The post I made a couple of weeks ago where I compared myself to a popular author was quite well received, as has been the one where I talk about being afraid of a certain country and western singer. It’s got me thinking that I should do more posts like them, about how I write stuff and where my ideas come from etc. This isn’t exactly one of them but it’s along similar lines. Yesterday morning I had a thought: Where has all the depth and detail gone in modern literature?
Firstly, I had best describe what I mean by ‘depth and detail.’ I mean the sort of literature where you can get your teeth into the actual writing, where the text actually means something, where there is actually stuff between the lines other than empty space.
Tell me; what are the most popular books of the last decade: The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter… Twilight… maybe a few others. Ok then: Which has the most depth and detail? Certainly not Twilight… The vampires aren’t even real vampires. The Da Vinci Code? Though it may seem to have to depth, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find it’s more holey than the pope. For instance: If Mary Magdalene is in the Last Supper where is the twelfth disciple? Some you will say: Oh that’s easy. It’s Judas… Judas isn’t there! No. The moment depicted in the painting is the bit where Jesus says ‘One of you will betray me…’ And according to most sources Judas was there at that point… So where is the other disciple? (Painting the picture perhaps?)Another thing: Mary Magdalene is supposedly buried under the Louvre Pyramid… errr…. Paris is one of the oldest cities in the world and that sarcophagus has clearly been there a while (and in the film it’s even in an old crypt)… Not to mention that the pyramid was only built in 1989 and they excavated the whole thing out when they did it. Guess what? No Mary Magdalene. As for the rest of that stuff, well, let’s not even go there.
So that leaves Harry Potter. Unlike those other two books almost everything in Harry Potter has some sort of genuine mythological predecessor or basis in antiquity. Take the spells- Accio is Latin for summon/ send for. Avada Kedavra is a corruption of Abra Cadabra (which is an old Judaic healing spell) Levi-Corpus means… well… that’s easy- Float body. Basically, what I’m saying is all the spells have some sort of meaning to them. A huge proportion of the creatures mentioned are real mythological or folkloric creatures. Some of the names of the more important characters translate as well- Malfoy is BAD FAITH.
Not to mention that it’s an incredibly detailed plot that was clearly planned a long time in advance. Take Tom Riddles Diary being a Horcrux… Horcruxes aren’t mentioned until four books after the fact. And remember Dumbledore saying there are ways that Voldemort can come back without the philosophers stone at the end of the first book? Sirius Black gets a mention in there as well.
What I’m trying to say is that most books written these days lack a sense of depth and detail. There is nothing to get your teeth into. Nothing to analyse or work out… Harry Potter is a rare exception in the modern age. I’ve yet to come across a recent text that has a Harry Potter level of intricacy to it. Go backwards into the throngs of literature and you’ll find the detail gets heavier and the depth gets deeper. Let’s go back to the nineteen eighties and look at say, Douglas Adams. He came up with the idea for The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy whilst drunk in a field… And it contains one of the biggest modern literary mysteries: If 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything, then what is the question?
The answer (or rather the question) is apparently blindingly obvious when you think about it and the only person who knows what it is is Stephen Fry (Who isn’t going to tell anyone, apparently). There have been all sorts of stupid theories over the years from the weight of the milky way (3 x 10 to the power of 42) to what is 6 x 9 in base 13… To stuff from Lewis Carroll… There is a theory that there is actually no question and it was just a number… Certainly the rest of the books, whilst brilliant, don’t have a lot of depth apart from the whole 42 thing so that makes sort of sense… Even the Dirk Gently books (also good) with their insanely complex plots don’t hold a torch to 42.
I have seen one theory however that makes sense… It’s insanely obvious, mad and completely Douglas Adams… and it works in a few ways. Look again at 42. Let’s just break apart that number. We have: 40 + 2… Or if we write it down FORTY and TWO. Ok. Now break it down further… FOR- TY-TWO… Making sense yet? Lets change the spelling… FOR TEA TWO… And if we muddle it around TWO FOR TEA… Or you could have FOR TEA? TWO… And that would mean the question could be: How many for tea? (Answer: For Tea? Two! or 42 or even if Deep Thought had a bug ,TWO FOR TEA) And tea is one thing permeates everything Douglas Adams wrote. It’s mad… it’s insane… but it works…
But then again, like I said, Douglas Adams hardly has depth. His work is hardly intricate. He has more depth than Dan Brown or Stephanie Myer but where’s the gristle? The really meaty bits? To get anything really meaty in literature you have go at least as far back a the fifties, back to the likes of Tolkien and C.S Lewis. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some great authors since then- Roald Dahl, the afforementioned Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Brian Jacques… (Best thing about the Redwall books was the maps… I loved those maps!) But none of them (with, perhaps, the exception of Gaiman) have really written anything with much depth or meat on the bones. Look at Tolkien… Lord of the Rings is so crammed full of ancient lore, magic and backstory that it covers not only five hundred thousand words but also has an appendix, a prequel and a set of backstories to go with it. There are whole languages in that book, invented ones- Not to mention all the places that inspired Tolkien (Birmingham, Wales, Iceland etc…) That’s what I would call detail. LOTR is a book that actually means something.
And then there’s C.S Lewis… On the surface Narnia is a fantasy story about a world on the other side of a wardrobe but beneath it is an allegory for Christianity… Aslan= Jesus for instance. It’s all very simple and easy to see what comes from where, even if you only know your basic bits of the bible. But there’s another layer, a layer so cleverly hidden it took scholars years to find. Apparently each book draws parallels with one of the seven planets of medieval cosmology- That’s (in order of Narnia) Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, The Sun, The Moon and Saturn- And as not many people know about medieval cosmology these days… wow! I won’t go into it here, but it’s worth reading up on. I’d like to see Dan Brown try that- Unless hidden in the Da Vinci Code is a secret message stating that it was actually Judas who was crucified…
Go back further. Dickens’ work is full of inventiveness and meaning. What about Shakespeare? People have been interpreting him in different ways for centuries. The Brontes? What other novel besides Wuthering Heights can you imagine Brian Blessed as the female lead, singing Kate Bush?
One of the most extreme examples of meaning comes from Lewis Carroll. The Alice in Wonderland books are full of mental mathematics, opiate hallucinations, chess references. Even Llandudno is hidden away in ‘Through The Looking Glass.’ People are still debating and talking about what means what and why a raven is like a writing desk. Even though it’s just a kids book its got gristle, it’s got depth. It’s not just some piece of trash that somebody has been written to make money like most books are these days.
And I think that is where the difference lies. I’ve mostly mentioned British literature here (and, ironically, I’ve not really gone into detail about any one book ) but I think the same is true of American Literature. Whilst it’s never been anywhere near as deep as British literature, the older stuff, from the likes of Mark Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway etc still has plenty of gristle to it. Look at, say, James Patterson books or Tom Clancy and you’ll find they’re just generic, formulaic stories that mean nothing (and in the case of James Patterson are all written by someone else.) Crime fiction is one of the most popular genres but it’s nothing on what it was. These days it is usually about some forensic scientist/ maverick cop plodding through the plot point by point. Often it’s virtually impossible to work out who did it because they don’t introduce that person until the end or they miss out a clue and only find it later… You can’t join in like you can with Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie (Play along with Poirot?)
Somewhere along the lines literature has lost it’s edge. Is it any wonder book sales are falling? I was in Waterstones the other day and I didn’t see anything that looked good. It was all modern, shallow trash written to make money. Writers in the past didn’t only do it for money… They did it for the love of writing (mostly). It was harder in the days when they didn’t have typewriters or computers. Everything was handwritten with love, care and attention. Try and think of four writers born after 1962 who will be remembered in two hundred years time in the same sphere as the likes of the Brontes or Lewis Carroll… Or Tolkien? It’s next to impossible. Almost all of the good writers of today were born over 50 years ago… That’s one hell of a gap…
So finally I come to myself. What about my depth? I’ve talked recently about where I got the idea for a characters phobia from: (See: Fear of Dolly Parton) and what I’ve tried to do with Rebels is to put in stuff that the reader can get their teeth into. There’s some Welsh in there (translate it for some interesting messages) and I’ve tried to make the second half of the novel mirror the first (Not sure if that works yet… We’ll see.) You can also look up the real places mentioned, follow the characters journeys and try to divulge where a few of the fictional places are. I’ve really tried to add a bit of depth and give some meaning to the text without compromising the story… I’ve tried to add gristle. Same with Dark Legend… But I won’t go too much into that now.
And am I writing for money or fame? No. I’m writing to tell a story. To entertain people… to make them think. And maybe if I can add a bit of gristle back into literature as well… And if I can strive each and every day to better my writing skills and improve with each and every thing I write, maybe in forty two years time I’ll be close to the greats of literature
(Ha Ha… yeah right!)