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…