Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The modern novel

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘modern’ as relating to the present or recent times, and defines the word ‘novel’ as either a fictitious prose narrative of book length, or something interestingly new or unusual.  Therefore, a modern novel has to be a fictitious prose narrative, of book length, that is interestingly new or unusual, and relates to the present or recent times. Dr Johnson, however, is more specific in his definition of a ‘novel’ when he defines it as “a smooth tale, generally of love”.  Therefore, according to Dr Johnson, a ‘modern novel’ is a tale, generally of love, set in the present or in the recent past.
Angela Carter, the novelist, is more liberal with the definition of a novel and says that “anything that wants to call itself a novel is a novel, by definition, so fiction can do anything it wants to do… The novel has some role and responsibility in helping to explain experience and making the world comprehensible, even if it’s only to the person who is writing it.”  Barbara Hardy, a professor of English Literature, supports this notion when describing the role of the novelist, who “is giving form to a story, giving form to his moral and metaphysical views, and giving form to his particular experiences of sensations, people, places and society.”  Ian McEwan, the novelist, expands on this theme when he says that the novel “is a marvellous means of investigation into life, and I mean life in all its senses, daily life, ordinary life, emotional life, life as we try to give meaning to it and try to understand it.”
The pressure on novelists to pander to contemporary tastes has resulted in there being two kinds of novel.  David Lodge, author and literary critic, refers to them as “the highbrow novel of aesthetic ambition, which sold in small numbers to a discriminating elite, and the popular or middlebrow novel of entertainment which sold in much larger numbers to a mass audience.”  The success of catchpenny novels for a mass audience has resulted in many novelists writing purely for profit – they view writing as a means to an end, as opposed to an end in itself.  For example, in the early 20th century there was a large demand for crime fiction novels; a few ingenious novelists from this era (e.g. Agatha Christie) survive, but many of these genre novelists are now forgotten – their brief success was the purely the result of public demand for cheap crime novels.
The “highbrow novel of aesthetic ambition” was not written as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.  It does not initially sell as well as cheap catchpenny novels, but it brings more satisfaction to the author.  These novels were commemorated due to their individuality long after many genre novelists had been long-forgotten.  Novelists of this ilk include Jane Austen who only achieved fame after death, but who is now thought of as one of the great novelists of all time.
It is clear that there are a wide range of different genres available to the novelist, but what must the novelist do ensure that he writes a modern novel?  The novelist must ensure that his novel concerns issues and ideas important in the contemporary world, such as philosophy and science, before it can be called a modern novel.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

A Panorama-style investigation into bucket-shop heraldry

It is a popular misconception that a coat of arms belongs to a surname.  However, this is not the case as coats of arms belong to individual families, not to surnames.   For any person to have the right to a coat of arms they must have it granted to them, or be descended from the original grantee in the legitimate male line.
Nevertheless, commercial firms spread the misconception that coats of arms belong to surnames in order to generate a profit from the ignorant who wish to display their coat of arms on their letterheads, bookplates and silver.  Such firms frequently run adverts in newspapers, magazines and mail-order catalogues, in which they ask for the original old spelling of your name and your ancestral county, in order to provide “family coats of arms”.  Furthermore, the two works that these firms use to conduct their research, Burke’s General Armory (1885) and Fairbairn’s Book of Crests (1905), are renowned for their inaccuracy and incompleteness.

What generally happens is that a customer responds to such an advert, mentions his surname and enquires about his coat of arms.  The salesman looks up the surname in one of the textbooks mentioned above.  If he finds that there are no coats of arms for the customer’s surname he simply finds a similar surname and flogs that family’s coat of arms to the customer.  This is all done with no consideration as to whether the customer is in any way connected with the family whose coats of arms are being sold.
Fortunately, the College of Arms have now insisted that adverts are carefully phrased so as to point out that the coats of arms advertised are only those associated with a particular surname.  Those merchants who do not disclose the fact that they are only selling coats of arms associated with one’s surname are in breach of Section 3 of the Fraud Act 2006 as they are failing to disclose information, in order to gain a profit.  You can imagine the anger of customers when they realise that their ignorance has been used to the pecuniary advantage of salesmen.  However, many complaints won’t surface due to the reluctance of many customers to take legal action, thus perpetuating the situation.  Although we don’t have any clear statistics to substantiate the notion, the continued appearance of adverts selling coats of arms would suggest that the deceitful practice is on-going and healthy.
The bottom line is that it is illegal for these heraldic bucket-shops to feed on the heraldic ignorance of the public and to abuse the rights of those who are properly entitled to a coat of arms.  Any such enterprise should expect to face legal action and a hefty fine.