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One of the most popular books of the year has been about finance. Piketty’s book on wealth in the 21st century surprised many that it could achieve that rare quality of being talked about and selling. Clearly it had tapped the Geist and a sense of Weltschmerz.

I have not read the book – I may do sometime. I have read around it; that is to say, I have read lengthy critiques and other commentaries, along with the not very convincing rebuttals. One of its themes is the concentration of wealth, a transfer to a few, while the bulk of the population struggle to keep up. If this seems as if it might drift into polemic, it won’t.

To a large degree Piketty’s argument has been proved true with some writers. Only last month such eminent authors, such as Will Self confessed that their incomes have fallen away to drastic levels. At the same time he and Tim Park wrote well and without rancor on the decline of the literary novel.

There was more than mere self-interest to the comment and the financial condition that was exposed at the same time. There is an information paradox as Park and Self identified it: the complex book is no longer wanted, it is surfeit, it has no readers, and the paradox inherent to this situation is that we produce more information each year than the previous millennium, but it is getting simpler.

The hypothesis from Park and Self is borne out by not very scientific surveying. Compared to mid-twentieth century fiction, and even more commercial nineteenth century fiction, some vaunted contemporary literary works are quite simple. As a generalization that statement is fraught with reliability. It’s best to read it as though it was a bell curve distribution and not fuss over statistical confidence levels.

Why simpleness, or perhaps it’s really much stronger clarity reigns is not certain. There may be many reasons, not just artistic, but it may be economic; and as novelists, Self and Park may have the right measure of the trends, both financially and artistically. What is likely is that those type of novelists will have to redefine themselves or face being redundant, just like anyone in a profession where the market and technology has superseded their usefulness.

Having realized this we can all be country singers and lament how good the old complex modernist literary novel was, and how there are no more like ‘em.

For most people this might be a matter of complete indifference. Despite fostering many good writers and possessing a large block of world real estate in the nineteenth century Britain was tone deaf in the quality music area. There are no composers or musicians who made any impression. People at the time weren’t too concerned, which shows that once something is gone it’s missed, but not if it never existed.

Whether Piketty’s analysis has anything to say here is not certain. Another economist, Schumpeter had the phrase ‘creative destruction’ which might be more applicable.

Writing, though, has never been a sure gig. Indeed, it has always been thus. When Vladimir said to Estragon, you should have been a poet, the latter gestured to his rags.

Guy Cranswick
26th July 2014