OSC Answers Questions
I'll be the first to admit I have a tendency to "jump the gun" as it were,
but I've read some of the posts you've made here and something caught my
attention, and that's not always an easy thing to do.
You presented, in an answer to one of the questions here, an exhausting list of
authors that you have read, and who out there doesn't have such a list; however,
the list of authors you currently read blew my mind.
I fancy myself a budding writer, though the secrets hidden within that bud have
yet to fully reveal themselves. I read constantly, though very little contemporary
literature. In fact, with the exception of Ann Rice and yourself, very little indeed.
The most contemporary works I have read recently, outside of studying, for school
or personal reasons, is Frank Herbert and Tolkein.
Bear with me, I am coming to a point, and if you post this, if it pleases, use only
the snippets you need out of this plethora of rambling. I have recently noticed a
difference between my two favorite contemporary artists. While you seem to have
enough to read to keep you busy for a lifetime and more, Ann Rice reads very
little modern literature, and in fact considers all reading to be study. She says, "I
read almost no contemporary fiction at all. I don't like it. It hurts my head. It
makes me sad. It upsets me."
My point, my question if you will, is the following: "What are your views on
modern literature, compared to 50 or 100+ years ago? Also, is this merely a stage
you are currently in, reading as much contemporary literature as you do, or have
you always delved into modern fiction with a vigorous appetite?"
-- Submitted by Chris Lynch
OSC REPLIES: - September 4, 2000
I read what interests me. Period. When I was doing graduate work in
literature, I read a lot of older work. The rest of my reading - even the history and
biography that constitutes my "research" -- is simply following my own tastes.
What looks like it will be interesting. And if it's not, I don't finish it (and don't
My views on modern literature, however, have been expressed often, and without
pulling punches. While within the literary genre (I call it "li-fi") there are some
excellent works being created (I think of Ann Tyler, Richard Russo, a handful of
others), by and large modern literature, like modern art and modern music, has
forsaken the larger audience. The artists are talking only to each other and to
those readers who have trained themselves to look for the things the artists look
The trouble is that what artists see is like what tailors see -- their eye goes to the
stitching, not to the suit. The work is viewed, not in the context of real life as a
whole, but in the context of the conversation among artists. And this has only
limited interest for most people. In the long run, who really cares? Shakespeare's
greatness comes, not because he was "answering" Marlow or Seneca or Plautus,
but because he was telling great stories to the groundlings -- which continue to be
great stories to our modern eyes.
Thus, while I find much of the work of moderns from Woolf and Lawrence,
through Faulkner and Hemingway, to Bellow and Heller and others quite
interesting and valuable, I think the real literature of our times is the literature
aimed at the larger public. John Irving, Stephen King, Margaret Mitchell, and
others who have striven both for quality and for communication, and whose work
is fully accessible to untrained readers, have a much better claim to being the
Greats of our time.
The problem lies with the universities. Until the early part of this century,
universities taught only the literature of the past, not contemporary lit. But since
the first half of this century, the universities have been putting the stamp of
excellence on only a certain range of contemporary and recent works - the
literature that requires English professors to explain it to you. Unconsciously, it's
almost like a full-employment plan for English teachers.
But the great literature is written without recourse to mediators. Shakespeare
didn't have someone explaining things to his audience -- they were expected to
"get it" without aid. So it is with the best of contemporary literature. Those who
speak only to other writers will, in the long run, have little staying power --
except as professors require students to read them.
And a hundred years from now, I fully expect that Science Fiction will be
regarded as the revolutionary new literature of the second half of the twentieth
century. What Modernism did in the first half, Science Fiction did in the second
-- it was far more vibrant and productive than anything the ossified li-fi
Unfortunately, sci-fi's revolution is apparently over. Literature is moving on. It'll
be interesting to see what the next great literary movement is -- perhaps it will
emerge in the next few years....