ETA Hoffmann’s gothic romances are full of implausible events and coincidences, but what makes his tales feel so unreal to a contemporary reader is the characters’ emotions. They’re never suspicious of their feelings – they immediately act in whatever way their heart tells them to.
In contemporary novels, characters mistrust and analyze and interrogate their emotions. Even when they decide to follow their hearts, authors devote dozens of pages to making sure readers understand what consciously or unconsciously motivated that decision.
Mark Fisher writes about the weird and the eerie, qualities that pervade gothic romances but are absent from most modern literature’s dominant genre, psychological realism (and the vast majority of today’s popular sci-fi, horror, and fantasy work adheres to psychological realism’s rules of character construction). He argues that the weird and the eerie occur when an element exists where nothing should exist or an element is missing where something should be.
I think this feels especially strange to contemporary readers who live in a culture dominated by scientific materialism. We instinctively trust measurements of a flower’s weight and height – but distrust the qualia of its color. How do we know you and I see the same blue? If we’re not seeing the same blue, does blue exist at all? The weird and the eerie are the unmeasurable aspects of reality erupting – they frighten us because we’ve been trained to ignore them.
Is that why contemporary writers dedicate so much space to motivating every character action? Nothing is more unmeasurable than emotion. It’s both what contemporary literature is about and what it can’t quite believe is real. Our stories are filled with irony that distances characters from the emotions they feel and readers from the stories they’re reading. Gothic tales are also full of irony, but it’s an entirely different kind – it’s the ironic coincidence, the ironic resonance, that brings themes and characters and readers closer together.
Paul Scheerbart wrote science fiction in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. He made many predictions about the future, few of which were accurate. Other classic sci-fi writers are praised for making correct predictions. But do we gain anything by reading writers who happened to guess write? We already know what they already told us. Instead, we should read the past’s greatest wrong sci-fi authors. Then, we could imagine a present other than the rationalism-bound one we have.