Reading List for 21st Century Literature (Fall 2012)

BookCoversThis fall at George Mason I’m teaching a special topics course called ENGLISH 442: 21st Century Literature. My department reserves the 442 course number for “American Literary Periods” and this usually means some recognizable—not to mention canonized—era of American literature, comprised of works that share certain stylistic and thematic characteristics. Nineteenth century naturalism. Twentieth century modernism. Post-war postmodernism. But what is 21st Century literature? What are its defining narrative modes and concerns?

The hell if I know.

I’m not going to answer these questions in ENGH 442. Beyond looking at publishing dates, it’s futile, I believe, to make any claims about the distinguishing features of 21st century literature. The simple fact is this: 21st century literature is whatever people are writing in the 21st century.

Yes, the first 12 years of the new millennium have been marked by September 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and a crippling, never-ending recession. But the new millennium has also been marked by the rise of YouTube, Justin Bieber, and Minecraft. What 20 novels best reflect the spirit of the 21st century so far? What 10 novels? And, given that my goal is to teach for uncoverage rather than coverage, what 5 novels?

It’s an almost insurmountable challenge to come up with a representative reading list of 21st century literature.

So I didn’t.

Instead, to assemble my reading list I came up with a rather arbitrary criterion, which is no more arbitrary than any other criterion would have been. I’ve decided to focus my 21st century literature class on works that are somehow reworking or engaging with earlier works of literature and film. I’m not talking adaptations. I’m also not interested in classic works of literature, rewritten with vampires. And I don’t mean retellings from an existing minor character’s point of view.

I mean deep entanglements in a web of intertextuality.

I’m delighted with the list I came up with. It spans genres and formats, and ranges from the comedic to the elegiac. The reading list includes some of my favorite texts to teach as well as some I’ve long wanted to teach. And here it is:

In addition to these six works (which are not all works of fiction, though they certainly are all works of literature), I will have some short stories, as well as historical and theoretical pieces scattered throughout the semester. Plus, a few tricks it is not yet time to reveal.

All in all, ENGH 442 should be an excellent class, and I’m looking forward to kicking off the fall semester.

10 thoughts on “Reading List for 21st Century Literature (Fall 2012)”

  1. Because I try to avoid new aesthetic experiences that would disrupt my worldview, I haven’t read any of those books. I’m wondering, though, how you’ll deal with those earlier works. Probably a philosophy of uncoverage would require specifically *NOT* dealing with them, I imagine, but I thought I’d ask.

  2. How to deal with the intertexts is an intriguing problem, Amanda. I’ll actually be making that issue part of the larger concerns of the course. How much of Poe do we need to know to make sense of Pym? And how does Johnson lead us along and tutor us in Poe? Is it necessary to “get” all the references to nerd culture in Oscar Wao? Are the science fiction and fantasy allusions window-dressing or are they essential to the novel? In what ways does Carson betray the task of the translator in Nox?

    We’ll be coming back to questions like this again and again. In this way, the class is as much about epistemology as it is about literature.

  3. I love the phrase “deep entanglements in a web of intertextuality”! And what would entangle you and your students more in the 21st century than looking at old entanglements in the 15th and 16th centuries? There’s a way in which the earliest days of print are as entangled in form and content as our current days (indeed, that entanglement extends much further back than print). I’m just reminding you of my standing offer to do a book show for your classes. It would be a serious blast. Really, the class looks fabulous.

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