Does Literature Move Forward? (and more on names)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Yesterday, inspired by an Elif Batuman book and a James Wood essay in The New Yorker, I wrote about novel names. I absolutely adore those of you who shared your own perspective on this. Sarah and others wondered how I name my characters, and I will admit here that sound has so much to do with my decision making. Sophie suggests a particular kind of person to me—internally focused, quietly questing, curious. Riley, for me, is an artist. Tara is wise, winningly sarcastic, eager for the next thing. Like Melissa, I don't question a name once I find it, and I don't overly freight it with meaning. My own name, Beth, means House of God. That's a whole lot to live up to (I certainly haven't yet), and I've never named a character that.

In focusing on names in this blog yesterday, I did not have the opportunity to quote from the beginning of the Wood piece ("Keeping it Real: Conflict, convention, and Chang Rae-Lee's 'The Surrendered'") which also struck me as rich with conversational possibilities. Here it is. I'd love your thoughts:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? Nabokov seems to have thought so, and pointed out that Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail. Yet you could argue the opposite view; after all, no novelist strikes the modern reader as more Homeric than Tolstoy.... Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation....

Wood goes on to make some very interesting statements about the "lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction," but it wouldn't be fair of me to quote him at greater length here (buying magazines helps continue the livelihood of magazines). I encourage you to take a look. I'm eager for your reactions.

4 comments:

Lilian Nattel said...

I don't think literature progresses in the way that engineering and medicine do, but it reflects social changes, and may contribute to them.

Priya said...

What you said about the names is really interesting. I've never really matched names with personalities before; rather, when I'm writing, I try and find names that match with the setting of the story.

Sherry said...

I think literature does build upon past work. That is the fun of having read a classic and than understanding not only an allusion to it in another book, but also what the author is trying to say. Also, an author is influenced in style, in thought, many intangible ways by what he/she reads. So most definitely these influences are built upon and grown in their own writing. But of course, their will never be a formula for how all this magic works.

a. fortis said...

I completely agree with you on the naming thing--particular names absolutely evoke certain feelings and associations for me, whether it's because of the sound, a personal memory, or something else. Even different spellings of names "seem" to reflect different people to me--for instance, as a Sarah, I feel like a "Sara" with no H is a completely different sort of person.

Does literature progress? What a fascinating question! It absorbs and reflects, it moves as society and humanity move, and in that sense, I suppose, it progresses as much as the human psyche itself does--or doesn't. There isn't a "technology" to "advance" in the same way as a scientific field. I guess in a way there is progress, as we open up new avenues of exploration that were not previously part of the canon or of literary convention, like Gertrude Stein. Is expansion of mindset the same thing as progress, though?

Great question...must think on it more...

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