Not All That Glitters Is Gold

1925 was announced as BBC Culture’s ‘golden year’ of literature. Is this a fair assumption? considers her own ‘golden year’ of literature, and whether 1925 truly should come out on top

Image: New Millennium Costumes, Boston

Image: New Millennium Costumes, Boston

Recently, BBC Culture’s journalist Jane Ciabattari published an article in which she designates 1925 as the ‘golden year’ of literary production.

Let me make this clear from the beginning: I believe it is preposterous to assign a ‘golden age’ to literature, if any ‘age’ at all. Although the result of an undoubtedly detailed study, Ciabattari’s article, in my opinion, can scarcely be considered the final answer to the big million-dollar question. Being no literature guru who can discuss the validity of Ciabattari’s statements and very likely be right, I will simply point out those elements in them that to me are flawed.

Ciabattari went about her experiment with the following method:

  • Searched for a “cluster of landmark books”
  • Evaluated their lasting impact
  • Asked whether these books altered the flow of literature, as well as their lasting influence over later publications.

There are a number of issues with this model that disturb me. The first one is the use of such a scientific, linear method to evaluate something in which subjectivity plays a big role. How many friendships have been wrecked over which book was the best? How often have you given a blank stare in response to the question “which is your favourite book?” Although it is indeed true that some books shine more than others, what Ciabattari defines landmark books is the result of her own opinion of what a literary landmark is, which necessarily does not correspond to that of the entire public. That would be pretentious.

Secondly, by limiting the research to novels only, Ciabattari automatically excludes from the equation all those other publications that have had a lasting impact on the flow of literature. Where did all the drama go – the poetry, the critical essays, the lectures, the reflections, the sermons, the speeches, the diaries? Goodbye Gramsci, bye The Capital, farewell Todorov, see you later Wollenstonecraft; adieu Shakespeare, Dante, Shelley, Martin Luther (the German friar, not the ‘King’). The list is endless. Clearly, Ciabattari has left a massive gap open in her study.

Although she extensively justifies the reasons why 1925 is supposedly the best literary year, to me literature is constellated by numerous ‘golden ages,’ each specific to one literary aspect or theme. For example, we could argue that the Dark Ages were not so dark for religious writings (who does not include at least ONE biblical reference in their work nowadays?) and secular literature. If it were not for the ‘golden age’ of the Renaissance with the rise of vernacular language, we would still be reading our textbooks in Latin or Greek. Mind you, these are only some examples.

Literary history is so multi-faceted that it is impossible to pinpoint one specific year as the best year. Rather, I believe that all the individual writings of the world exist in a symbiotic harmony whose flow cannot be disrupted by the (to me, blind) aspiration of elevating one particular moment above the others. My advice would be don’t be fooled by what seems to shine.

If I were pushed in a corner and had to either name what to me is THE golden age/ year of literature or die, I would obviously choose dear life and go ahead and say ‘this age’. The present, where we have all the world’s literature at our fingertips – literally. One tap on our Kindle, and here we have the complete collection of Sir Conan Doyle’s works in the modest space of 2799KB. The modern times, where pretty much anybody can become an author – although this is not always positive, I’ll admit it – and access literature. A flick of our finger on our smartphones or tablets, and voilà: a list of original works kept in an online database, or a catalogue of downloadable contents, appear on our screens. The Now, where literary works in languages we didn’t even know existed, and from a past so distant to have almost been forgotten, are being translated and brought to our front doors.

Honestly, could it ever get more golden than it is?

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