Do Books Become Dated, Like a Bad Haircut?

by Patrick on August 11, 2009

I was reading Choire’s email newsletter update from The Awl today (which you should subscribe to, if you don’t already), and he was riffing on the idea of how quickly pop culture becomes dated:

This is the problem with the pop culture. Even a few, what, months later, the “Sex and the City” clothes are a little bit like “ugh, really?” Also the prized Vuitton purse toted in the film–seriously, people were enthusiastic for that? So while the TIMELESS THEMES and PRICELESS IDEAS of these movies are holding up… oh, hmm. Okay, let’s go with holding up “so so,” the problem is that they look, visually, like a Duran Duran video within three months basically.

He goes on to link to a Wall Street Journal article by Tom Hayes & Michael S. Malone arguing for adoption of the term “10 Year Century:” Call it the advent of “the 10-year century”: a fast shuffle that stacks events which once took place in the course of a lifetime compressed into the duration of a childhood.

I might be wrong about this, but I think books are the exception here.  Are there any books that seem hopelessly dated to you?  I’m not talking about a book that uses inappropriate names for ethnic groups or anything like that, but rather something that just seems so “yesterday,” stylistically.  And certainly there are trends in publishing.  The last ten years has seen the ascendancy of the memoir (and as Joan Fry pointed out last night, particularly the culinary memoir).

But do books ever suffer from the same horrible dating that Choire talks about in his email?  I don’t think that they do.  Books can lose their impact, as the world they describe ceases to exist or as their ideas fail to take hold.  For a long time, I felt that White Noise by Don DeLillo was a dated book, but I think that comes from the fact that so many of its ideas have won out, that contemporary fiction has absorbed and rebroadcast so much of the novel that reading it now feels like old hat.  What about the literature of the psychadelic 60s?  How has Richard Brautigan stood up?  Or what about the 80s?  Some would argue that Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney haven’t aged well.  I’m not sure about that, though.

How is it that a novel from the 80s can still feel completely current and relevant, while a movie from two years ago can look ridiculously out of date?  I think it has something to do with amount of time it takes to produce a novel, to read it, to consider it and then to move on.  There’s nowhere near that kind of cycle with TV and film.  Books just aren’t popular culture in the same way that those other media are (Sadly, sales figures back this assertion).  I also think literature’s unique involvement with the reader has something to do with this.  In other words, when the author describes a scene, half the work falls to the reader to fill in the details.  Why would you fill them in with a bunch of tacky crap, unless the author told you to do so, right?

What say you, fair commentor?  Do novels get dated?  If so, which ones?  If not, why not?

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books » Blog Archive » Do Books Become Dated, Like a Bad Haircut?
08.11.09 at 6:47 pm

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TribalPottery 08.11.09 at 3:05 pm

When it comes to dated novels, I think of several from the past twenty years that doesn’t aged well. You can add Tama Janowitz along with the likes of Bret Easton Ellis and JayInerney that you’ve already mentioned. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m re-reading “Less Than Zero” and that’s holding up better than say much later “Glamorama” by Ellis.

Even in the supposed eternal literary canon, there are two authors that I can think of that seem very dated: Ernest Hemingway and Ayn Rand. Yes, they were popular in their time and even well studied. The novelty has long worn off and the veneer of literary criticism has become much more silent as time passes on. The style of Rand and Hemingway isn’t aging well say decades ago.

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