In any given year, something like half the books I read are contemporary (i.e. written sometime after 1990). Fifteen percent are from the mid 20 century (i.e. after WW). Fifteen percent are from the early 20th century. And fifteen percent are from the nineteenth century. That leaves a remainder of five percent. Of that, one percent are from the 18th century and four percent are from antiquity (I’ve read a few books written in the 3rd-17th centuries, but not many–fewer than ten in the last seven years). So it would not be true to say I don’t read many contemporary books. And it would be even less true to say I don’t read many novels written after 1900.
And yet in my heart I feel like I don’t respond as strongly to contemporary fiction as I do to, say, Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen or Tolstoy or Emile Zola. And even when I count my favorite 20th century authors, it’s the ones from before World War I that I identify most strongly with: Thomas Mann, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Willa Cather, and Sinclair Lewis.
Work from before the 20th century are so different from contemporary fiction (and from how I write). It’s so mannered. Narrators are warm, friendly presences, but they’re also very distant from the characters. Descriptions, both of sense impressions and of internal states, are rare (except in Russian and Japanese literature).
It’s a perplexing influence for me. In its own way, it’s as confusing as all the science fiction and fantasy I read in my youth (an influence that is nowadays so little in evidence in my novels).
There are great modern writers who explicitly count the mannered novels of the 19th century as an influence. Nabokov wrote a 19th century novel (set in an alternate present) with Ada. V.S. Naipaul wrote one (set in contemporary, for him, times) with A House for Mr. Biswas. Susannah Clarke wrote a fantastical version in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Eleanor Cotton won the Booker Prize with a New Zealand version of a Dickens novel: The Luminaries.
And yet that’s not my thing. I have little desire to imitate the form or language of the nineteenth century novel. The thing I enjoy most about them is the feeling: the warmth and the sense of expansiveness. Just like the thing I enjoyed most about science fiction was the sense of limitless possibility (the sense of wonder, as sci-fi fans would call it). And yet I don’t even know if in my own work I strive for that warmth.
The 19th century novel was also ambitious. It was anxious to describe social realities. Stories weren’t merely stories; they were descriptions of a time and place. Often they contained a strong element of morality. I’m always struck, particularly in British fiction, by how much they care about proprieties. Entire Trollope novels revolve around misdeed–small lies–that seem unimaginably minor by my own standards. But that’s the world that he imagined: a world where a person’s reputation was paramount. I say ‘imagined’ because I doubt whether the world in which he lived was nearly so unforgiving as the one that he imagined. Trollope is so multi-faceted though. In some of his novels, he shows things as unforgivable sins (divorce) that in others the characters pass off without much trouble. In each case it’s not that the author’s opinions have changed: it’s that the realities of one set and social stratum aren’t the realities of another. Like most British authors, he’s very good at showing very fine gradations of class (ones that are often invisible to his American readers).
But now I’m getting side-tracked.
I think that’s probably the thing that shows through most clearly in my work. I do think of my works as being about more than just these characters. They’re about the rules of specific societies. They’re comedies of manners, I’d say.
Man I love Anthony Trollope. He is so good. Rachel can’t understand it. Whenever I say what I’m reading, she’ll be like “Another one!”
But the man wrote 40+ novels! And so many are good! It’s amazing.
Right now I’m rereading War and Peace though.