5 Questions for . . .
One of my favorite research options I offered students when I taught modern (18th-20th c.) literature was "Literary Manifestos." I will admit that I am drawn to this sub-genre, as it might be called, by the particular agressiveness and/or rhetorical flourish with which the authors lay out the necessary new style and push aside previous literary movements. Think of Zola's painstaking explanation of how Naturalism must rely on scientific method, as opposed to the Romantics' attachment to the irrational: "We experimental novelists . . . go from the known to the unknown, to make ourselves masters of nature; while the idealistic novelists deliberately remain in the unknown through all sorts of religious and philosophical prejudices, under the astounding pretense that the unknown is nobler and more beautiful than the known." Or Breton's rebuff of Realism in his "Manifesto of Surrealism":
If the purely informative style . . . is virtually the rule rather than the exception in the novel form, it is because, in all fairness, the author’s ambition is severely circumscribed. The circumstantial, needlessly specific nature of each of their notations leads me to believe that they are perpetuating a joke at my expense. I am spared not even one of the character’s slightest vacillations: will he be fairhaired? What will his name be? Will we meet him during the summer? So many questions resolved once and for all, as chance directs; the only discretionary power left me is to close the book, which I am careful to do somewhere in the vicinity of the first page. And the descriptions! There is nothing to which their vacuity can be compared . . .
Fearless, he goes on to quote a passage from Crime and Punishment, only allowing that "It may be argued that this school-boy description has its place"! Hilarious! In fact, it may be argued that manifesto writers are not always above dipping into comedy as they present the new. Still, manifestos and the movements associated with them are crucial to the evolution of literature. Thus, this issue's digital forum is focussed on trying to get a handle on what literary movement, if any, is afoot today -- an elusive goal perhaps but the participants' attempts help us begin to think.
As always, I present the participants' answers as they wrote them, and have allowed anyone to opt out of any question they don't feel they can or would like to answer. Forever a product of the New Criticism school, I would simply add that even the silences and quips in what follows have meaning.
Here is who is sitting at the table:
Michael Sohn, Composition Instructor, Long Island University Brooklyn
Dolores Hayden, Poet, Professor of American Studies (Emerita), Yale University
Morgan Leigh Davies, Writer, Co-host of Overinvested Podcast
Judy Plott, English Teacher (retired), Lincoln-Sudbury R.H.S.
Simon Perchik, Poet
Bill Plott, English and Drama Teacher (retired), Lincoln-Sudbury R.H.S.
1. In the past, literary movements -- Realism, Modernism, Symbolism, the Nouveau Roman, Magical Realism, etc. -- have been identified by writers and critics. Is there any such movement in existence today? What do you see when you look broadly at literature of the last few decades?
I tend not to see with names.
Thinking about contemporary writing, there is, depending, either too much or too little meaning, or meaning that can’t. But there is also writing, poetry in particular, that resists this, resists meaning as such, or at least rearticulates how words mean, if it doesn’t free words from the meaning-trap. Such writing, varied as it is, justifies itself, when it justifies itself, in various ways. I don’t know what to call this kind of writing and am not sure if there is more of it now than there was.
The AWP conference in 2017 hosted panels on “evidence research,” “working with archives,” “docupoetry and investigative poetics,” and “feminist historical narratives.” Does the energy many contemporary American poets are expending on history have a label? There has been a broad rediscovery of ethnic, women’s, and workers’ history, and the places where they intersect, as a subject for poetry. Archival research supports stylistically diverse, politically-inflected, book-length work. Sharing some characteristics of “identity politics,” “ecopoetry,” “doc-po” and “new narrative,” this significant American movement melds lyric and narrative impulses to synthesize and transcend the older categories. All it needs is a name.
From my perspective the major movement of literature in recent years has been less defined by a unified aesthetic sensibility and more by a shift toward non-straight white male authors receiving a greater share of attention. This is impossible to quantify and tricky to talk about because women and people of color have, of course, always been writing, and as VIDA so often reminds us, (white) men receive the vast majority of book reviews in mainstream publications and do the majority of that reviewing, and undoubtedly get more books published than any other demographic. But it seems undeniable to me that the conversation has shifted just as it has in film and television. When The New Republic recently ran an article about the state of the American novel and discussed only Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Dave Eggers, and George Saunders, the (very bad) piece was rightly eviscerated on social media for its tunnel vision. Whatever the individual merits of those writers, they cannot represent the collective body of American novelists. To pre-empt my somewhat conservative response to the subsequent question with an alternative answer, it seems to me that the long-term discussion of the literature of this highly political era will inevitably be political (as everything always is) – figures like Claudia Rankine, Zadie Smith, Mohsin Hamid, Hilton Als, Chimamanda Adichie, and Karan Mahajan may be writing a diverse range of literature, but they are undoubtedly all part of an admittedly [[nebulous]] conversation, whether they like it or not.
Characterizing our own era is tricky, to say the least. We cannot resort to Modernism, for that designation already has been taken by the arts of the early 20th century. We could call ourselves “Contemporary,” but that is not very specific and, anyway, sounds a little like furniture advertising. Without the benefit of perspective, we can go in many directions; clearly, we are cyberized, digitized, linked up or in, etc. One evening some time ago, I recall hearing a news report about a number of previously remote areas of the world coming on line. In a moment of careless optimism, I thought about the possibilities for good; several days later, 9/11. That should teach me. I would like to call us a time of Globalism, but that has become negative in some centers of power. And we are, at the same time, turning inward, to the excessively personal—watch people on the street (and driving?) and maybe even at dinner looking not around but down at their screens, and listen to stories of virtual this and that. We have Connection without Context (now, there’s some alliteration for you). Perhaps we are a time of super-speed and what was the latest thing yesterday is obsolete today—so maybe we are the age of the radical instant. Or is all leading to an age of indifference—who knows? So maybe Post-Modernism is OK, although that’s yesterday’s newspaper—or rather Tweet—as well. Clearly, I am confused but still trying, in more ways than one.
I wouldn't call it a movement but since painting has evolved into abstraction I see the possibility that poetry might go that way. Paul Celan comes to mind. If the practice of law taught me anything it's that words don't always mean what you think they mean. A greater divide between prose and poetry seems desirable. Thus poetry, by working the subconscious (as Rothko does with colors) could become more powerful and better meet its duty to heal the afflicted.
What is the current literary movement? I have no idea. Transrealism? Post-post-post Modernism? Digitalism? Post-literacy? I think I'll go with the last; I'm making up a term, but I have a reason for it. I suspect we're in a paradigm shift controlled by marketing and electronics.
Mostly when I see people read, they read on small screens, and that reading isn't sustained. Bookstores don't have so many books; plays and movies are shorter; The Donkey Show has supplanted A Midsummer Night's Dream. Who needs all those words when one can have an experience? Or just have a Midsummer-themed party?
I hope I'm wrong. After all, people do read something on their screens; maybe once the distractions are turned off, people still read.