomprehensible. For every author who wrote paragraphs which wasted two thirds of the page on descriptions, there was one who went totally the other way and wrote something so disjointed you were practically forced to reread it to even understand what was going on.
Some, like The Great Gatsby, would have a pretty ‘conventional’ (though deliberately unreliable) progression of events and subplots. Sure, it makes for an utterly miserable read, but at least you can follow what’s going on and make sense of the misery of character and reader, from the hero worship of Gatsby to the acts of awful, awful people with money.
Others, like Invisible Man (not THE Invisible Man, that’s science fiction), have absolutely NO sense of pacing or plot, and seem intent only to SHOCK you with highly descriptive scenes and a lot of pretentious agonising over racial and social ideas. There is little context, little sympathy, NOTHING to hold an ACTUAL reader’s attention, just WHOOSH, you’re in a pit fight, WHOOSH, you’re expelled from college, WHOOSH, you’re in a black power cult, WHOOSH, you’re kicked out of the cult, WHOOSH, you are mistaken for a pimp. Just poorly paced, poorly plotted, poorly written. Like a Michael Bay movie without the honesty.
So Why The Love/Hate?
In for a penny, in for a pound. I got this far, so I might as well be forthright about the usual reasons academics and would-be intellectuals sing its praises to the high heavens:
- It tackles very uncomfortable, socially significant themes and ideas about society and humanity that are historical yet relevant.
- It is chock full of realism, either as a highly descriptive, immersive experience, or as a stark, courageous look at the true evils of the time (like the aforementioned racism, sexism, etc.).
- It experiments with the very fundamentals of story structure and meaning.
Yeeeeeaaaah. Notice there’s nothing there about what actually makes a story GOOD. Things like pacing, characterisation, a feeling of ENJOYMENT. And that brings us to why I absolutely DESPISE this genre:
- It is, simply put, VILE to read. Like watching a video of animal abuse. These are things no sane person would want to read unless it was relevant to their career/studies, or they had a MASSIVE guilt complex. Or maybe they just wanna look smart like those people that read Ayn Rand.
- Many of them FIXATE on certain aspects but ignore others, those same descriptions often being the most common offenders. This makes for a very unbalanced ‘story’ lacking in other things that would round it out.
- If it experiments, it often becomes INCOMPREHENSIBLE. A long, pointless setting description is bad writing that should have been put out of its misery so readers can move on to the plot, sure. But some experimentations don’t even allow you the mercy of comprehension. In the mad race to pursue themes of confusion, alienation, reality, and realism, they commit crimes against literature which a lecturer would crucify you for if you wrote it on your term paper.
- The worst sin of all: It puts the MESSAGE ahead of the PLOT. This is the culmination of all its weaknesses, because no matter what the message, form, or justification, that is the deceit behind it all. The notion that it is more important to say something (whether a message or an experiment) and permeate it in a story, than to actually create a good story in the first place. Like a parent who puts their kids through hell trying to shape them into the perfect adult, only to miss out on what it takes to be a good parent.
In other words, it’s either academically-endorsed exploitation fiction, 70% description and 30% plot, or a message from the Old Gods that mortal minds cannot comprehend.
And if you think this was hardly unique to the past, or that this experimentation was necessary to break the rigid structures of the past, I’d like to point out that SHAKESPEARE did all those things. He wrote all sorts of things, he experimented with all sorts of forms, he wrote tragic and happy endings, but he always made sure the story was GOOD and fun to sit through. He proved that good writing is timeless, and you can get a point across without sacrificing plot, characterisation, or wit.
The Only Thing Necessary For Bad Writing To Triumph
And that’s just what I hate about the genre itself. I also, quite frankly, find it baffling that it was immortalised and praised by any circles at all. To the extent that I was forced to study it and pretend that it mattered or was interesting.
I sometimes imagine that it’s some sort of conspiracy. That some professionals are actually aware of how wrong the bandwagon is, but they have to stick with it because that’s what the ‘credible’ people are doing. Much like the Mass Effect: Andromeda bashers. But to my surprise, some idiots actually look at these weaknesses and see them as strengths.
To be sure, I am NOT saying that stories can’t be unhappy, or that they can’t experiment with structure and form. In fact, this era also produced devices we now use in actually-good-literature, like multiple unreliable narrators with limited knowledge.
I’m also NOT saying that stories can’t have a point or deal with depressing, uncomfortable themes. The point of being a writer is to take your passion, a message you yearn to speak deep down, and then put it on the page. And you do the world justice if you look at it as it is, just as much as you would with a wish for how it should be. I would never begrudge a writer from standing up for what they believe in, or anyone from learning something harsh that makes them a better person…but a story must STILL stand as a story.
My issue is the fact that it is, frankly, usually terrible writing. That these are boring, painful stories that inspire no positive emotions, yet people somehow feel they are meaningful and brilliant. Hell, GRR Martin and Warhammer 40k know that tragedy and darkness aren’t enough: You need characters you can cheer for, and things you can find cool.
And that’s the ultimate weakness of 20th Century Literature: Their use of their MESSAGE or DELIVERY as their foundation. But if you only rely on those, then your story will only be relevant for as long as your issue is.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll have picked a cause or theme which will always remain relevant. But is that anything to brag about? That you remained a name in literature riding on the coattails of a cause bigger than you, a reminder of the world’s misery like all the other special snowflakes out there?
Why not be remembered for characters that were likeable yet diverse and imperfect? Or plots and pacing which took readers through sudden drops and climbs while easing them through the valleys? Why not be remembered for actually good writing, which is timeless AND enjoyable?
Or, you could be remembered for writing a satirical imitation of 20th Century Literature like I did below:
As I took in the sights, I wasted three paragraphs on describing them in detail. I didn’t know why. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I wanted future scholars to note my attention to detail. Maybe I am a compulsive scene-describer.
After the description which did absolutely nothing to advance the plot, I saw it! The thing! The thing I singled out as odd, but I declined to say why. For you see, that thing had great thematic and symbolic significance, and I would notice it again seventeen times again before the story was done, but only once would I reveal just what it represented. Oh, what a thing that thing was! It captivated me!
The thing made me think. It made me think about the futility of life, and the empty lies of every belief and philosophy known to man except, conveniently, for the point the author was trying to make, be it about feminism, civil rights, or capitalism (unless he had no point in which case the point was nihilism). I spent a good solid five hours contemplating the banality of life. Surely, future scholars would immortalise my courageous nihilism which is totally not an opiate obscuring the drive for self-improvement. Verily, I am a prophet of my time, a soothsayer of secularism. I, and I alone, hold the vision to see the world as it is through the immutable truth of my opinions.
And there it was. The non-sequitur. A random statement of ambiguous significance.
Happy birthday to me.