Writing London in the 21st Century


At the beginning of our course, Professor Litt gave us an essay he wrote about writing London. We had to read it before the classes started but we only managed to discuss it later. The essay was written for a talk he gave at Uni. It started with a simple question: why do we write? The fact that we are always deeply dissatisfied with our own approaches to reality and to the truth is one of the things that make us writing. Feeling that what you did is not what you wanted to do. It’s not about low confidence (is it?), it’s about being always open to learn and to improve yourself.

In the essay, Professor Litt made a point about the fact that contemporary novelists are expected to tell amusing stories rather than express complex ideas. They must contain the pleasure of narrative, and they can’t slow down the reading with ideas – so, according to Professor Litt, fiction writers grow stupider and stupider. But writing is first of all the expression and production of ideas. Writers today, according to Litt, live or pretend to live in some unphilosophical space, some mutually agreed common sense universe, and the intelligence of the author must be subsumed into the narrative, where it can do no harm and can’t slow down the pace. The cleverness must disguise the cleverness – that seems to be the highest fictional achievement of contemporary writers.

David Hare said that style is the art of getting yourself out of the way. Elmore Leonard, in 10 Rules of Writing, said that if what she has written sounds like writing, she rewrites it. So the role of writing needs to be conceived – but what is the idea of clarity nowadays? Each age has its idea of clarity, and today it seems like literature should represent real facts in a simple language. Is it a flawless of our vision? Do we feel like our vision is clearer than the people who came before us? What does write clearly means? Does it mean that you are a clever writer if you write clearly? It seems like the simplicity of form implies a clarity of thought, but is it true? Litt says that seeing things clearly does not necessarily mean to see things accurately.

How does this all apply to writing about London? We’re talking about a multi-million occupant city, which means that we have to write about a large number of diverse people. There is a many vs. the few. But the novel form is very bad at doing two main things: express multiplicity and simultaneity. It can doboth if it puts a lot of other things aside or on hold, but how is it possible to write about a lot of different people doing different things all at once? In his essay, Litt presents different solutions. One is: say it. There is a lot of people, all doing different things. Take notice of it. This is the novel of crowds. Or you can just write what every single person is doing – he’s doing this, she’s doing that. Everything comes to life – and that’s the crowded novel. Or you can do a mixture of the two: a crowded novel of crowds, which is the best a novelist can do when they have to deal with multiplicity and simultaneity, the characteristics of big cities. This concerns novels, since short stories do not normally tend to bother with multiplicity, they are more about singularity of event and characther. They imply simultaneity.


So what is a city novel, and, in our case, the 21st century London novel? It must portray simultaneous multiplicity and simultaneity. Cityness can be express ans something around you that’s vast, complex and totally unclear. Other art forms are way much better than novel writing at depicting multiplicity and simultaneity. In music, this can be said about Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Steve Reich’s Drumming, or american jazz – they express the city moods, eighter in day and night, crowded and empty places. Miles Davis’s song lyrics thinking of one thing and doing another reflects the city’s moods. And Shadowplay by Joy Division has some pretty amazing lyrics as well: to the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you… New York is greatly represented in U2’s Bullet the Blue Sky, when Bono sings we run into the arms od America. Litt says that music triumphs over writing in city capturing. The same happens for visual arts – in Nighthawks, Hopper represents only a part of a big city, and in fact he’s more like a short story painter, but his exclusion leads him to represent greatly the city-moods. It is hard not to take this approach because the intensity of visual detail in a city is extreme. Wiltshire, instead, had the ambition of depicting everything that he perceived –  which is also linked to his autism. Hogarth qas probably the best in depicting London in his multiple prints. Pieter Breughel the Elder represented very individuated crowds, and in his Little Tower of Babel, he expresses the image of a city. In a painting like this, we can see all of the people he wants to represent. But in a novel, we can only read a sentence at a time.

Photography is very strong in depicting multiplicity and simultaneity as well. It captures the city. Andreas Gursky depicted an hyperreal city, thanks to digital manipulations, that does not just represents miniaturizations of the city. Cinema is an urban form which capture the city perfectly, it’s probably the best in depicting crowds. It is also very anxious of human multitudes, which it represents ad antlike commuters or rioting blurs. But thanks to technology, directos can just put 1000 people on set with no real people. In the 70s and 80s, Hollywood avoided crowds because of the costs. And for cinema, relating the individual to the group and to the croud is problematic, and there is a preference of conflict over communality in screenplays. There is a sort of aversion of showing collectives that are successful, and the hero is picked out from a stupid crowd. S/he is the exceptional, and the excepted.


So, the 21st Century London Novel contains multitudes (as Whitman did). It must include people from the top to the bottom of society. It needs a panoramic of everything but everything must also be connected. And there must be an intense but subtle human interrelation. Crime is an obvious way of slicing through the city. But there are many ways. A main character encounters someone in London and tries to undertand different people’s otherness. What kind of person can encapsulate the city? Are people all the same? Can their identity be expressed by changing language? Language’s knowledge is fundamental. What kind of language has the 21st Century London Novel? It’s a very bilingual novel. The English used must mimic all the speech and the patterns of language. There is a particular essence in language. And the subject that has the city as a background must speak a believable language. Of course you can write a novel about a small part of London – such as about a group of educated friends of the middle-class. You can avoid intimate contact with who is different. In his Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote we are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approachable by the statisticians or the poet. But a novel about a small part of London was already done many times before.

Another solution would be to forget about the truly existing London, and create another London. An underLONDON, a parallel London. Everywhere and everything are intented, and we are free to range everywhere. Dickens created a world with his imaginative liberty. And nowadays we also have virtuality, which is more and more of a fact in London life. We are present simultaneously in technological underworlds. We keep in contact and communicate with far distant people. If novels avoid this, they avoid being completely contemporary and are historical novels in disguise. Mobile phones, internet, they tell when the action takes place. If you take them out, then you write a novel about 1995. Someone could say that if these things are present in the novel, they could prevent the action from taking place – people lose touch with one another. We can focus on different kinds of failure in communication – and different kind of journeys.

Ringfencing London does not make any sense anymore.Every 21st Century Novel becomes global as soon as it goes online. So what’s beyond multiplicity? What about true and total incommensurability? How is it possible to create a city assembling pieces of lego with blancmourge, molten steel and pigeon feathers? The essay ends up with a statement: for the moment, faced with these difficulties, we won’t try to write the Great 21st Century London Novel (but thank you for trying).



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