Help Wanted: “novelists and poets published in the last sixty years”

In a comment on my ‘About’ page, Bruce Cooper makes the following request:

I have no academic qualification and, to a very large extent, have relied on the works of FR Leavis to guide my reading of poetry and fiction. The reliance has not, I believe, been without merit and I am indebted to him for my deep and ongoing enjoyment of English literature. But, sadly, I’ve had no such guidance for novelists and poets published in the last sixty years and my age (65), and the limited time I have to spend on this most cherished pursuit, press upon me to seek from those better informed a literary canon for the period as well as the names of good literary critics who might assist in finding, to some degree at least, what I’m looking for.

I’d be most grateful if you’d be willing to have a shot at this.

Bruce, I don’t consider myself to have deep expertise in recent poetry and fiction: my own primary field for teaching and research is Victorian literature. However, I do read outside that field, of course, and I also have had to get a lot smarter about more contemporary literature in order to teach our survey course in ‘British Literature After 1800.’ In that effort, I have found the Cambridge Companion series extraordinarily rich and helpful. There’s a volume on almost any subject you can think of, including, say, Contemporary Irish Poetry, Literature of World War II, Malcolm X, Modern British Women Playwrights, Twentieth-Century English Poetry, and Postmodernism.

I also spent some time with some general introductions to contemporary fiction, all of which I found clear and lively. One was the Blackwell Companion to The British and Irish Novel 1945-2000, edited by Brian Shaffer. In this volume, a range of experts address both general issues in the history and theory of the novel in this period and more than two dozen particular novelists from George Orwell to A. S. Byatt. Shaffer also has written a guide to Reading the Novel in English 1950-2000, also from Blackwell. And the essay collection Contemporary British Fiction, edited by Richard Lane, Rod Mengham, and Philip Tew, from Polity Press, also contains a lot of very interesting material.

I think it is possible to derive from these works (and from standard teaching texts such as the Norton Anthology) a pretty good sense of the ‘canon’ for this period, though just how long that list would become would depend on what, if any, limits you set. Even if you stick to “literature written in English,” setting aside work in translation, you’d have a lot to cover, taking into account works from many countries. The reading list for our Ph.D. comprehensive exams in modern British literature is several pages long, and we have separate exams for Canadian, American, and postcolonial literature–though to be sure, these lists are aimed at producing specialists, not well-informed general readers.

But let me throw this question open, as I know I have readers who are more knowledgeable than I about contemporary literature. Recommendations, anyone? How should Bruce proceed? What critical guides or voices would you recommend? Where would you look (or, for that matter, not look) for help in compiling a manageable reading list for novelists and poets published in the last sixty years?

P.S. I have thought of making a kind of regular ‘ask the professor’ feature here. I get questions all the time, from students but also from friends, family, and colleagues, from “Why do we call George Eliot ‘George Eliot’ when we don’t call Charlotte Bronte ‘Currer Bell’?” to “What would you recommend for my first attempt at reading Dickens?” or “What’s so great about Finnegan’s Wake if nobody can understand what it says?” I don’t always have a good answer, but I often know someone I can ask. Do you think that would be fun? What would you ask? What has someone asked you that you couldn’t answer? Maybe this could even be a bit of a column in Open Letters (“Open Questions”?), if there’s enough interest. (I should probably ask this general question in a more prominent place eventually, but this seemed a good time to at least air it in a preliminary way!)

8 Comments to Help Wanted: “novelists and poets published in the last sixty years”

  1. August 3, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I like the Ask the Professor idea a lot!

    As for this question, I would recommend Anthony Burgess’s 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. That would cover the last 71 years, but pretty close. I confess that the book itself is still sitting on my TBR shelf, but I keep track of the list of books on Rose City Reader and have been reading them regularly. Burgess has not steered me wrong yet and some of his recommendations are real treasures.

  2. August 3, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Are we allowed to suggest a single book? If so, I think somewhere on this list should be To Kill A Mockingbird. Since I owe my career to Horton Foote, the beloved screenplay writer, I also suggest seeing the film–a work of art in its own right (write!)–after reading the novel.

    Also Catch 22?

  3. Bruce Cooper's Gravatar Bruce Cooper
    August 3, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Dear Rohan,

    I am most grateful to you and your readers for the prompt and kind response to my request for critical direction in English poetry and fiction over the last sixty years. I consider the reading suggestions invaluable and shall begin at once to research and study them in greater detail. There is little doubt they are likely to prove very helpful.

    I think your ‘ask the professor’ feature an idea of enormous value for, particularly, non-academics, like myself, seeking the occasional, albeit crucial, exchange with an academic of standing who can informally answer such inadvertent yet interesting questions.

    With best wishes
    Bruce

  4. August 4, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Bruce: I’m glad we’ve come up with some ideas. I’m going to ask around a bit at work, too, and see if there’s a narrative literary history that might itself be a good read (the Cambridge series is smart and all, but perhaps kind of dry for the non-academic reader!).

  5. August 4, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I love the Ask The Professor series.

    It also seems to fit well with your dislike of the book club questions some publishers produce. Those who want more guidance in their reading often find these most easily and a source of alternative ways into literature for the general reader might be welcomed by many.

  6. August 7, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Well, for a dark, unconventional cache of 20th century novels, the New York Review of Books Classics (publishing imprint of the magazine) can’t be beat. NYRB obviously doesn’t only do modern stuff — they’ve reissued Lorenzo da Ponte and Richard Burton — but their reissues of 20th C works, especially translations, are pretty fantastic.
    It’s through them I discovered Elizabeth Hardwick’s furious eloquence; the astonisingly varied and inventive imagination of Christina Stead; the evisterating brilliance of Victor Serge; and J.L. Carr’s 1980 A Month in the Country, a small masterpiece I’ve written about on OLM’s webpages…. There’s many more where that came from: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/

    And I like rather love Martin Amis’ novels, but his literary memoir “Experience” is a way engaging — if entirely subjective — tour of post-war literature woven into the story of his coming of age as a writer, a son, a man.

    Then, one brushed-aside masterpiece I like to spread the word about is Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s 1932 Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage Au Bout de la Nuit). Celine’s stock as a writer has plumetted because he was a reprehensible, evil person who wrote some astonisingly hateful anti-semitic screeds. But the best of his fiction (which I’d argue Journey to the End of the Night is) transcends his wretched politics and creates one of the most intense, singular fictional worlds of the last 100 years. He’s also a good starting starting point because the list of those influenced by him — Henry Miller, Gunter Grass, Ken Kesey, Denis Johnson — will lead you onward through some of the century’s most imaginative prose.

  7. August 7, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Ingrid! The NYRB series is a great suggestion–though I wonder how many of them fall into the ‘canonical’ category. But then there’s the reasonable question whether you want to read “the best” or “the best known.” The Amis memoir sounds like a particularly interesting way into the literary history.

  8. Bruce Cooper's Gravatar Bruce Cooper
    August 15, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all. You might be interested to learn I came across Terry Eagleton’s ‘The English Novel: An Introduction”, and although he gives an account focusing largely on the major works preceding Virginia Woolf, he provides an interesting survey of the novel after “Finnegans Wake” that gives useful pointers for reading the period and further study.

    I’m most grateful to you all for your kind, interesting and very useful comments.

    With best wishes,
    Bruce

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