Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Modern Novels: Eventually Canonical?

In class today, the theory that books now lack the same thought and quality that they once had came up. Someone said that's the reason that no one reads anymore. Now, I beg to differ. Sure, Twilight lacks depth and style and flirts with misogyny (although that last one is hardly new), and Harry Potter is more entertaining than anything else, but genuinely good books are being published all the time.

One of my favorite books is Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. It chronicles his miserable childhood in Ireland. It's entertaining, yes, but it makes some serious commentary on people and society, something generally revered and analyzed in old books in literature classes. Another book I adore is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver which is about a family of missionaries in Africa. The book, at 650 pages, is quite epic. The story is told from the point of view of the women in the family, mostly the daughters and occasionally the mother, switching narrators every few pages. Each daughter has a distinct personality and point of view. Something else about it that just occured to me is the fact that all the narrators are women, something worthy of note and analysis.

That's only two out of many books I've read and thought would probably be studied in English classes one day. My point, I suppose, is do not condemn the entirety of modern literature; just don't necessarily look to what 14 year olds are reading to find the good stuff.


  1. Angela's Ashes is also one of my favorite books, and I also loved The Poisonwood Bible; both of those books are very well written. In High School we spent weeks looking into the numerous layers of the Poisonwood Bible, and there was a lot to be taken out of it. With that said, I do feel that the majority of the books the public are aware of do lack a lot of depth. English teachers can always find the books out there with literary merit, but the general public will only look for the label “#1 New York Times best selling author”, and that is what they will read. If we search, we will find those books that define literature, but how many of us are willing to look?

  2. I agree with you that there is a lot of fiction out there today that lacks depth, but I think you have to know where to look and actually put some effort into looking. I love Harry Potter and have recently reread the series, and reading it as a older person, I found meaning, literary elements, and minute details that string the entire series together. Right now it is just seen as a young adult series, but whose to say we won't be studying it later like we do Huck Finn? I can't defend twilight because those are very poorly written.

    As for more mature literature, Chuck Palaniuk is one of my favorite modern authors. Yes his novels stretch reality (and in some stories ruin your appetite) but there is a social commentary in every book and I'm sure you could every line in his novels.

    Modern Authors are not yet Shakespeare, but if you do read closely you may find modern writing goes deeper than previously thought.

  3. I feel that it is not only literature that many people seem to think is lacking in quality these days, but also many other art forms. However, I think it is almost impossible to view something new as a piece of work that will endure for decades. Occasionally there is something sensational, like The Beatles, that everyone loves and that will obviously go down in history, but for the most part great artists and works of art take time to be appreciated. Mozart and Billie Holiday were flat broke when they died; Van Gogh only gained fame posthumously; Anne Frank's diary is now read all over the world, although she never knew that she had written something remarkable. In the end, how do we really determine what will be lasting and what is just a fleeting craze? Or perhaps there are many great works today that have yet to be recognized, and the artists who created them might not live to see them appreciated.

    I also loved The Poisonwood Bible. It is moving and sincere, and I do hope that Kingsolver receives much praise now and in the future for it.

  4. I think that Eagleton's 'Rise of English' chapter really lends itself to this debate.

    "Literature should convey timeless truths."

    Could it be that everything we are taught in high school is simply there because within those texts there is a 'timeless truth'? Was Shakespeare really as revered in his time as he is now? Was the 'Iliad' a must read for the Greeks? It's hard to discern what is or what should be in the modern literary canon. Only now is some literature from (both) post World Wars being taught in high school.

    I think we just get lost in the massive amounts of reading material offered to us at book stores. I know I get flustered. So I pick up a book based on it's interesting cover (that's how I found Evelyn Waugh). Or I pick up a book or short story based on a movie (and I'm not talking about obvious start studded affairs: Atonement or Lord of the Rings...but Everything Is Illuminated, The Third Man, and A Gravestone Made of Wheat)

    And on the topic of only lit teachers can find good literary merit/ or you have to search and search for it- I think all you really have to do is just be aware of the fact that almost everything you see or hear alludes or flat out references a piece of work.

  5. Yes, most works of literature that have endured the relentless batterings of time do "convey timeless truths." It is this entrancing song of universal truth, of sheer humanity, which strikes such a resounding chord in the very caverns of our souls.

    Those works which we consider classic have borrowed from age-old themes. Shakespeare, although a master manipulator of the English language, was not entirely original. Our favorite "star-crossed lovers," Romeo and Juliet, for instance, bear an uncanny resemblance to the Pyramus and Thisbe of Greek mythology. Harry Potter even seems to borrow heavily from Arthurian legend.

    Don't worry.

    The very fact that we have been able to recycle the same ancient stories, dressing up old characters in new clothes, is proof that originality is not dead; however, it also tells us we cannot escape our literary past. And why should we want to?

    Sam has said, "almost everything [we] see or hear alludes or flat out references" other works before it. While it has been suggested that perhaps modern writers are not composing novels with the same quality as their predecessors, I must disagree. Standing upon the shoulders of such literary giants, contemporary authors, cannot help but see farther, and their vision will guide them.