Keeping Up with the Contemporaries: Modern Literature vs. the Classics

Written by Kaitlyn Coalson

Imagine you are walking into your local indie bookstore, your mouth still warm from your drip coffee and your spirits lightened by the friendly hipster behind the counter. The smell of used books fills your nose, and you feel your bank account being severely threatened almost immediately. After walking in, which side of the store do you drift to? Is it the upstairs corner with all the Classics or the front of the store with the new releases? Whatever your answer, it adds to the debate of what constitutes “good literature” that us English majors argue over, the same argument that American columnist B.R. Myers addresses in his article, “A Reader’s Manifesto.” According to Myers, contemporary writers are a threat to this concept of “good literature,” for he argues their ambiguous language has no literary merit. In fact, Myers claims that he will stick to reading the classics as they are the only novels to fulfill his intellectual agenda. However, the notion that literature only includes “classics” undermines the role of literary studies in the modern day, and the criticism of others for enjoying contemporary novels is merely a result of being pretentious and flying off the seat of a supersized ego. Within the English community, it must be accepted that no taste in literature is the correct one, and if we’re to avoid the pretentiousness exhibited by Myers, we simply cannot criticize each other for differing tastes in literature.  

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Myers categorizes modern prose into four categories: “evocative” prose, “edgy” prose, “spare” prose, and the generic literary prose. Within each type of prose, Myers increasingly undermines contemporary literature by claiming it is too ambiguous, arguing that the classics are much easier to understand. With comments like these, it is easy to picture Myers sitting in a place like Paschall Bar with perfect posture and rounded glasses, reading his Alighieri while he warms himself by a pile of burning contemporary novels. This level of pomp is seen largely within the pseudo-intellectuals, commonly known as the people who always raise their hand in your English classes, but I digress. The fact that Myers spends so much time bashing contemporary prose is indicative of his superiority complex, and this is the first indicator of him being That Guy in the Bar Who Thinks He is Smarter Than You™.

If you’re an English major who resembles Myers, may you delicately get off your high horse and go spend your time pleating your dress shirts instead of trolling the comment section under “Contemporary Novels” on Reddit. Anyone who dwells on literary classics, as well as wholly fills their bookshelf with them, should be accused of romanticizing the past, placing literature from different times on a higher pedestal. Although every time period comes with people who reject contemporary literature (there were sure to be critics of Dickens or Brontë or Austen during their times), the criticism of other literature lovers’ tastes is simply being pretentious and nothing more.

People are predisposed to enjoy what they enjoy as a culminating factor of their background, values, and personal definitions of literature. While the appreciating the classics isn’t a bad thing (we all love our Pride and Prejudice, admit it), it is only fair as readers, we let other readers find their happiness within literature while escaping criticism. The fact that one enjoys a contemporary romance novel more than a Dickens novel is not indicative of their lack of intelligence. This is why as readers or writers, we must be cognizant of our motivations in reading or studying literature, either to appreciate or to feign being an intellectual, as well as keep pretentious literary views outside of the field.