26 October 2006

Seminar in Contemporary Fiction

I'm thinking through what I'll teach in my spring grad seminar in contemporary fiction. My department's felt--up til now--that the course should introduce students to a variety of texts from 1945 to present, and that this variety should let them taste some realism, some minimalism, some postmodernism, some feminist literature, etc. Pretty standard, from what I've seen.

Certainly I want my students (mostly our creative writing MAs) to sample a range of texts. I feel they need this.

On the other hand, as I wrote in a recent email to Cam Tatham, I also feel that contemporary literature can no longer, in any context, mean post-1945, and I'm leaning toward thinking it doesn't even have to involve the 60s-80s.

And I don't feel like it's terribly contemporary unless it's in some ways innovative.

But I worry that I'm narrowing my students' views too greatly if I have a syllabus made up of Carole Maso and Lance Olsen and Kass Fleisher and Steve Tomasula and Shelley Jackson and Lidia Yuknavitch (my list to this point).


jdeshell said...

Dear Matt,
Things I think I've learned:
1) you can't teach everything you'd like the students to read in a single semester. Or a single year.

2) They love new stuff. Some are starved for it. There are so many different ways to tell stories.

3) They're getting 'traditonal' narratives everywhere. . it's only fair to them to show them new possibilities

4) These new possibilities are not always late 20th/early 21st century texts. Some are older (Quixote), some are from different cultures (Genji), some are in the canon but are still "radical" or innovative (Poe, Melville).

5) Innovative fiction by women still doesn't have much pub or exposure. It's almost a duty to expose this to students.

6) Readers won't know about this stuff from other venues, other sources. If they don't learn the names from you, where will they get them from? TV? Bookstores? Oprah?

Excuse the pendantry. J

Lance Olsen said...

Great suggestions, Jeffrey, one and all. I'd just like to underline your sixth point by picking up on something you said, Matt. You mentioned you were in touch with Cam Tatham. Well, as some of you may know, Cam recently retired after teaching since 1968 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; now, as a professor emeritus, he teaches one course a year. His specialty has always been . . . um, whatever it is we do: postmodernism, innovative fiction, experimentalism, eccentric prose, pick a label.

Cam and I exchanged a few emails last week as well, and something he said has stuck with me. I don't believe he'd mind my sharing it with you, since it speaks directly and importantly to we're discussing here. After mentioning that the course he'll be doing next spring will be on contemporary fiction, he wrote:

it continues to strike me as ironic that i'm one of the oldest teachers in my department, yet i'm the one who's been teaching 'avant garde fiction' (that is, you guys) for the last 30+ years. they just hired a young guy good in 'modernism,' but still no one very interested in post 1960 AmLit.-- which, i guess, guarantees me a job for the foreseeable future ....

That's become a kind of parable for me this past week, and one that jibes well with what both you and you, Matt and Jeffrey, are saying. Students will always be taught the conventional narratives our dominant cultures want repeated in conventional ways until most of us actually start believing them, but it's pretty much up to a minority within and without the university to keep alive the tradition of the anti-tradition, the narratives that posit other ways of telling and living.

I wonder: is it really possible that those alternative narratives are slipping out of the pedagogical conversation at universities?

Were they really ever really in them?

Unknown said...

Well, yeah. It seems to me that the reason a seminar in so-called contemporary fiction tends to begin at 1945 is that the professors of those modernism seminars end with work somewhere in that range, and even in the broadest contemporary literature, or fiction, course, they tend to finish with someone like Toni Morrisson, rarely Don DeLillo. (Really DeLillo will probably cap that occasional seminar in so-called Postmodern Literature). When I talk about scholars here, I'm making a respectful distinction between traditional literary scholars and writer-scholars, and I'm also not intending to disparage in any way the quality of their scholarship, scholarship which I'm sure is very fine.

But, no. I have a feeling that in a majority of programs, undergrad and grad, the main people who are out there promoting difficult work--however you want to slice it, and I'm in full agreement with Jeffrey, El Jefe, that this work extends far back beyond America's 1945 (I mean, yeah, a significant year for a whole lot of peoples, but really aren't we just then tying our concept of literature's continuum to the Industrial West?)--those people are writers of difficult work, who are familiar with those books, know under which beds and stones to find them, and have spent a significant amount of time thinking and talking and writing about them.

And what's wrong with that? Or, rather, what's wrong with you, Matt, teaching the books on your list so far? Nobody else will. Except others like you. Jefe makes some fine points all around, and again, I'm in agreement that you can't teach it all, as often as you may realize how much more they need. I try to supplement what I don't have time to deliver with excerpts or essays of those writers whose work we may not study in the class, to always be trying to create some context. This, too, can be frustrating when you realize your context at their age was much richer than theirs. Sigh. Or that, simply because of the exigencies of college curriculums, they aren't coming into the class with the context you'd like. For me, I feel even more pressure to create a richer context so that I can teach the kinds of books you've listed.

Anyway, while I used to feel that I was, perhaps building a readership for folks like us by throwing DeLillo and Pynchon at them as entrees (delectable) to more contemporary work, now I've come to see that as a limited and selfish view. I still use those books and others, but now I think of it more as a responsibility to them to show them what contemporary means. Particularly if their plan is to write. Even if they aren't inclined toward experimental work (isn't it all experimental?), they should have a sense of what they're up against intellectually, and the great diversity of that thing, that monster, they've told by those who haven't read Olsen and Tomasula and Fleischer is "postmodernism."

And, okay, so Pynchon might no longer be considered contemporary. How about Sebald? How about Deborah Eisenberg? How about Anne Carson, Yu, Pelevin, Ourednik, Diane Williams? We could all come up with our imperfect, incomplete lists. I've used all of these books (Just started Carson's PLAINWATER last night) with undergrads. Blew their freakin' minds. A serious challenge for them, but I've found that they really get into it. And the variation between the less difficult and the incomprehensible helps. They may not love it, may still reach, finally, for that comforting Oprah book club book, but they have seem the shifting sands of the promised land and a few might stay a while.

Um, yeah, so now whose pedantic? Basically, I'm saying, I hear what you're saying, Matt, and have had similar concerns, but I think context is the key. If your list is limiting, that's because it has to be. But it's as honest an expression of your sense of contemporary, as any another professor's. Perhaps more so. A sense of what lies beyond those limits, the threatning, the barbaric, and the not so, helps to cauterize the wounds.

Can I take your class?

Davis Schneiderman said...

Hi all;

I couldn't agree more with Lance and Jeffrey on this.

In bringing the &NOW Festival to Lake Forest College last spring, I wanted to expand exactly this conversation--to show the vibracy of the current creative moment in a dramatic fashion for those students at my college who often feel (because of what they have previously been exposed to), that there is nothing but avant-garde randomness to the fiction most of us teach.

Well, the positive reponse to seeing over 100 excellent artists, authors, and cross-media performers do their business had many a skeptical Lake Forest student finding much to be valued in these often unvalued narratives.

Just as Paulo Friere and educators of his variety would argue that to teach in a standard "banking" method (educator talks, students absorb) does a disservice to the community-based ways that useful knowledge is produced (what he calls "problem-posing"), I would argue that to teach only (or even predominantly) dominant narrative raises the same issues of cultural control.

These pomo texts are not simply other ways of making art (arguing for equal time...), but are, in their best form, radical linguistic critiques of the more dominant mode. To feel guilty about not including more of the other stuff is to respond to all sorts of institutional concerns (and I've felt this way also) that arise from the same system that produces the other narratives _inna feerst playce_.

I do agree with Jeffrey that there are many exciting antecendents to this contemporary work, much of it extremely "canonical" (Sterne, Rabelais, et al), and I would even argue that such texts are *more* central to canon formation that other, safer varieties.

This is also a question of context. At one moment, realism was the most radical thing an author could be doing--and there is certainly value in teaching a book like _The Age of Innocence_ (Wharton) as criticism of American's gilded age.

The texts to watch out for are those that uncriticallty replicate the vectors of the historical power--yet, more importantly,it's not so much the text...as the way we teach the text that counts.

I once split a bottom of wine with theorist William Spanos (as we interviewed a candidate for a job at SUNY-Binghamton. I was a grad student), and he gave me a great piece of advice. I was complaining about disliking _The Sun Also Rises_ and taking offense at the racial representation of the text.

Spanos, without missing a beat, told me: Of course, I teach against a book a like that. Don't ignore it, resituate it!

Good advice all around--even for "experminental" texts, which can just as often say all sorts of odious things on their own.

We must remain ever-vigilant, never doctrinaire, and never discouraged from shaking things up.



Lance Olsen said...

Speaking of establishing context for a course on the contemporary: in the past I've found it helpful to spend a week or three contextualizing our discussion by assigning readings from the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction; it provides short fictions and excerpts from the works of many of the writers and even some of the theorists (Pynchon, Burroughs, Barthelme, Reed, Gass, Vonnegut, Abish, Coover, Leyner, Barry, Spiegelman, Barth, Acker, Auster, DeLillo, Le Guin, Cixous, Haraway, Hooks, Baudrillard, Jameson, et al.) who inspired and inspire the writers whose texts you'd like to explore in some depth, Matt.

Ted Pelton said...

FWIW/ My last semester class in undergraduate environment, where I did want to give them some sort of semblance of canon, plus as well minority discourses, but also to indicate the present moment and the things Matt/Jeff discuss. Post-Atomic American Fiction, it was called:

Kerouac-On the Road
Baldwin-Giovanni's Room
Kingston-The Woman Warrior
Marcus-Notable American Women
Federman-My Body in Nine Parts

lotusgreen said...

sounds thrilling to me. any list that includes carole and lance is thrilling to me.

blonde said...

hey matt and all:

if we don't teach it, no one will.

so there's that.

also: one needs to dismiss any and all smack down threats from departments or audiences of any realm which relegate the present tense of radical and innovative art to some specialized mamby pamby realm of "experimental nonsense."

it's relevant to teach plato alongside postmodernism.

it's relevant to say postmodernism has given way.

it's relevant to abandon the former legitimized markers of literary history, since they were based on wars.

it's relevant to axe what is the present in literature.

it makes reading literature a socially relvant activity to include texts so far outside the mainstream that they highlight capitalism/economy, the market, the mode of production, language, the gap between entertainment and art, and the myth of meaning making.

go git it and don't let nobody stop you.

oh and this: it's not enough for us to have private intellectual discussions on these topics.

we need to put what we are saying into action.

i'll provide the berets.

love lidia

Anonymous said...

love lists. love teaching. love reading for teaching. this semester, for a 300 fiction workshop, my students read: hem's in our time; lance's nietzsche's kisses; maso's ava; calvino's if on a winter's night; satrapi's persepolis; jackson's my body; and peter markus's sleeping fish. it blew them away. some hated it, but most of the students were shocked that fiction could take that kind of shape. they were baffled that a story is flexible, that it's not just plot & climax.

why not teach what should be loved? i say should be because i'm that kind of egotistical person that believes that i have good taste, and i want to share that taste. i want others to at least have the chance to experience that taste, even if they find it disgusting, even if it's only because it rattles their paradigm, even if it's only because everyone should question what confines them, whether aesthetically or politically, because arguably, aesthetics are politics.

so for the sake of my young generation of writers, i beg you to expose us to the fiction/politics that makes us uncomfortable in its shape and content. and also, thanks for this blog. it makes my days more enjoyable.