the imaginative conservative logo

Joseph Pearce

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-Century 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.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
6 replies to this post
  1. Thank you so much for publishing this list of authors. I have only encountered a few of these folks. I have been desperate to find decent writers in this God Forsaken time and do not have the time nor the notion of how to find them. My basic rule has been to read no novel or poem written after 1950. There are exceptions of course but those exceptions are based on age and are always older writers from a previous era. After a few bad tries I determined to read nothing written by any young writer. It is simply intolerable to have to read book after book influenced by political correctness or modern psychology and leftist politics. So yes a big positive vote to your idea and I do hope it starts a trend since I have come to believe that the education of the USA citizen is nothing but dismal any more.

  2. Well said.

    Contemporary art, music, literature, architecture, and other expressions of civilization are evaluated by the examples, both the good and the questionable, given us in the past. We do not use the past as a (God help us) comfort zone or other expression of withdrawal, fear, or ossification, but as part of our evaluation of creativity (or, as CSL would say more accurately, sub-creativity) in our time.

  3. In terms of recent literature (and I do mean literature and not mere entertainment) would be “I Am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe. Written in the early 2000’s, it takes a scathing look at the modern college scene as seen through the eyes of his main character, who has just arrived at the fictional Dupont U as a freshman. This book did not get as much critical acclaim as some of his others, but that’s not because it’s not as good, but rather Wolfe simply took more risks and went after any number of sacred cows, especially the kind that the typical left wing book reviewer wants to see left alone. The left wing, which pretty much runs academia, does not want to be made to look ridiculous or worse, and that’s exactly what Wolfe’s book does.

  4. Any college course on twenty-first-century literature that focuses on Catholic writers must include the novels of Lee Oser. All three of his novels Out Of What Chaos (2007), The Oracles Fell Silent (2013), and Oregon Confetti (2017) have deep theological and intellectual roots. Students of literature, in particular, would benefit from his willingness to engage modernity with wit and irony. But all readers would find Oser’s form admirable and content accessible.

  5. Like Francis Jeffrey’s own famous dismissal of Wordsworth and Coleridge as poets whose “diction has no where any pretensions to elegance or dignity” (1807), this crass denunciation of the “drivel” of contemporary literature clings to an outmoded and anemic view of the “canon.” To assume the only literature worthy of the classroom are those texts which have stood the “test of time” is to commit the worst kind of literary snobbery. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis argues in his ‘Experiment in Criticism,’ is it precisely this type of reading for “meritoriousness” which signals the “unliterary” man. So long as contemporary literature is consigned merely to “idle moments of fantasy” rather than prescient engagement in the classroom, we can assume the continued decline of the Humanities more broadly as we close the door to the world around us–preferring a static sense of “tradition” rather than mapping its movement in lively ways today.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: