In her brilliant essay A Room of One’s Own, one of the greatest modernist writers Virginia Woolf says that she prefers Jane Austen’s novels to those of Charlotte Brontë. Woolf, a passionate feminist, rejects Brontë’s feminism in favor of Austen’s ultra-patriarchal writings because Brontë’s novels scare Woolf with their passion, their engagement, their rage. Woolf, who wrote angry, powerful essays, chose to create the kind of novels that are very sophisticated and beautifully crafted in terms of their form but completely insipid* in terms of their content.
And this is precisely why I don’t enjoy modernist art all that much. I recognize its importance and read about it obsessively. Many modernist artists themselves, however, bore me. Their art strikes me with how well it is done technically. Every work of theirs is like a country that can be explored in perpetuity. You can read even a short story or a small poem a hundred times and still discover something new every time you approach it. However, in terms of ideas, passion, political engagement – all of the things I really value both in life and in art, that is – there is nothing. As much as I admire form, I still need content, and modernist writers often fail to provide me with the kind of content I can enjoy.
Not all modernists are like that, of course. Alongside the insipid Woolf, Joyce, Valle Inclán, Akhmatova, Borges, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller** there are writers like Kafka, Faulkner, Tsvetaeva, who don’t abandon passion and give up on content in order to produce beautiful form. To give just one example, Marina Tsvetaeva once removed two incredibly beautiful verses from a poem after she discovered that the flower she mentioned in them did not grow in the area described in the poem. The poet had spent weeks crafting those verses but then destroyed them because beauty was not more important than reality to her.
The advent of modernism did not completely cancel out realist art, however. The US literature, for instance produced a middling modernism and a weak, boring post-modernism***. At the same time, it created phenomenal works of realism / naturalism long after nobody in Europe knew how to do it. Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck are amazing and deserve to be read as much as the great XIXth-century realists.
* Yes, in my opinion, who else’s? I have read every single one of Woolf’s novels and, for all their sophistication, all they made me feel was boredom.
** Yes, I know you are appalled by this list because it contains your favorite writer. This beautiful range of emotions you are experiencing right now is what these writers fail to make me feel, and that is precisely why I dislike them.
*** Breathe in very deep and don’t get too agitated. Everybody is entitled to their vision, and you can always share your own in the comments.