Somerset Maugham thinks it necessary, in the preface to Volume II of his Collected Short Stories, to put in a disclaimer about the use of the first person indicating that the first person narrator is a character, to be distinguished from the author despite the word “I”. It made me wonder what sort of problems he’d had with readers assuming the opposite. It’s very strange reading, it’s like seeing someone vehemently asserting that the atmosphere is nitrogen and oxygen, dammit, or perhaps even more like the guys with red flags who used to walk in front of those dangerous automobile contraptions.
I then remembered Orwell’s unfinished thoughts on writing in first, and it made me realize that while there was wonderful writing done before 1950, technique and reader sophistication has actually improved no end since then. Readers today can cope with first in a way that Maugham’s readers needed their hands held for. Maugham’s wonderful controlled bitchy use of first and unreliable narratoion has been developed and built on and led to Pale Fire and the Colonel Pyat books.
The supposed literary masters were in fact hacking out their work at the dawn of time, and so are we, and we have built on them, as others will build on us. I find this a cheerful and encouraging thought. It’s so easy to see with SF ideas and techniques, but it’s just as true of “literary” techniques.
It’s odd that people are so much more likely to break into a rousing chorus of “What has destructive time not diminished!” than to consider that wonderful thing, progress. Why is it so much easier to feel for the women of sub-Roman Britain using the last of their imported Mediterranean menstrual sponges and knowing there would be no more, than to remember that the horse-collar and waterwheels were quietly ending slavery even while Rome was falling?
Is it actually easier to imagine a lost golden age than to see progress getting better all the time without fuss?