As someone who had the good opportunity to savour classical romantic and Victorian literature, aided with the exemplary writings in Hindi of the golden era of Prasad, Nirala, Dinkar, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mahadevi Verma, contemporary literature in English, flooded by authors mostly in the line of James and Bhagat, do not fascinate me. You can call me a cynic or whatever you want, I seldom find any literary depth in the works by Chetan Bhagat. However, it does not take away the fact that his works are popular among a massive reader base because he can hold on to the aspirations of common people and they, in turn, find their reflection in the literature they read. E. L. James, on the other hand, seldom brings something worthy to the table. Her sole priority is discovering new techniques and methods of extracting sexual pleasure from someone you subjugate… having emotional episodes that qualify a monster just because someone else tortured this monster. In this article, I will try to compare contemporary works of literature with those of greats of the past and reveal why contemporary literature has crash landed after an initial height and pace.
Modern novels, exemplified by the works of authors like Chetan Bhagat and E.L. James, often exhibit several limitations that warrant critical examination. Though I am not in favour of someone adding value to such works by giving critical attention to them, it is almost a moral obligation of any serious literary enthusiast to bring something out that clinically examines these works of literature and dissects them to find out what these are made of. In this article, this is my attempt. I have read many novels by classic authors. I have also read enough work by contemporary novelists. However, with a focus on Chetan Bhagat and E L James, I just want to highlight how ridiculous novels with an erotic tint look when juxtaposed with the ideal ones (even in the romantic genre).
First and foremost, these modern novels frequently suffer from a dearth of literary substance. Now, don’t ask me what is literary substance! The works of Bhagat and James tend to prioritize popular appeal over artistic merit, resulting in a dilution of the intellectual and aesthetic aspects of the narrative. This inclination towards commercial success often leads to a prioritization of formulaic plots, shallow characters, and contrived conflicts, undermining the potential for an insightful exploration of the human condition that was once the hallmark of literature. Do you remember the works by Thomas Hardy? Or, even the works by D. H. Lawrence, for that matter, delved into the territories of the human psyche and conflicts that we often pass through. The prose in these novels, by the likes of James and Bhagat, often lacks the elegance and sophistication that defined the literary masterpieces of the past. Bhagat and James, in their attempts to cater to a broader readership, resort to pedestrian language and simplistic writing styles, eschewing the rich tapestry of language and linguistic virtuosity that characterized the works of classic authors. Their narratives often lack lyrical beauty, intricate metaphors, and evocative descriptions that elevate the reading experience to a higher realm of artistic appreciation. Well, one must be very clear that I am not supporting the overloading of metaphors and hyperbole that give space for a dictionary-reading challenge. Moreover, I am not even supporting the absurdity and obscurity in the novels by authors like Beckett and Sterne. I am just putting a good, ideal, and literary read is always better compared to something which is overdone, overdubbed and overcooked.
Another noteworthy shortcoming is the limited scope of themes and ideas in these contemporary novels. Bhagat’s narratives, for instance, frequently revolve around mundane concerns of modern Indian middle-class life, emphasising material aspirations, romantic entanglements, and societal pressures. This, for a novel or two, we may assume, works just fine. However, if you repeat the same in novel after novel, it becomes a burden for readers. It is like reading the same plot with new characters. However, one has to admit that Chetan Bhagat is clever, cunning and an expert in using the same oil for different dishes, and even bringing the best taste time after time. James, on the other hand, is known for her focus on eroticism, sacrificing depth and nuance in favour of titillation. While these themes may have their place in popular culture, they pale in comparison to the broad spectrum of human experiences explored in the works of 19th-century English novelists. These literary giants delved into themes of love, morality, social inequality, and existential dilemmas with a profound depth of insight and philosophical introspection. Adding to the list of things that contemporary fiction lacks, we can focus on the lack of psychological depth and nuanced character development that distinguished their predecessors. Bhagat’s characters, for instance, are often reduced to mere caricatures, devoid of psychological complexity or emotional depth. James, too, tends to prioritize erotic encounters over comprehensive character arcs, resulting in two-dimensional portrayals that fail to resonate on a deeper level. By contrast, 19th-century English novelists skillfully crafted characters with multifaceted personalities, intricate motivations, and subtle psychological nuances, enabling readers to embark on profound journeys of self-discovery and introspection.
Can we compare these different authors from different times? Ethically, no! However, if you want to understand growth or prosperity (or otherwise), you must have to compare the present with the past. And while doing so, in the case of contemporary fiction, we can only see the dilapidated condition of the craft of fiction that these contemporary novelists possess. While commercial success can be ensured by catering to the ephemeral demands of readers who seldom engage with novels on a deeper level, literary achievements are things of the past! It is sad to witness the demise of literary craft and the heights of literature that once echoed for many decades even after the publication of any work of literature. Today, we witness a new novel by some celebrated novelist almost every year… it is good for quantity, but cannot be ideal for the quality that we readers deserve!
In conclusion, the limitations of modern novels, represented by the works of authors such as Chetan Bhagat and E.L. James, are glaring when compared to the literary achievements of 19th-century English novelists. These shortcomings encompass a lack of literary substance, pedestrian prose, limited thematic exploration, and shallow character development. As a discerning English literature professor, I implore readers to seek solace in the richness and depth of the classics, where the enduring legacy of great literature resides.
by Alka for The Best Books