Now and then

Why I do not read contemporary literature

Why I do not read contemporary literature was actually explained a few years before my birth by a Polish literatus in exile, Jerzy Stempowski:

One hot summer when I was still a very young boy I read, one after the other, all of Shakespeare’s plays.  This incident had a decisive influence on all my subsequent reading, indeed, perhaps on many other later choices and decisions:  “Take this rod and measure the Temple and all  those who pray within it”, says the Apocalypse and the rod was now in my hands.  From now I rejected without mercy all books which seemed to me worse than Troilus and Cressida.  I was thus adopting, perhaps somewhat too naively, one of the oldest criteria used by those who care for their reading:  something quite similar can be found in a letter of Horace to Pisones:  “What does not reach for the summit, falls into the abyss”.

This is not difficult.  With a bit of practice one can learn to tell almost immediately, and mostly unerringly, whether a given book can possibly contain even one page of Shakespeare’s class.  For my personal needs this was entirely sufficient.  I have read many books which almost no one knows, but I have to admit that — having stubbornly resisted almost all writers of my time — I remain an ignoramus in the matters of literature.  (…)  It is clear that my method cannot play any role in today’s literary life.

What Stempowski means is that today’s literary life — meaning authors, critics, publishers and readers — do not apply the Troilus Test and are happy to contend themselves with less.  The really important standard is activity:  what sells, what is read, what is discussed.  Literary life is a kind of group activity wherein the activity itself is valued because it takes place, not because it is in any way good or useful or interesting or wise, but because it involves the group.  It happens to concern books, but, one gets the impression that it might equally concern bum-rapping or spitting and catching or whatever else it is that everyone agreed to do at the same time:  people will go over and join in simply because others already have.

This is well captured by a rejection letter from editor received some time ago by Michael Hoffman

“[Yours] is a well-written, good novel, but unfortunately it falls into that now defunct category, mid-list.”  She concluded with this advice:  “Please, please write for the market, and that means you must read, read, read current successful novels.”

No wonder Michael has decided to self-publish:  if my job required me to read the work of contemporary successful novels, I would have to quit because, well, there is no way in hell anyone can compel me to read more than three pages of Iris Murdoch.


What is not the absolutely best, is without value.  Nagai says something similar in his diaries somewhere:  by the 1930’s he’d stopped reading his contemporaries entirely, devoting himself to the rereading of the classics instead, judging justly that there isn’t much point reading a new thing by Iris Murdoch when one can re-read Troilus and Cressida.

This parallel between a Polish political exile in Switzerland and a Japanese internal exile in Tokyo should not surprise:  both men belonged to a class best called dilettante erudite, who spent their lives traveling, learning, reading, thinking and debating — but debating always in ways careful to avoid academic punctiliousness.  This class has not survived WW2; but already between the wars it was in serious decline.  Now that they are gone for good, so are the kind of books they might write or deign to read.