Monday, 18 June 2007

Contemporary Writing

Next year I'll be teaching a Contemporary Writing course to first-year English undergraduates. What should I teach? 'Contemporary' appears to mean 'anything from about 1950 onwards', and all texts have to be written in English (ie no translations.) It looks like I have to include poetry and perhaps drama, too (I'm not sure whether I'm able to set films).

Here's an example of a nicely-thought-through version of the course, taught by the exceptionally talented and lovely Ellen McWilliams. I like her approach to the selection of texts - things which contribute something in themselves and are interesting to read and to teach, but which will also allow the class to talk about some of the broader issues which have characterized the last 50 years of Anglophone literary writing.

Some of the things that have happened in the past 50 years which I find interesting are:*

• the invention and development of the Young Adult novel (from the 'first' teenage novel, Beverly Cleary's Fifteen [1956], to Pullman and Haddon's early-21st-century crossover books);
• the invention and development of the graphic novel (Bechdel's Fun Home is definitely going to be on the list);
• the women's movement (Woman on the Edge of Time?);
• the development of gay and queer literature;
• punk/avant-garde post-modern stuff (not as in, like, 'pomo', but as in William Burroughs' cut-up techniques which develop from modernist techniques. Dennis Cooper? But I don't know if I can face teaching his books - I mean, especially on a core unit... if students have specifically signed up for a sex-n-violence unit, that's one thing, but making, say, Frisk compulsory might be a bit much. I had to throw Frisk across the room and then leave the room when I first read it at the age of seventeen);
• the development of black and postcolonial literature.

But I don't want the course to be as tokenistic as that list risks being; nor do I want it to be a rerun of the 'Critical Issues' course I'm also teaching next year (one of those breakneck one-theory-a-week, sexual difference/queer theory/postcolonialism/ideology/deconstruction kind of courses). Maybe I need some sort of unifying theme -I wonder about something like boundary-pushing or intertextuality? The way contemporary literary/canonical writing engages with its 'outside' (the not-yet-adult reader; the visual; the popular; the colonized)?

Answers in a comment, please... (Anyone reading this via LJ feed, I'll make sure to check comments there too for once, so you don't have to sign up to Blogger to have your say.)

*I originally wrote 'some of the most important things', but then I read it back and realized that was a ridiculous thing to say. What I mean is, 'some of the things I would enjoy teaching about'.


Una said...

If you're going for an underlying theme of, say, intertextuality (and I think going for an underlying theme is a good idea), what about David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (which I haven't read, but I gather it has several interlocking narratives in different genres). And there's AS Byatt's Possession.

I really, really like The Handmaid's Tale, if you're going to pick an Attwood.

Oh, what a great course, though! What fun!

Az said...

I'm with you on the not teaching Dennis Cooper to first years. Although, who knows, some might get into it. Could you actually teach Burroughs, or are you really going for contemporary as in the last couple of decades? There are all those intertextual clever writers like Foster Wallace and Will Self, i suppose, but mostly they seem rather apolitical and... too clever. As well as looking rather dated, now. If it's not too heavy (and this is the least heavy and most entertianing of his novels, I reckon) Thomas Pynchon's Vineland rocks my world. It's a teensy bit more contemporary than Burroughs, and does a kind of intertextuality....

I really wish someone would teach David Wojnarowicz's Close the the Knives in a Contemporary Lit class. And can I chuck in a plea for Octavia Butler's novel Kindred to interrogate race/postcoloniality?

Also, hope you're setttling in well at home and that things are dandy!

Az said...

Oh, and that's Close to THE Knives.