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.
5. If literary movements are a reflection of social/cultural/historical currents, what does contemporary literature say about our times?
I try not to think about our times. That is one of the reasons I read poetry. And drink.
Memoirs are outselling many literary novels. Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl and Nell Stevens’s Bleaker House are two fine examples of books that cross boundaries, the first by blending memoir and science writing; the second, memoir, travel writing, and fiction. From France, Christophe Boltanski’s La Cache is another example of an evocative blend of fiction and memoir. And for any writer who owns a bookcase full of specialized dictionaries, as I do, Kory Stamper’s memoir of life as a lexicographer, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, is a delight.
In non-fiction, many readers are seeking out authors who can explain how right wing movements in the US led to the election of our current president. Marjorie Spruill’s Divided We Stand covers the rise of Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s. Her scholarly history maps several decades of women organizing women, on the right as well as on the left, and helped me see why many women vote Republican.
I think I have been gesturing at this question, or idea, in a few of my answers, although the honest answer is that I don’t read nearly as much contemporary literature as I ought to, and am probably more qualified to answer this question about nineteenth-century England. I did, however, just read a series of new novels – somewhat uncharacteristically – that were strangely thematically linked: Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry; The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan; Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid; and The Idiot, by Elif Batuman. All of these novels are about or feature people coming to America, in some capacity, and with greatly varying degrees of success; all of them, except The Idiot, are about war. I am much better versed in English literature (both historical and contemporary) but the themes of displacement, the slipperiness of identity, the difficulty of communication, and in most cases violence that pervade do seem particularly relevant to our times. The first three novels in particular are concerned with who gets to stay in America. The Muslim protagonist of The Association of Small Bombs is rejected by his non-Muslim friends after 9/11 and retreats to India; the refugee protagonists of Exit West find peace in California. But I thought the immigrant story in Days Without End was the most astute: an Irishman comes to America and finds happiness (with another man, natch) working the land – but only after slaughtering his share of Indians.
Our time is likely to be described differently by those in the future. Who knows what our descendants will make of the visual and aural evidence we leave behind. Something I just read suggested that “truth punches a hole in knowledge.” We can try for both.
Whew! never gave that a thought. Let me go back to what I mentioned about abstraction. That movement may hold the answer to your question. Music, the most abstract of all the arts, is more widespread than ever (thanks to radio, etc) which shows it's welcomed and needed. That's why I believe abstraction will more and more dominate literature. Of course, I could be all wrong.
Whoa. I don't know. I do know that I want the time back that I spent reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen and Joseph O'Neill. I read them dutifully, though not the complete works, and think I know why they do what they do: to show how utterly trivial and banal our culture is. I know, as Dylan puts it, I am a walking antique, but I want more. Doesn't Stendhal's mirror on the high road reflect both sky and mud? He said pompously.