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

Rhetoric & Reviews

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.

Romeo and Juliet: from Teens to Twenties

Rhetoric & Reviews

Written by Elizabeth Lyle

In ninth grade, I read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I don’t remember much about what we learned except summary, and that we watched the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film adaptation Romeo + Juliet. Everyone in my class thought the plot was ridiculous—two immature teenagers committing suicide because they can’t be together, falling in love after one meeting?—and that the movie was bizarre. Why is Elizabethan English being thrown into modern-day Miami, with guns, a drag queen, and expensive cars? What made Romeo and Juliet beautiful was lost on my peers, and quite frankly, I couldn’t grasp what made this play so classic, either.

Maybe it was my preconception of over-dramatized romance that made me turn my nose up at Romeo and Juliet when I was in high school. Maybe I wanted to be cooler than that or just feel like love was something that couldn’t touch me or make me feel like I could be swept up into something transcendent. Romeo and Juliet idealized sacrificial love, and young love, for centuries after its premiere in 1597, and continues to permeate popular culture. My inability to get past this roadblock prevented me from identifying other important themes blatant in this play. After my reread, I was surprised to find that the theme that interested me the most wasn’t young love—it was masculinity.

It took me six years to finally reread Romeo and Juliet, as I did just a couple of weeks ago for my Shakespeare and film class. I finally understood the beginnings of what makes this classic so…classic. We read the play in tandem with the film Romeo + Juliet (1996), and my collegiate reading and viewing convinced me that everyone needs to reread this play (and watch Luhrmann’s adaptation immediately after).

Now, Shakespeare was no feminist. Once you’ve read Taming of the Shrew, literally a play about men marrying strong women to break them down (“tame them”), this becomes abundantly clear. In Romeo and Juliet, however, Shakespeare clearly critiques the toxic masculinity that the young Montague and Capulet boys represent. He links tragic events of the play to the male characters’ displays of violence, such as Tybalt and Mercutio’s deaths. Luhrmann, interestingly (and I think brilliantly) maintains this theme in the film—the machismo of the Montague and Capulet boys in undeniable—in contrast to the representation of Mercutio as a drag queen. Luhrmann decides to emphasize the poisonous effects of potentially violent maleness in conjunction with strong femininity.

The use of drag in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation encourages a view of powerful femininity by taking something historically negative (femininity) and translating it into something to celebrate and applaud. Admittedly, in ninth grade, being gay wasn’t something people talked about at my school. And being a drag queen? I don’t think we even understood what that meant. I remember watching Mercutio lip-sync in women’s clothing to “Young Hearts” and thinking it was odd, unable to interpret why he was doing it—or perhaps feeling so uncomfortable that I was unwilling to think about the why of it. In a college setting, where you come across different and interesting new people every day, you’re free to ask the question why. After rewatching this movie, I found myself asking many questions and genuinely wanting to know the answers: Why was femininity something Baz Luhrmann felt was important to emphasize, and why did he show that through drag? Why was everything fast-paced, energetic, neon, unforgiving? Why did Romeo and Juliet keep falling into a big pool of water?

In college, the way we learn changes—it’s no longer just about learning the material, it’s about comprehension, analysis, pulling material apart and putting it back together to create our own understanding. To put it simply, we exercise our critical thinking skills. I think it’s important to reevaluate this film and its source text after high school, to rediscover the themes that make Romeo and Juliet so persistent—enduring love, individualism, societal constraints, sexuality, and male violence. My rereading allowed me to genuinely enjoy the play, in all of its over-the-top romance and machismo and tragedy. Re-watching the movie allowed me to ask the questions I wasn’t willing to ask when I was younger, and appreciate the brilliant acting of Claire Danes as Juliet and Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo. Maybe when you think of Shakespeare, you don’t think of the modern mode of gender, and you probably shouldn’t—but the new ways in which I thought of the play made the reread (and re-watch) worth it.

An Interview with Professor Amos Magliocco

Rhetoric & Reviews

maglioccoAmos Magliocco is a senior lecturer who specializes in creative writing at the University of North Texas. He is also the author of Remedy Wheel, winner of the Pushcart Prize, and has been published in literary journals such as Redivider, Isotope, Yemassee, RE:AL, Oxford Magazine, and Poets & Writers. Mr. M, as he is fondly known amongst his students, taught the Intermediate Creative Fiction Writing class I took last spring. In class, he shared his tips for writing creatively and held workshops for us to learn how to critique and edit our work. I spoke with him again recently to discuss more of his ideas on writing.  

I’m interested in what got you into teaching. Was it something you always wanted to do?

I’ve loved reading and writing fiction since I was little, so it was kind of natural that I would try my hand at it and see if I could do it. Then I went to grad school and met a bunch of other people that were trying to be fiction writers. I think for a lot of creative writers, teaching is the accidental consequence. For fiction, now, you can’t write short stories and be able to pay for an apartment in Manhattan like Fitzgerald. There aren’t many outlets like that anymore, so the university is a very comfortable and satisfying place for writers to not only share their knowledge about what they’ve learned to do, but continue to do what they love while having health insurance.

The field has definitely been revolutionized. In what ways do you market yourself to combat those changes?

Well, the publishers really expect their authors to pitch in with publicity efforts. They want you to maintain a very active online presence, like on Facebook or Twitter. That includes sending out copies yourself and contacting reviewers. It’s easy to have a media presence when you already have a platform. There’s a lot more responsibility for the writers now to promote their own work.

You’ve had many essays featured in literary magazines. How did you decide what magazines you would submit to, and where did you hear about them? Did you base where you would submit off content or genre, or was there something else?

Actually, you really should think about where your favorite authors are submitting. For example, there’s a book on my desk called Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. So if I thought my work has something in common with Kelly Link’s, I would open up that collection and see where her work was published originally. There’s a list of the literary magazines each short story was published in before she released her collection. That would be my target list. Also, think about what literary journals you like to read. If you can visit their website, they usually have a few sample stories that will give you an idea of the types of work they’re willing to publish. Just try to find a best fit. That’s how I tell people to start.

When you begin to think about where you’d like to be published, how do you decide what to write about?

You have to write about what compels you. Think about what interests you about human nature and circumstance and the choices people make. Stories tend to arrive at your doorstep if you begin to wonder about why people are the way they are or do the things they do. One way to answer those questions is to write about it. Most fiction writers are trying to learn about something as they write. They use fiction as a means to discover something about the human condition that they didn’t already know.

What is one of the most surprising things to you about the writing and editing process?

It doesn’t get any easier. No matter how often you do it, every story is like starting all over again. I think the writing gets better, but it doesn’t get easier, which is surprising because you expect to get better at things the more you do it.

How much research goes into your writing process?

When I’m writing historical fiction, a tremendous amount of research factors into my creative process, which is why I hope I never write a piece of historical fiction again. It can really gobble you up. Even writing in the contemporary setting can include a lot of research. You want to know enough to fake it. Not everything you write will be in your realm of expertise, especially when you have different characters that are unique in their lives.

Have you ever read anything that inspired you to think differently about the way you read or write?

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion changed my opinion about creative nonfiction. I definitely had the sense that Didion’s book gave me permission to write about things I probably wouldn’t have written about. Before I read her book, I didn’t understand creative nonfiction. I didn’t read much of it. It didn’t occur to me why stories about yourself would be useful. As a fiction writer, I thought fiction was the highest form of literary art, and everything else was underneath. Didion’s book made me understand that I was completely wrong.

There are a lot of different definitions for what people consider literary. What’s yours?

That’s hard. I think my definition would be writing that achieves a high degree of artistic value that illuminates the human condition in a way that most readers find transcendent and satisfying.

I think it’s important to have that definition in mind when you’re writing. However, what do you think is the benefit of taking time away from writing? I know that in your free time you are an avid storm-chaser.

I am! I think the benefit of taking time away from writing is to collect more stories, to hear more snippets of dialogue in coffee shops, and to read. I think most writers, when they write, are responding to something they’ve read—not directly, but artistically. Whenever we step away from writing, we’re picking up a book, and then we are inspired to write some more.

Do you write every day?

No; I wish I could. During the school semester, I don’t write as routinely. I think the idea that you have to write every day becomes a rule that when people fail, they feel badly about themselves and throw away the idea that they’re a writer. The truth is, most writers don’t write every day. It doesn’t matter if you do or not. It only matters that you make a habit out of it. There’s a difference in being a hobbyist and a writer. Try and make an appointment with yourself, and schedule a time to write.

That sounds like a great way to overcome writer’s block.

Yes! Flannery O’Connor said that sometimes she would make an appointment and just sit at her desk, and nothing would happen, but she wanted to be there just in case it did. She had a great chapter in her book, Mystery in Manners, called “The Habit of Art” that spoke about her habits. It had great ideas about how to approach a routine and get into the habit of creating literary art.

What are your thoughts on bad reviews?  

Well, I’ve never been reviewed in The New York Times or anything like that, so I’m not sure how that would feel, but I don’t think that reviewers are people that writers should try to impress. Bad reviews are just about drama and retweets, so there’s no benefit in reading negative comments about your work.

Who are some of your favorite writers and why?

Right now, I’m really liking Kelly Link’s work. I’m a huge Marilynne Robinson fan. She wrote Gilead, which is one of my favorite novels. I’ve been rereading Dennis Johnson lately because he’s brilliant. Wells Tower, who wrote Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, dazzled me. He was actually visiting UNT a couple of years ago. Cormac McCarthy is wonderful as well. Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall was one of the best works of historical fiction I’ve ever read. I think these are authors who have great use of creative language and explore the human psyche very well.

What advice do you have to students looking to get published?

Read. Read what’s being published now, like short stories and the Pushcart collection. It’s great to be familiar with the old masters and the classics, because you need to know that, but if you want to publish in 2017, you need to be in 2017. Read widely. Think about books and publishing as a conversation, and respond to that.

Interested students can take Intermediate Fiction Writing, American Literature, or Rhetoric and Composition with Mr. M next semester. He is currently working on the manuscript for his next novel, which is a work of historical fiction about a couple who spend their 20s travelling to London to discover biographical information about Shakespeare.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Emily Pearson is the Online Editor for the North Texas Review. This is her second year as part of the staff.