MAKING SENSE OF THE 20TH CENTURY (OR NOT…): THE MATTER OF LABELS

I have started a new edition of our first year subject ‘20th century Literature’ and, as usual, I’m mystified by how untidy the labels used to describe it are.

Not that Metaphysical or Romantic are particularly tidy, either, which sets me thinking about how and why such a mess has been made of organizing (English) Literature. Of course, with the exception of some avant-gardes few Literary schools or movements bother to choose their own label –which shows how careless writers are… when thinking of marketing themselves and of posterity. We get by as best as we can, using labels pinned on authors by mocking contemporaries, or in hindsight by critics aspiring to wit. Writers seem too immersed in their surroundings to really care… It’s funny to read, for example, how quintessential Modernist Virginia Woolf decides to call fellow Modernists “Mr. Forster, Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Strachey, Mr. Joyce, and Mr. Eliot” ‘the Georgians’ in her famous essay “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown” (1924). None uses Georgian at all today to refer to them… Didn’t they know they were Modernists??

Monarchs have, when it comes to the periodisation of English Literature, an uneven impact. There is an Elizabethan Age but somehow nobody has thought of calling ours ‘the second Elizabethan Age,’ even though the reign of Elizabeth II (Elizabeth I for the Scots) is now in its 60th year (poor Prince Charles…). Victoria was queen for 64 years (1837-1901… poor Prince Edward) and in her case, there’s no doubt that she provided a very convenient umbrella term for the period. In contrast, checking this morning how the label ‘Georgian’ is used, I came across more information on the Literature of the Caucasian Republic of Georgia than on that produced in the first decade of High Modernism… And all I found refers to the series of Georgian poetry anthologies that we now tend to connect with WWI poets.

At any rate, what is clear is that since 1945 English Literature has become very hard to classify, much more so if we think of the present. There are catchy labels like ‘Angry Young Men’ or ‘In-yer-face Theatre’, but they are in dispute and, anyway, are not quite useful to describe what was going on outside the English (British?) stage. The case of the label ‘Post-modernism’ begins to smack, as I see it, of naughty intellectual and critical laziness. How can a period be said to begin in 1945, 1968, 1979 and even 1990? Is it over yet?? Who knows for sure?

Suppose, for the sake of argumentation, that there is something called Post-WWII Literature and that Post-modernism runs from, say, the emblematic 1968 to the not less emblematic 1989. Let’s say, then, that the year 1989-2001 form a distinct period, for which we have no name (except ‘Globalisation’) although it might seem that these two historical dates separate very neatly a slice of History in which particular kinds of Literature emerge. On the spur of the moment I told my students yesterday about Berthold Schoene’s proposal that current Literature (the novel, actually) should be called Cosmopolitan, as writers feel quite free to deal with stories anywhere they please and not in their immediate surroundings. Um, appealing… yet the way I see it from 1989 onwards what seems to be happening is actually a heady mixture of the local ethnic, the post-colonial and the cosmopolitan. And, yes, 10 years have gone by since 2001, which my young students couldn’t even recall.

Perhaps it’s time to celebrate a contest and see who comes up with an interesting label. So many writers claim today that they’re not part of any collective school or movement that perhaps the best label, after all, might be ‘Individualism’ (or ‘Self-conscious Literature’?).

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: why on Earth use labels if they’re so confusing? Well, as I said, to try to make sense of something as vast as the hectic 20th century. Here insert the usual deep sigh…

10 Responses to “MAKING SENSE OF THE 20TH CENTURY (OR NOT…): THE MATTER OF LABELS

  1. JoseAngel says:

    In “Time and Ebb” Vladimir Nabokov reflects on the retrospective nature of “periods” — Inevitably, they don’t know their own name, because they are named in the most unlikely and unexpected ways by people not yet born. So, we’re fated not to know the age we live in, for the time being, and to learn about it with incredulity as it begins to take shape (and to lose texture) when we’re old and skeptical.

  2. Marina Manzanera says:

    It is difficult to have an only answer to the question “What should be the current writers label’s name?”, but it can be due to the fact that lots of current writers have more or less the same way to write and there are a lot of books with more or less the same topic (some of them coming from the past).
    It is true that a lot of writers do not want to be called as a part of a collective school, but from my point of view their label should not be called “Individualism”, because perhaps some writers from other labels thought the same, but they were included in one of the labels which were not called like this.
    I think, that calling this label Cosmopolitan would be the best way to include all the nowadays writers (I agree with Berthold Schoene’s proposal).

  3. I’m looking forward to finding out in my old age, then, what kind of time I’m living in today. How thrilling!!

  4. Yes, I myself think that Berthold Schoene might have a point – he’ll be happy to know that! There are indeed currents for, yes, many writers write in similar way, yet I don’t know why labels are not forthcoming. Have people stopped believing in them, I wonder?

  5. Rebeca Esparza Lavado says:

    In my opinion, it is really difficult to establish a precise chronology when we talk about literature mainly because literature is an artistic manifestation and, consequently, literature is something “alive”, always changing. The impossibility of establishing a chronology is due to the fact that there is a process, the change from one period into another new doesn’t take place abruptly. Moreover, to provide a classification has to be seen as something useful just in a superficial way, it is, as Sara suggested, just to provide a mental scheme to us.

  6. Ariadna José says:

    In my opinion labels are quite general because they are formed by large periods of time, so inside the label romantic or modernist there are many writers that do not belong to that label. It is true that students need those labels because without them it would be a chaos try to understand and learn all the periods and writers. As the writers do not like to have labels, nowadays the labels that exist are very simple like “contemporary”. I think that people have stopped believing in the labels because they want to be free and it happens also in others subjects like architecture or painting, so I think that a good label could be “ nonconformists” in the sense that they want to do things never done before.

  7. Indeed, Rebeca! It’s very hard to historicise an ongoing process and we’re caught up by this need to know what our time is all about. It’s a form of radical impatience, I believe, superficial perhaps but also smacking of a certain fear of posterity….

  8. Yes, but the problem with ‘non-conformist’ is that it’s a negative term… and labels tend to be more optimistic, so to speak. Perhaps we need to ask authors, listen to what they need to say. What I find really silly, at any rate, are labes like ‘dream team’, used in the past by Anagrama to publicise the best 1980s-1990s British authors…

  9. Rebeca Esparza Lavado says:

    Or maybe we should ask literature itself, not authors, according to Barthes (The Death of the Author)…

  10. It’s funny how Barthes himself is not dead at all as an author… 🙂

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