Author Topic: Classic & Contemporary Literature  (Read 5311 times)

Vir Unis

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Classic & Contemporary Literature
« on: March 19, 2008, 07:46:15 AM »
Ok, maybe I'm a literature snob. 8)

My favorite authors are;

(in no particular order)

Fyodor Dostoevsky
DH Lawrence
Henry Miller
James Joyce
William Blake
Thomas Mann
Ralph Ellison
Vladimir Nabokov
Philip K Dick
Stanislaw Lem

All of these writers are from 19th and early 20th century.  Where are authors of this caliber today?  I've read some contemporary literature, and, outside of Toni Morrison, haven't really come across too many that can write prose the way these writers did.  Is it part of this whole dumbing down in American/Western culture, this sort of fear of intellectualism?  Improper grammar and spelling is in rampant use by marketing (Got Milk?) and is seemingly becoming part of everyday language.  Proper English and prose in writing seems to be increasingly devalued and I think it's reflective in literature today.  So many emails and blogs are littered with misspellings, run-on sentences, etc. etc.

Or, am I just not getting exposed to the writers that are as good as the above.  My wife seems to think I need to give contemporary literature more of a chance, but when you read something as rich as 'Magic Mountain' or 'Death in Venice' by Thomas Mann or 'Brothers Karamazov' by Dostoevsky it's hard to get the same deep level when reading writers today, who may write good stories (i.e. Stephen King), but really aren't schooled in magic prose the way things used to be.  Is this art of literary prose in a state of decay?  Any thoughts on this?

VU


Gemini Ambience

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #1 on: March 19, 2008, 08:13:52 AM »
Style always changes; as does syntax.

American English grammar and rhetoric is working towards reducing sentence structure. British English is the exact opposite; its current trends are to expand sentence structures. The opposing evolution is becoming so different that I think it's by 2012 that the two will be considerent separate languages.

As far as your reaction to contemporary styles, I'd have to side with your wife. You don't need archaic, antiquated structures with tons of vocabulary to write quality fiction; you need to understand plot and sublot, how to classify your characters, and give them depth. Also, authors reflect current trends in their genres; it is only natural that they address contemporary issues and align them with ageless/timeless archetypes and mythos. But as with all things subjective, if you wear "blinders" over your consciousness and assume just because an author is contemporary that his or her work will not hold up to classic authors' styles, I think you're cheating yourself from many beautiful stories in the world.

Any "deep level" is just your mind's way of realizing interconnectivity between the novel and your own reality. I can have an epiphany reading a bazooka wrapper if the timing and conditions are appropriate for me to develop widsom based off what the wrapper said.  :)  Granted, that's a bit of an extreme example, but it shows the point that nobody will read the same exact novel and walk away with the exact same impression. That's the beauty of art.

I judge a novel/author not so much by the techniques used to create their stories, but moreso on how it leaves me feeliing while I'm reading and after I finish the book. It almost always comes down to making characters that are believable, fantastic, and heroic. When the characters are so believable that you stop realizing you're reading about them and have been swallowed into the story with them...that's when I say the novel is well written.

Growing up John Steinbeck was one of my favorite authors. Some of my all-time favorite classics are John Knowles's "A Separate Peace," Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist," and William Golding's "The Lord of the Flies." Some contemporary novels I highly recommend are Anne Rice's "Cry to Heaven," Ursula Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness," and Ken Follett's "The Pillars of the Earth."

But my all-time hero in all things artistic is Oscar Wilde. In my opinion, he's the greatest author of the English-speaking culture to date.

Peace,

Jim

Vir Unis

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #2 on: March 19, 2008, 08:24:23 AM »
I do read contemporary literature sometimes.  That's why I'm able to make the comparison between the two.  I don't ignore contemporary literature completely; I just am fascinated by the way James Joyce writes, especially in Ulysses or A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man.  The chapter in the latter about the stench of hell is one of the most vivid chapters I've ever read.  Where is that kind of writing today?

Expanding sentence structures in British English is excellent.  You're right on target about the two.  American English seems to be about reducing everything down to tiny little bites.  I don't like it!  When I read a book I want flowery and descriptive language not little misspelled tidbits that keep the mind restrained rather than expanded.  So, I think these two opposing ideologies on grammar is exactly what is wrong, IMO, with contemporary literature.  Does it mean there aren't any great writers out there today?  No.  I just haven't found many.

Yeah, I also loved Lord of The Flies.  Explains the corporate environment I sometimes find myself in very accurately.   ;)

I'm sure someone can get a deep level from just about anything.  I'm not disputing that.  Ultimately, I'm just lamenting the decline of the literary arts in contemporary popular literature.  I'm also sure there are "unknown" writers out there writing at the level of the classic masters....

VU

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #3 on: March 19, 2008, 08:39:58 AM »
I go along with the assertion that there are fewer great, titanic, "serious" writers of literature today.

I disagree that there exist today no serious, substantial writers whose work can be stacked up next to Faulkner or Joyce or Nabakov.

I'd mention:

William T. Vollman
Haruki Murakami
William Gass
V.S. Naipaul
Paulo Coelho
Doris Lessing
Jose Saramago
Toni Morrison
Joyce Carol Oates
Raymond Carver
Alan Hollinghurst

Probably there are others.  A couple of these I'll admit I haven't read but based on what I've heard of them, I think they fit into something like the same category as these bigger names.  Some of them haven't built a substantial body of work yet (or won't, like Carver, due to dying young) but the quality and seriousness is there.
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Vir Unis

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #4 on: March 19, 2008, 08:54:22 AM »
Yeah, I'd agree about Toni Morrison.  I absolutely loved The Bluest Eye.  I think Dorothy Allison deserves a mention as well.  Bastard out of Carolina, as related by my wife who actually read it, is excellent.  It's been on my list to read it for quite some time.  James Baldwin, "Go Tell It on The Mountain" was equally fantastic.  I did read that one.  While he's not necessarily a contemporary writer he's a lot more current than my previous list of classics.  All three of these writers focus on the marginalized and minorities in our society.  Their books really exhibit and moral and political force, which I think also lacks in modern literature.  I can certainly link their writings to Dostoevsky for sure.  Yes, the style of writing does change, but these three I'm sure will be treated by history in much the same way Dostoevsky and others have.  Also, my wife really likes Barbara Kingsolver as well and has recommended her to me several times.

APK

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #5 on: March 19, 2008, 08:55:26 AM »
I think checking into reading lists for university contemporary literature courses could be fruitful and instructive.

I also believe that, like the music realm, there is a LOT of material being published and its difficult to separate the great from the merely ok. But there is probably just as much great as in the past.

Plus, when we reach a certain age what we look for in literature is close to what we already enjoy and respect. Our tastes are formed. You can't find a contemporary Dostoevsky to beat the old Dostoevsky. No point looking.


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Vir Unis

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #6 on: March 19, 2008, 09:06:37 AM »
Think about William Blake!  Where is that kind of intense insight into spirituality and the human condition today?  The poetry and prose of his writing is so elegant and so articulate....Nobody can beat him or the old Dostoevsky.  I guess I shouldn't use this to necessarily devalue literature today.  Still think literature, as a whole, is on the decline right now. :(

mgriffin

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #7 on: March 19, 2008, 09:15:34 AM »
Though I do agree that there's been a bit of a shift away from literature as being seen as "important" by mainstream society, I think you might be falling victim to what I'd call the "fallacy of decline."  The fallacy of decline works this way: 

An observer lists a couple of dozen truly great titans of a given art form, whose work spans different eras and movements.  This list is cherry-picked from multiple generations of creative talent, maybe even multiple centuries (I mean, you're listing 18th, 19th and 20th century works as representive of "classic literature").

The observer then looks at people working in the same art form in a much narrower modern timeframe, and concludes that the fact that our modern era does not have as many "titans" or great, historically significant figures, is proof of a decline in that art form.

Another way of looking at it could be, literature produces only a few great figures per generation, but as history recedes, our perception compresses together several prior generations and evaluates them together as the "classic era," while comparing against only one current, modern generation.  The "historic all-stars" group will always beat today's team, by comparison, but I think this is based on an unfair comparison.
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Vir Unis

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #8 on: March 19, 2008, 09:41:25 AM »
All good points Mike.  But, I still have yet to come across the quality of work that has been produced in the past.  I don't doubt it's out there, perhaps, as APK put it, there is so much material being produced, it's very hard to to find the ones that are of this caliber.


jblock

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #9 on: March 19, 2008, 10:08:09 AM »
The only literature I read is poetry. My favorite more contemporary poets are:

John Ashbery
Philip Lamantia
Henri Coulette
Howard Nemerov
Louis Zukofsky
Charles Reznikoff
George Oppen
Robert Creeley
Charles Olsen
Jonathan Block
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jkn

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #10 on: March 19, 2008, 10:36:29 AM »
I really love reading - it's a favorite pastime of mine that as with everything else - has had to shift to the background more as other things take up the free time I have.    As a kid I remember reading 70 or 80 books a year - and I can still plow through a good book in a week if I make the time for it.    I've never been really a "literature" person in the sense of analyzing or looking deeply into metaphor and such.    I took a few lit classes in high school and college - but never studied too deeply.   I remember a few books in high school and college assignments that moved me in different ways - probably similar ones to many other people in the US studying during similar times (I was born in 1970...) - Toni Morrison, Joseph Conrad, Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand, etc...

Mostly though - I really love to read to "escape" - to be transported to worlds that don't exist - and for me it's fantasy.  I've read a ridiculous number of fantasy books and most of them multiple times.   I can easily sit and talk with someone about the ins and outs of Tolkien, Modesitt, Goodkind, Jordan, Donaldson, etc. etc.  all have their good and bad points. 

I also love the occassional biography/autobiography.  I can't recommend Peter Falk's book enough... wonderfully humorous and good spirited.

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uhurit

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #11 on: March 19, 2008, 08:10:30 PM »
Dostoyevsky is great! Unfortunately, my enjoyment of his novels was forever spoiled because I had to study them in school for three years, in his native language...and then write essays to be graded by some mean, bespectacled and sexually frustrated witch of a teacher. Yikes!

sraymar

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Re: Classic & Contemporary Literature
« Reply #12 on: March 20, 2008, 05:02:28 PM »
Haven't made enough time for much literature, just a few books. I think Tolkien turned me off, reading his stuff is like hacking through the Amazon with a machete. I opted for TV and film instead and now regret it. I'm certain a good portion of my brain is rotted away. Right now I'm reading Confessions of an Economic Hitman, love the non-fiction. Must be saving the lit for my retirement years. Lots of good examples listed in this thread.

Steve
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