Writer Leah McLaren is intrigued by an assertion about creativity by Jeanette Winterson in her updated introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit:
"Dinginess is death to the writer,” she explains. “Filth, discomfort, hunger, cold, trauma and drama don’t matter a bit. I have had plenty of each but they have only encouraged me, but dinginess, the damp small confines of the mediocre and the gradual corrosion of beauty and light, the compromising and the settling; these things make good work impossible.”
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With surrendering to the idea, McLaren nevertheless wonders: what will happen to inspiring, heroic literature in a new age of austerity?
“How do we tell stories about the triumph of the human spirit when social mobility has stagnated, when everything is not necessarily going to get better and better and better still?”
This is a great question; it begs no sure answer.
Our civilization has no rituals or traditions to teach us how to think in a long flat time. We do, however, have considerable experience with adversity as well as good fortune. Consequently, we needn’t expect literature to flatten out with the business cycle.
Writers are creatures of their times but they aren’t as reliable as other creatures, like investment bankers and rank and file politicians.
First, writers mine the past. Indeed, their memories of foul times and tragedy are often positively inspiring. The post-war politics and boom economies of the 20‘s and of the 50‘s were philistine, but bitter memories demanded attention. The literature was magnificent, in part, because the ease of the moment deeply grated.
Second, the odds are that most promising writers today loathe their place on the pecking order, haven’t yet experienced much success, or ever lived within what felt like a highly lubricated social order. They carry on today because they can‘t stand being stuck where they are already.
Third, as Jonathan Franzen observed, in quiet houses on every street—either still with success or exhaustion—there are crazy families and fantastic schemers. Whatever happens to national economic and social aggregates, so long as the West’s great cities remain open to the world and regional upstarts there will be plenty of neighborhoods of young, ambitious, violent, sexy and foolish malcontents to stir writers and their readers.
Fourth, let‘s assume that economics calls the shots: so, great writing in the developed world collapses like an obsolete sports dome. Conversely, creative writing in the developed world soars. It’s only logical. Alongside predictions of stagnation for us, there is this prediction by the World Bank about the world: the global middle class—the pool of most book buyers and most creators—is likely to grow from 430 million in 2000 to 1.15 billion in 2030.
Finally, by the time the fainthearted are stupefied by stagnation and the status quo has been polished to perfection, something will come along to make matters much worse or considerably better. Either way, writers will be awash with new material.