09 October 2008

Who's writing the writing that will define our time?

Every now and then, a writer or writers come along who become representative for their time. Sometimes that designation fades, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the top authors of their time, authors whom everyone thought would be instantly eternalized as symbols of an era, fade into the out of print or at least obscure netherworld of the literary imagination.

I can think of a few writers in that latter category, like James T. Farrell. Farrell had a long and productive literary career that began and peaked in the 1930's. His Studs Lonigan Trilogy was required reading in college English courses in the 1950's and 1960's. These days, you probably won't find a Farrell book on the syllabus for anything other than an upper level or graduate course dedicated to the 1930's or Social Realism.

On the other hand, it's pretty easy to identify authors who have stuck evocatively to their times, at least after half a century has passed. F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind immediately. Jack Kerouac. Jane Austen. I'd argue for Steinbeck as well. This exercise could continue: Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster, Chucky Dickens.

It's immeasurably harder to identify these writers in our times, in part because it's harder to tell who will last and who will be a mere flash in the pan. It's also harder to tell because very few authors do get designated as top of the pile representatives of their time. Faulkner for instance remains an immensely respected author, but I would suspect that no one reads him because they identify him so closely with the 1920's or 1930's. Zora Neale Hurston's output doesn't establish her as the voice of the 1930's rural South either.

Again, this isn't about great writers, favorite authors, etc. It's about figuring out who has written the literature that will be understood in the future to be about the latest fin-de-siecle. I mean, I absolutely adore Jeanette Winterson's work, but will those texts be the touchstone for the late 1980's and 1990's UK?

So I'm asking, who is evoking our era (considered roughly as 1990-present, exceptions allowed) in ways that are not only extremely powerful now, but also likely to continue to retain that power for future generations?

5 comments:

JES said...

DeLillo, maybe. I think he's done an excellent job straddling the two centuries. Or, umm, Ian McEwan on the other side of the water.

My HS Latin teacher had a sign tacked up over the blackboard: "Latin aids one to confront the present, in the light of the past, for future understanding." Substitute "a classic novel" (or author) for "Latin," and that might work in this context.

Had a favorite college prof, the late Richard Mitchell, who knew James Farrell. But he was never able to convert anybody else to the faith, including me. [wincing]

cuff said...

Jes: As you probably noted from my list, I'm much stronger with American writers, and in particular mid-20th century. I have yet to read McEwan, though I should, I know. DeLillo is tremendous...I'm just not sure if he evokes the era in an unforgettable way. Maybe he does. So far I'm leading with Richard Russo, but he's so identified with upstate New York and New England that it might be a hard sell.

ma said...

I don't even know. Cormac McCarthy? Am I caring too much about the west?

Washington Cube said...

DeLillo was at the top of my list. I heard him lecture a few years ago at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and he said as a youth, he gobbled down fiction, but around his forties, (and ongoing,) he only wanted to read non-fiction. I find something similiar happening to myself, although I still do read fiction, but not with the same passion.

Cormac McCarthy (and I don't view him as a Western writer, per se, but someone who understands the human psyche), Annie Proulx, Alexander Theroux (who publishes rarely...sit next to your unabridged dictionary when you read him,), the British troika: Julian Barnes/Martin Amis/Ian McEwan. There are others.

To get back to your original musing (and Farrell,) I wish I could remember who it was, but I went to the library recently looking for a book by an author I was sure would be there, and there was nothing. Not one book, and a search of the catalog showed not one book at any other branch. I stared at the bookshelves stunned. How could they not have _____?

I remember a high school teacher obsessed with Sinclair Lewis. Who on earth reads him anymore? Frank O'Hara ruled his time. Who reads him? Theodore Dreiser anyone? About two weeks ago, I began rereading (insert Cuff chuckle here at my "rereadings") Kerouac. I read Town and the City (his first and very Thomas Wolfe influenced....and who reads HIM anymore?), Big Sur, On the Road...which has finally hit a point where's it's not aging very well, and Cuff knows I was back rereading Henry Miller last week when I thought I would ditch his books.

I will tell you the books I return to (and this is why they call them "classic" folks,) the Greeks and Romans. I read a lot of diarists from the "Louis" period in France, but I read ...not for someone who "nails" their era the way Dickens did, but for someone who can write out a statement on humanity that makes you scooch up in bed and go "ouch."

cuff said...

MA: I have a difficult time seeing McCarthy as representative of our time any more than Faulkner is representative of his. I haven't read enough McCarthy -- Child of God and All the Pretty Horses -- so maybe I'm just not getting it.

Cube: I see Sinclair Lewis due for a revival, at least academically...Babbitt is a great critique of the market-triumphalist 1920's that has great applicability today. I don't really read for authors who are evocative of their time, either; I just wonder who ours are.