Ask a Book Question: #68 (Building a 21st Century Contemporary Fiction Syllabus)

October 28, 2008 | 15 books mentioned 27 6 min read

Gene writes in with this question:

I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.

So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?

Five of our contributors weighed in.

Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:

covercoverWillful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.

coverThe Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.

coverLook at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.

coverAndrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.

Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.

coverEmily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).

Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).

coverGarth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.

I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

covercoverThough I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).

Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.

Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)

Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.

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  1. I pity any class with a teacher who can't recognize the sheer hackery of Beautiful Children.

    I wonder what your standards are for defining 21st Century Lit, because right now you are teaching "The Hipster McSweeney This American Life Reading List" and what is marketed as "Modern Lit" to the New York Times Book Review set.

    You've got ONE woman on that list, who also happens to be the only non-American and one of two people of color.

    I'm glad to see some Millions recommendations get beyond this, but guys, your snobbery is showing. If you want something the kids can relate to and an author who is outside of that world, I'd recommend Michelle Tea – The Chelsea Whistle or Rose of No Man's Land.

    Why not step outside the twee confines to work which brings up questions about 21st century culture? How about some E. Lynn Harris? Or a bestseller which is also a good read, like the Lovely Bones?

  2. This is a great course with wonderful books. Those kids are VERY lucky to have such a dedicated teacher. I'm interested to read many of the books the Millions recommended. A few others that I read recently and loved: The Gathering by Anne Enright, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, and I wholeheartedly second Atonement by Ian McEwan. Also – and this isn't perhaps as meaty as the other books, but I think highschoolers would like it -What Was Lost by O'Flynn.

  3. Hmmpf, there's no need to criticize a teacher who clearly cares about his class and the students in it. He is committed to teaching and to making his course the best it can be. I admire that.

  4. You write about The Known World that "It's told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times."

    The reason why it's not common is precisely because such a voice is solipsistic; albeit God's solipsism. Putting "fragmented" before the word should be enough to suggest solipsism isn't the issue in modern literature but authority.

  5. I wish I'd had this class(although I'm too old for that to be possible).
    I like the suggestions, and some of them are books I have to check out now. I agree that such a dedicated teacher is someone to be respected.

  6. I submit Ma Jian's "Beijing Coma" (2008) for consideration. It's a big book that comes in at almost 550 pages, but with China becoming a big player on the world stage this century, it might be interesting to see what their writers have been doing.

    I second Edward P. Jones. You can't go wrong with him.

  7. I've taught Jones's "The Known World" to great success. The students find the narrative style tough going at first, but by the end, they all agreed the novel couldn't have been written any other way.

  8. Brockmeier's "Brief History of the Dead" and McCarthy's "The Road" work well in my classes. I find it hard to believe that any group of high schoolers that isn't pre-screened or hand-selected can handle most of the books listed above.

    "Beautiful Children" is a parent-revolt waiting to happen, not to mention it really sucks.

    And don't bow to the idea that you have to have women or people of color on your syllabus—the culture wars are over in high schools, and they'll be over soon enough when the college professors who were educated in the 70s and 80s start retiring. That said, Helen Dewitt and Lydia Millet would qualify as must-reads, and Edward Jones and Colson Whitehead's novels are realistic choices for upper-level seniors.

  9. To clarify—I don't mean to say women or people of color should not be considered, only that a syllabus should be built on what works for a teacher and his/her students, not on a quota system. And I say this as a firm believer in Affirmative Action in social programs.

  10. I see your argument, zk, but I think to teach only (or even mostly) male authors in a class on 21st century lit would be presenting our literary era inaccurately.

    There are dozens upon dozens of wonderful books by women, and by men, and by white people, and by people of color, which would do well on a syllabus like this. Of course books shouldn't be chosen ONLY for the bio of the writer–that's unfair to everyone, including the writer.

    I know that had I been lucky enough to take Gene's class as a high school student, I would've been disappointed to read so few books by women writers.

  11. I agree—one of the novels that has most affected me in the past five years is "My Happy Life" by Lydia Millet. I consider her to be one of the most talented novelists I have ever read. She would be on my list.

    My reaction is to hmmpf's comment. She takes issue not with the quality of the chosen literature, but with the fact that, in a list of, what, like six things?, there are "only" x number of women and x number of minorities. That, in my opinion, is why American literature programs are dying a slow death and why many high schools are combining "English" with social studies to kill off literature that doesn't have a direct social relevance.

    He/she recommends a book like The Lovely Bones, which, I would agree, is a good choice. But if it's between the Lovely Bones and The Brief History of the Dead, I'm going to choose the one that works best for my kids, not the one that is by a woman simply because I don't have any other books by women on my list. And I'm not the only one making this decision—my department is 90% female, and our junior curriculum has only one book written by a woman.

    Another thing to consider–Brockmeier's book is about a strong female character—is that enough to satisfy the "need for equality?" Why do the authors need to be women or minorities? Can't a strong female character do as much or more than a female author? My kids will remember Laura Byrd far longer than they will remember Brockmeier; Timmy O'Brien longer than Tim O'Brien; Huck longer than Twain; Scout longer than Harper Lee.

  12. Some of those books are interesting, but why aren't you teaching any of the truly major literature of the past 10 years? Marias, Bolano, Pamuk, Coetzee, Mitchell, Hollinghurst, etc.

  13. This, I guess, is where being an almost-60 yo college teacher of many years makes me contrary. This class sounds OK for an advanced elective, but I just hope that the kids have already read some lit of other centuries and are familiar with at least some of the classics.

    Or else this is for kids who hate to read literature that they can't relate to because it's not of their time and place, so it's better that they read something rather than nothing.

    Yes, in my one year as a high school I did teach Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith, but as part of a reading lists heavy on the 20th and even 19th centuries, with Shakespeare, Voltaire, and other earlier works.

    What I guess is most distressing to me is the number of MFA fiction students and published twentysomething writers who have read deeply in the fiction of the past 20 or 30 years but who look at me blankly when I mention novels and writers I assume everyone knows. I was shocked in speaking to a young novelist who didn't even recognize the title of a Shakespeare play.

    I know: this is one cranky old man here (the one who's not currently running for President). Of course, during the Punic Wars, we read little contemporary lit in college. I can remember at my college the English Department just introducing a class in post-WWII American literature in 1972. Students generally read contemporary writers here on their own, as I greedily did. Vonnegut sold well on our campus, but he wasn't taught because the works were considered "too recent" even by those lit profs who loved his work.

    A perspective: If there had been this query twenty years ago, I can easily imagine the books people would recommend, many of them wonderful books. But I suspect many of them have been out of print for years and some of you wouldn't recognize the titles or the authors. Mark Leyner, anyone? Jayne Anne Phillips? Tama Janowitz? David Leavitt? Meg Wolitzer? They are all very good writers (some are old acquaintances), but would you have today's high school students read Slaves of New York or Black Tickets?

    This is probably a great class, but I just hope they're becoming comfortable with times other than their own. Um, that's diversity, too.

    Presentism can be dangerous in the classroom. On blogs, of course, it's the order of the day.

  14. Why study such substandard books just because they are modern? Have your students read Austen, Tolstoy, Flaubert, James or Proust? More than once? If you can say with honesty that Zadie Smith et al are as good as these authors then by all means make the argument. If, as I suspect, you are trying to make your course "popular" and "relevant" then you haven't understood the point of teaching.

  15. The appreciation of Literature falls into that dicey category of taste and aesthetics, which are not universal and often subject to personal whims and reactions. I understand the importance of Hawthorne, I really do, but I would rather spend a fortnight reading science textbooks written in the Sanskrit than spend another minute with The Scarlet Letter. Which brings up an important point – we can wring hands and wag fingers at what “should” be taught and what will “fade” as the years progress, but time will out. Present opinions matter very little in the grand literary landscape, which is tough for us as those currently living to accept. It should be noted that both Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald were disparaged by their contemporaries and reading public, only to be rescued and labeled as writers of masterpieces after the fact. Perspective is everything.

    I do take issue with disparaging this teacher’s understanding the “point of teaching”. The point of teaching literature is not to implant knowledge directly into the brains of students for easy regurgitation (see Charles Dickens Hard Times) which offers answers to all the great book questions but no real appreciation. The point of teaching literature is to open doors to understanding humanity.

    By finding a path to engaging students in the eternally ongoing conversation of literature creates thinkers, not simply those who endure the class and never open book again. That is not to say we dumb down what they should learn, but certainly there is room to engage them in a conversation that is taking place now and not before women could vote. If they engage they continue to stay engaged. Think I’m kidding. What subject did you hate the most in high school? Have you found yourself in it since? Engagement is valuable.

    Elaine Scarry in her book On Beauty and Being Just explains that when people react to something beautiful they seek the source of the beauty – which means that there is a continual search for what inspired the beauty in the first place. If I love Zadie Smith that will lead me to E.M . Forester, which in turn will lead me to… and so on. Teaching literature is about growing seekers. Teach your students to seek and they will keep looking. I applaud this teacher for trying to continue to engage students that break the mold of what “should” be taught.

  16. NO POETRY?! NONE?! This is the saddest literature syllabus of all time: no Geoffrey Hill, Robert Hass, John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, Charles Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney?

    On the other hand, the anonymous guy has a point. Homer, Virgil, Byron, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Petrarch, Whitman, WCW, Pound, and Eliot are hard to argue against.

  17. The problem is that only very few people ever have been or ever will be interested in serious literature. The class should be taught for those students who are interested; for the rest, I'm sure they can find satisfactions elsewhere, in music, sport, art or just life. Don't dumb down your curriculum to appeal to those who probably will never like serious books. I'm relieved that I was taught the established canon at school: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tennyson, works much more varied and full of life than straightforward texts taught alongside them such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Arthur Miller.

  18. If the last eight weeks had left any doubt that the culture wars are still with us, this fascinating comment thread should put that doubt to rest. I thought I'd jump back in to offer some points of clarification. Of all the books mentioned above, The Known World and Aunt Hagar's Children are among the very finest. Indeed, I'm pretty sure The Known World, The Corrections, and Norman Rush's Mortals are the best American novels of this decade – at least among those I've read.

    Even though I've taught Jones' Lost in the City at the college level, I had left him off my list, because the existing syllabus seemed to indicate an ambition to engage with certain tropes of postmodernism. That said, one thing this discussion has illuminated is the way that Jones' sturdy and patient realism (with its Garcia Marquez inflections) challenges the more antic surfaces of the books already on the list – in a good way. That is, it might be a better complement to the Brooklyn-ish sensibility already on the list than would another book representing that sensibility. It might open up new pedagogical ground for the course. (If you want more similarity than contrast, you might also try Tom McCarthy's Remainder.)

    Other assumptions I brought to this question: the writer was looking for English-language novels published since 2000, by post-baby-boom writers. Otherwise I would have had to include Roberto Bolano, Don DeLillo, and Deborah Eisenberg, all of whom are near to my heart.

    Absent these (imaginary?) constraints, one could also imagine an alternative course that proceeds from Gabriel Garcia Marquez' observation about a great Caribbean crescent connecting writers from South America to those writing in or about the American South – a more historically grounded 21st Century lit: Marquez himself, Fuentes, Chaimoiseau, Faulkner, McCarthy, Morrison…

    Our commenters have also raised some interesting questions about the utility of a course on contemporary fiction. Speaking from experience, I would submit that part of the value of a high-school level literature class is not WHAT you read but HOW you read. And that connecting with students' latent knowledge and passions – particularly in an elective course – can speed the movement toward analytical reading. Great literature is great literature, and any educated person worth his or her salt should have read Plato, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and so on – even in high school – but you can't fit it all into one class.

    Much of the Culture Wars stuff rests on false premises. It does not logically follow from the inclusion of sexually and ethnically heterodox writers that other, more worthy white men have been excluded. Nor that the contributions of members of the traditionally constituted canon (itself really dating back only about 100 years; Flaubert was the Bret Easton Ellis of his day) are being devalued. By all means, take both a 21st Century and a 19th Century course! Nor does the existence of great literature from ages necessitate the inferiority of great literature from ages present (though determining what will hold up 50 years from now requires a leap of faith.) In my opinion, Infinite Jest is a better book than As I Lay Dying; The Known World is every bit the equal of Huckleberry Finn; Eisenberg's New Yorkers can stand on the same stage as Edith Wharton's; Bolano's 2666 matches The Charterhouse of Parma; and Mortals and Conrad's Nostromo are similarly breathtaking accomplishments.

    Finally, I wanted to remind our readers that you can find more fleshed-out reviews of many of these books at our Millions Book Review Index!

  19. Hey — what about DANCER FROM THE DANCE by Andrew Holleran? In my mind, it's the most sadly neglected piece of post-war American literature going, and kids should know that beautiful, literary (and prophetic) writing is not limited to the straight world (and similarly, that "gay" does not have to mean "genre").

  20. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
    Sherman Alexie, Absolutely True Autobiography of a Part-Time Indian
    Khaled Hosseini, Kite Runner
    Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis
    Late Homecomer

  21. I would pick You Shall Know Our Velocity over Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as far as Eggers is concerned.

  22. Aren’t comment threads fascinating? Here someone tells us that he teaches a class on 21st Century Literature and, along with serious suggestions of titles and the beginnings of a discussion about what teaching literature is for, he gets people writing in to say he ought not to be teaching the course at all! It should be about Plato, or Hawthorne, or something.

    i also wanted to say that I found the Brock Clarke novel hatefully unreadable, so unless there’s something specific you (Glen) see in it that can’t be presented through any other book, leave the damned thing out. Just my heartfelt opinion.

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