5 Questions for . . .
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.
2. Name a few present-day authors who, fifty years from now, you believe will be seen as standouts among writers of our time. How would you define the aesthetic at work in their writing?
I do not read widely, thus the limited response.
The Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai. Novel-length sentences that explore why and what.
Some of the French poets that in the late ‘60s were grouped around the review L’Éphémère, particularly Yves Bonnefoy and André du Bouchet. Heideggerian and Heraclitian. Bonnefoy is the more accessible and discursive; du Bouchet does more to help us see words as words and their fraught relation with what isn’t words.
Esther Tellermann whose poems on the page resemble and function like little hard lyrical keys.
Perhaps Belgian poet Christian Hubin whose elliptical syntax perfectly and painfully expresses that fraught relation.
Caroline Sagot Duvauroux who I am just beginning to read and who I joyfully don’t understand.
Anne-Marie Albiach who understood how poetry fits onto the page so that it can and can’t be read.
I’d like to think the poet Roger Giroux who wrote “the absence of writing is my work.” He forces us to look while we read.
The American poet Susan Howe and the visible and material textuality of history and writing.
Matthew Desmond is a wise, politically committed young ethnographer who has just won several literary awards for non-fiction as well as a MacArthur grant. His book, Evicted, is the best non-fiction I’ve read in a long time, ethnography that is as readable and as subtle as a good novel. He invites the reader to share his profound understanding of the inequalities of power and money in the lives of landlords and tenants. He’s thoughtful and compassionate. When he cites a scholarly precedent, he does it in a way the general reader can follow as well as the specialist. As an author he is so lucid it is hard to believe he is an academic in the social sciences. (He is a professor at Harvard University.)
I’ll also mention Michael Lewis, the journalist who portrayed outsize characters driving the world of finance in Liars’ Poker and The Big Short. People will be still be reading these books in 2067 to get a sense of how Wall Street hollowed out.
Robin Coste Lewis is the new poet laureate of Los Angeles.Voyage of the Sable Venus won the National Book Award last year and the title sequence works from the captions museums have used to describe art that includes images of Black women. Solmaz Sharif’s Look – another fine debut collection – works from definitions in a manual of military defense terms. These two authors scrutinize racism and militarism in original and brilliant ways, bringing lyric intensity to political topics. They will be read for many decades.
It is, of course, always impossible to really know what is going to stand the test of time, and we are all inclined to throw support behind our personal favorites. As a Victorianist I tend to find myself reading contemporary novelists doing something approaching “realism”: Zadie Smith, Edward St Aubyn, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst. I do suspect that, per my previous answer, it will be women and people of color who dominate this period of literature; of those authors only St Aubyn is a straight white man, and he is in a class of his own. But two questions present themselves: is one book enough to cement an author’s legacy, or does it take a significant oeuvre; and do the most innovative works survive, or the most readable?
The question of quality of output is one I have thought about a lot recently. My favorite novelists are probably Austen, Eliot, and Woolf, but while I like almost all of their books I only really love one by each and would consider only those truly “great” in the sense of being completely successful (Emma, Middlemarch, To the Lighthouse). Despite meaning for years to rectify my lapse, I have only read The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst, but I think it one of the best novels of the century to date; and Zadie Smith, a better essayist than a novelist, has only written one really great novel—but maybe one is enough? And as for longevity, while some headache-inducing books certainly endure, it seems to me that people do generally prefer art about recognizable human subjects and problems. The recent resurrection of Stoner, for instance, a very traditional novel written and ignored in 1965, suggests to me that our appetite for realism or something like it is probably here to stay, and in any case easier to predict than whichever more experimental books will wind up aging well. So in the meantime I will stick with my somewhat conservative, and indeed uniformly English, choices.
I think a number of authors could continue to make a difference years from now: Caryl Phillips, Patrick Modiano, Elena Ferrante, Ismail Kadare, Orhan Pamuk, Gloria Naylor (she has not gained enough recognition, in my mind), Marilynne Robinson, Zadie Smith (if she keeps her present rate), Ben Okri. I am ignorant of most Asian literature but feel sure authors there will be important.
Celan, Neruda, Aleixandre
Oh, this is a juicy one.
I'll start with playwrights. There are a few clear candidates for posterity, though one never knows. Still, I think Pinter, Stoppard and Havel will last. All three of them speak with a spare, modern, ironic tone to the uncertainty and threats of the age.
Seamus Heaney has written some wonderful adaptations of Greek drama especially in a different, more lyrical vein, more in keeping with modern Irish dramatic Irish voices: Conor McPherson, Frank McGuinness, Anne Devlin, Marina Carr. They are still modern, often brutal, and of course widely varied, but if they share something it is a gift for lyricism.
I'm very partial to Simon Stephens and David Hare; Stephens is somewhere between the Angry Young Men and maybe Stoppard with an attention to class concerns all his own. David Hare is much softer around the edges, perhaps wider in scope than Stephens and essentially comic in his view of British life.
Anna Deveare Smith is hard to place but I've loved everything she's done; ditto on Paula Vogel. Both of them have entirely original views of what makes contemporary America so messed up.
Derek Walcott, Athol Fugard, Peter Weiss, and no doubt I'm leaving somebody off the list. Zinnie Harris? Moira Buffini? Mamet? LaBute for the lovers of brutality—Korder, too. Maybe.
Fiction: in no order:
Patrick Modiano for his view of the world from the fringes of society, apparently stripped of the political but haunted by historical memory;
Saramago: depicts the margins of society utterly always informed by resistance to church, state, party, any structure or ideology that restricts freedom;
Orhan Pamuk and Ismail Kadare: they show the same struggle from the margins of society in very different cultural contexts than that of Saramago, but the essential struggle is the same;
Patrick White: much more elemental, really a mid-20th century giant, especially in Voss, dealing more with metaphysics. Hard to categorize.
Elena Ferrante: what idiots thought this was a pen-name for a man? She shows a very distinct place and time from an intensely feminine and feminist angle.
I'll mention William Trevor, Sebastian Barry, James Baldwin, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Andrzej Szczypiorski, Gloria Naylor, Caryl Phillips. Maybe: McEwan? Ishiguro? Juno Diaz?
I'm fixed lately on writers who come at things from the edges: Marilynne Robinson fits that, and is, I think, in the tradition of great American moralists, following among others Roth and Baldwin. Who knew I'd love a Calvinist? On the other hand, given the sociopathy of our current politics, I'll take Calvinism.
Poets: I don't read much current poetry. A few, English language only: Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Charles Olson, John Ashberry, Charles Simic, Joseph Brodsky, Maya Angelou, James Tate. I don't know. Not really so current.