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!)