Should We be Teaching 21st Century Literature?
For many years I taught a course in Twentieth Century Literature to college seniors. In truth it was actually a course in early to mid-twentieth century literature because I didn’t teach any text published within the previous forty to fifty years. Authors on the syllabus included Chesterton, Joyce, Kafka, the War Poets (Brooke, Sassoon and Owen), T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The most modern text I ever taught was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which was first published in 1962. I believed then, as I believe now, that a work of literature could not be considered canonical until it had matured with age, like a good wine or cheddar, standing the test of time and withstanding the feckless and fickle flirtatiousness of fashion. With such a bibliophilic philosophy, one would suspect that I would be militantly opposed to the teaching of contemporary literature, especially as most of it is not so much meritorious as meretricious. Why then would I even ask whether we should be teaching such literature, except in the purely rhetorical sense of asking it in order to answer definitively and dogmatically in the negative? Perhaps an explanation is needed.
Over the past ten years I’ve become increasingly encouraged by the quantity and quality of good Catholic literature being published and, at the same time, increasingly frustrated by the lack of attention that such literature has been given. The new generation of writers is akin to a nation in exile, kindred spirits condemned to a wilderness to which the worldliness of the culture has consigned them, being forced thereby to plough a lonely furrow in the desert of their unjust deserts. This being so, I have sought to serve as a catalyst for a new revival in literature, trying to make the new works of literature known to those who should be reading them; bringing the goods to market, so to speak.
And this is why I would now relish the opportunity to teach a college course on twenty-first century literature. Should I do so, I would have many texts and authors from which to choose.
As I look across at the section of my library which hosts contemporary literature, I am surveying a veritable literary cornucopia. Where to begin?
Let’s start with poetry. There are many contemporary poets of the first order whose work merits our attention. Taking them in alphabetical order, and naming only a representative few, my eyes rest on slim volumes of verse by Mark Amorose, Mike Aquilina, Ruth Asch, William Baer, Kevin Bezner, Pavel Chichikov, David Craig, William Dunn, Dana Gioia, Lou Ella Hickman, Andrew Huntley, Domenico Iannaco, Philip C. Kolin, Dwight Longenecker, the late Ralph McInerny, Aidan Mackey, the late Peter Milward SJ, the late Michael Novak, Charlotte Ostermann, Lisa Toth Salinas, Rita A. Simmonds, and Paul Thigpen. Of this litany of fine poets, it is likely that only one, Dana Gioia, will be known as a poet, though several others will be known for their prose works. Apart from these volumes, I have many others, nestling snuggly between the ones I’ve mentioned, which are still unopened, awaiting my attention.
Alongside these slim books of verse are dozens of novels, all written within the present century. There are so many to consider that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps, therefore, we’ll begin with those contemporary Catholic authors who are household names, such as Ron Hanson, Dean Koontz, Paul McCusker, Tim Powers, Piers Paul Read and Gene Wolfe. The substantial tomes of Michael D. O’Brien also demand and command attention, as do the works of lesser known novelists, such as Glenn Arbery, Lucy Beckett, Dena Hunt, Eleanor Bourg Nicholson, and Chilton Williamson, Jr.. For those seeking lighter fare, there are the delightfully entertaining murder mysteries of Barbara Golder and Lorraine V. Murray. There are many other works of fiction, glaring at me from the shelf, which I have not mentioned, either for no particular reason or because I have not yet read them. The point is that there are simply too many to mention. And yet the potential readers who have not even heard of these authors are also too many to mention. It is this abyss which must be bridged if we are to renew the culture with a new literary revival. People need to know about these authors and their works. The gems are there to be mined. The fruit is ripe for the picking.
Let’s conclude by returning to the initial question: Should Twenty-First Literature be taught in college? The answer is an emphatic “no”, especially if we are speaking of the usual drivel that masquerades as literature in our deplorable age. And yet, in my dreams and my idle moments of fantasy, I can’t help wishing that I could introduce students to the all too rare and all too real gems that are there, if they know where to find them. As for those of us who are not students, we can simply go ahead and buy these wonderful books, nourishing ourselves with the living tradition of good literature which is enriching this century as it has enriched every century in the long and glorious history of Christian civilization.