Catching Literature on the Wing

[This article also appeared on Inkwell,'s literary column, which you can read here:]

In his essay “Reading and Writing” (2000), the Nobel Prize-winning author, V.S. Naipaul, discusses his place in the grand tradition of literature, following in the footsteps of the great immortals of literature—a daunting task even for the writer of A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River. As he explains,

“All of us who have come after have been derivative. We can never be the first again. We might bring new material from far away, but the program we are following has been laid out for us. We cannot be the writing equivalent of Robinson Crusoe on his island, letting off “the first gun that has been fired there since the creation of the world.” That is the gunshot we hear when we turn to the originators. They are the first; they didn’t know it when they began, but then…they do know, and they are full of excitement at the discovery.”

The first...what a strange notion in literature. And yet, there was once a poet who first turned his or her mind to crafting an epic poem, one that made the hero’s journey the collective experience of mankind. Similarly, someone sat down and crafted the first ghost story; the first alien invasion; the first work of mistaken identities; the first bad pun (it was probably quite good back then). While the first isn’t necessarily the best, it does offer a writer something few of us can ever experience: an open horizon. Writing today is like maneuvering through the lanes of a major highway, surrounded by every make of car, signs for every product and brand imaginable; in short, the sights are all swallowed up by other people’s dreams and advertisements.

So imagine the thrill of being Daniel Defoe, who around 1719 wrote the story of 
Robinson Crusoe, a survivor of shipwreck with only the scattered remains of a ship and whatever else he can scrounge together on the island. Slyly, Defoe wrote this not as a novel, per se, but as a true account written by Crusoe himself, complete with diary entries, dates, and other documentary details that left readers on the edge of their seats. Nothing like this had been written before, but soon after, other writers realized the enormous potential of the novel—something truly “new” in literature. However, the footprint, once left in the sand, has already told its story; the second or third step can only tell a similar story in a new location.

As readers, we have an uneasy relationship with the past, which can easily become resentment, if not cynicism. After all, the great writers we’re supposed to be reading are just so many “dead white males,” along with a few “dead white females,” though the key word is ‘dead’. Why, people often ask, do we have to keep re-reading the celebrated works of the past, most of whom speak in dated language about places we’ve never seen or people we’ll never know? For some, it’s a big conspiracy theory: that’s what “they” want us to read, to indoctrinate us into old ways of thinking so we won’t strive for anything new. And while literature can be pushed into the service of propaganda like anything else, propaganda tends to show its age very quickly. Only great art can survive the vicissitudes of time and seem, even three hundred years later, like it was written on the spot, the paint still wet and the passions still crackling.
The surprising truth is that every ‘great’ book speaks your language—and speaks to you, if you let it. Once you become accustomed to the tang of Middle English, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath speaks out in bold, modern English—indeed, something like a Housewife of Beverly Hills (or in this case, Bath). 

Shakespeare’s characters don’t pretend to be fossilized museum pieces—they fight, make love, and kill themselves for all the wrong reasons. Even the novels of V.S. Naipaul himself, most of them written decades ago (and some in Trinidadian English) transcend their moment in time through age-old satire and the eternal clash of cultures. In short, the literature that lasts is never old, never dead, and never local: it speaks to anyone with an imagination who can divorce him or herself from the relentless sales-pitch of the present.

So why did we inherit this motley crew of works, a rag-tag collection of novelists, poets, a few playwrights, and handful of people peddling their own autobiographies? If all literature has the potential to captivate the reader and defy its time and space, why these works in particular? To go back to Naipaul’s essay, being the first matters. Not the first to write a tragic love story, perhaps, but the first to light on a truly ‘new’ approach. Defoe’s story really wasn’t new at all, as accounts of overseas explorers were the most popular form of literature in the early 18th century. What made him the ‘first’ was how he approached the material: no one had realized what a novel could be with just the right character, told in just the right way, with just the right concessions to believability. 

Anyone who truly lasted to become one of the greatest was also, in a large or small way, the first of their kind. Austen dared to educate women in novels that were ostensibly about town and country romances; Asimov catapulted the novel into the future, capturing the first, flickering moments of a robot’s awareness; Tolkein disguised the novel’s Victorian framework under the embroidery of a Teutonic saga. We can build on these writers’ example, we can take them even further than they dared to imagine themselves, but we can never beat them to the punch. They imagined the tools, the language, the characters, the stories...allowing us to humbly search for our own islands on the literary horizon.

Toward the end of “Reading and Writing,” Naipaul explains,
“Literature is the sum of its discoveries. What is derivative can be impressive and intelligent. It can give pleasure and it will have its season, short or long. But we will always want to go back to the originators…what is good is always what is new, in both form and content. What is good forgets whatever models it might have had, and is unexpected; we have to catch it on the wing.”

That’s what makes reading so wonderful and the classics so thrilling: even in a centuries-old novel, we feel like we’re “catching it on the wing,” the first to discover a soon-to-be classic. I remember distinctly how I felt after pulling Pride and Prejudice from a used bookstore shelf and taking it home to read. After the first chapters I felt like I had unearthed a priceless fossil from my own backyard; by the end I felt like the work had discovered me: that is, that I had finally found a work that made me rethink myself, not only as a person but as a writer. We don’t need to content ourselves with merely reading the classics, but on the same hand, we can never do away with them. In fact, the works that follow inevitably lead us back to the ‘firsts,’ like the shattered remains of some ancient vase. A good reader always tries to piece it together, to read the faded inscriptions on the side, to figure out where it comes from. A vase, like any work of art, is the sum of its culture, much as “literature is the sum of its discoveries.” 

Every writer should be proud to write in this great tradition, since its blood runs through the veins of our prose and verse; and every reader should be thrilled to see the family connections between his or her favorite YA novel and its origins in Greek drama. We read to discover new worlds—both on the horizon and within ourselves. And the newest of all these worlds is to be discovered in some of the oldest books, which is the most ironic truth of all.