I’m belatedly reading my first ever Saul Bellow novel, and one of the things that strikes me is that it’s hard to imagine it being written today. Humboldt’s Gift was published in 1975, which doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but my daughter struggles to imagine life then — before mobile phones, before computers, before delete buttons and ctrl-C that allows you to move paragraphs around at will.

Everything these days is snappier, quicker, breezier — bam bam bam. (My first editor in NYC (2004) told me that my responsibility was to grab my reader by the scruff of the neck and drag him/her through the story. Really?) Of course there are exceptions. Marilyn Robinson leaps to mind. But attention spans are definitely shrinking. Mine, too.

Saul Bellow wanders off on the most extraordinarily discursive of journeys, peppered with the merest suggestion of plot. I can’t think of anyone writing today who’s this tough and dense and true, and funny.

Like his prose style, the Chicago that Bellow writes about doesn’t exist any more. Along with Damon Runyon’s NYC, or Raskolnikov’s St Petersburg, it’s ancient history.

It’s odd to think that in my lifetime, cities like New York, London and Chicago have become the playgrounds of rich people, with most of their derelict, frightening corners ironed out.

I was held up at gunpoint in Greenwich Village, back in 1980. Life felt grittier then, looser, with more dangers and more possibilities. You didn’t have to be born great to achieve greatness. You could kind of wander till you got there. Or got somewhere. Anywhere at all.



7 thoughts on “Has life changed in 35 years? Look at the books we publish.

  1. Trevor 8 years ago

    ‘I can’t think of anyone writing today who’s this tough and dense and true, and funny.’

    David Foster Wallace perhaps? Sadly no longer writing of course, but he seems to fit the bill.

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Embarrassed to admit I haven’t read DFW. On my list…..

  2. Trevor 8 years ago

    Certainly dense at times. But good dense.

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      I know.

  3. Nina Killham 8 years ago

    “You could kind of wander till you got there.” True true words. I’m still wandering, not sure if I’ll ever get there. But I don’t think my kids will feel able to mooch along as I did.

  4. Bazza 8 years ago

    I find Thomas Pynchon’s writing very dense. I have to keep going back over paragraphs and re-reading (or savouring) them again. It’s so long since I read Bellow; now you have given me the taste again.

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