George Steiner’s talk at Somerset House last night made Zadie Smith’s comments on the state of writing seem anodyne in comparison.
Talking about taboos, and the books he had not written because of them, George Steiner said that one of the great sources of power in literature used to be proximity to taboo. Now, we in the West are living in an era in which there are no taboos…everything goes… and the powerlessness is reflected in our writing.
“Our fiction is in trouble,” he said.
Picking up on the banality of much subject matter in the novel, he said, “I can’t face another novel on adultery in Hampshire”.
He thought our narrative structures were ‘tired’ and that stylistically we had little originality.
He mentioned a few writers deemed to be current ‘greats’ in the UK, and said they are merely aping the greats in America.
Our non fiction is written far better, he said. Biography, history, travel writing. All written better than most fiction.
And one of the strengths of contemporary writing is poetry.
Fantastic talk. Another wake-up call.
I found myself next to George Steiner in the queue for drinks after the talk. I thanked him for throwing down the gauntlet. Nearly said “Have you read about Willesden…?” but I didn’t. My guess is, he had.
Prior to the talk it was a privilege to see Sean O’Brien (Winner of the T S Eliot Prize for The Drowned Book) sign up as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Offered either Dickens’ quill or Byron’s pen, he chose the pen. Understandably.
Anyone can attend these talks. Anyone can join The Royal Society of Literature.
RSLit Link HERE
George Steiner information HERE
Sean O’Brien information HERE