I read a really interesting quote in this article. Attributed to a nameless leading literary agent, it said that he or she doubted that Kafka would get published in today’s publishing world. I don’t want to openly disagree with a professional, especially not a leading one, but I do wonder if this would really be the case. Maybe it is my fan-boyish love of Kafka obscuring what is perhaps a very sound, industry-savvy opinion, but his writing doesn’t seem, to me anyway, to conform to the commonly held view that literary fiction is less accessible now than it was in years gone by.
Reading through pages and pages of writers tips and advice, such as I do, tells me that all writing needs to begin right in the thick of the action. That any sort of meandering exposition, colourful scene-setting or decorative writing that doesn’t make the story happen right now will mean that the bookshop browser will never read beyond the first sentence because a jaw breaking yawn will immediately occur. In fact, according to those same websites, that could never happen because a book that takes its time over getting the story started won’t ever make it as far as a bookshop. If it sounds like I disagree, well, I don’t. Conflict and characters are the main components of fiction and any book that drags its feet runs a very serious risk of being boring. And no one likes boring.
But the thing is this isn’t a new idea. This isn’t the product of two decades of MTV, videogames and the general degradation of our attention spans. Boring is as boring now as it was before and so beginning a story in the thick of the action is a pretty old method of getting a story going. It even has its own name. In media res. That’s Latin for ‘into the middle of things’ and Latin has been a dead language for a really long time. That’s how old an idea it is. Certainly old enough for Kafka to know about it.
‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.’
That’s the opening line to Kafka’s The Trial. Seems fairly immediate to me. The rest of the book hangs off of that opening line. The Trial is essentially a high-concept novel. When I was at college high-concept was a fairly derisive term, used to describe films like Groundhog Day. Entertaining, easy, but with no particular artistic merit. But high-concept does not have to be synonymous with lack of depth. In fact, conversely, high-concept can yield greater depth. By focusing sharply on that which is important you can drill down much deeper.
If immediacy, plot and conflict are the components of a successful contemporary book I think The Trial would fit in just fine. But is it as simple as that? I might have a love of high-concept-high-depth (high-depth? might need to re-think that…) but it’s not like those are the only types of stories that are being published and finding their way onto my shelf of books I liked enough to not give away to a charity shop. Another of my favourite books, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, is glacially paced and has a plot so obscure it is hard to describe it to people in any sort of way that makes it sound appealing.
Possibly pace isn’t the only contributing factor. There might be other reasons why Kafka wouldn’t be published today. Classics can be inaccessible when the language used is dated and obscure, when the fictitious world isn’t recognisable to us and when the tropes the writing assumes are no longer automatically present in the readers heads. There’s not really a lot we can do about that. Cultural shifts will inevitably cause a disconnect between writing and an audience that didn’t exist at the time of its creation. Even when writing focuses on fundamental themes the gradual evolution of language makes those themes harder to uncover.
So perhaps Kafka would have been published today and perhaps he wouldn’t. Anyone working in the publishing industry would be better placed than me to make a judgement on that. Today’s book releases might well have such a bias toward commercial, salable fiction that there wouldn’t have been any room for him. Anyone seeking to write a book that sells a million copies probably isn’t looking to Kafka for inspiration. But I’d like to think that selling a million copies isn’t the only reason to write a novel.