When new books hit shelves, their dust jackets are wrapped carefully in context: "reminiscent of Salinger's early work," or "in the spirit of Melville," a glossy hardback might declare. Such alignments serve as measurements by which readers can set their aesthetic barometers--and, marketing departments hope, lead a bookstore patron to think, "This novel must be important."
Two years ago, The Guardian reported that classic literature's influence on contemporary writers was waning, and in many ways this makes sense. It seems logical for a young writer to aspire to and, in some cases, emulate their contemporaries. Most aspiring writers want to publish what will sell, and so they defer to what's selling now. They want big numbers, want to win awards, want to be on NPR and maybe even snag a few cable TV interviews. Sometimes they want those things even more than being named Salinger or Melville reincarnate. And who, really, can blame them? A brilliant critique in a literary journal won't pay anyone's rent, but a plug on The Daily Show might.
Yet we continue arriving at that perennial question: Which books will last? We're asking, simply, what literature should do. It's easy for us to bemoan the chart-topping sales of certain mass-market paperbacks, or dismiss those successes by proclaiming that no one will read these books in 20 or 200 years. But perhaps these aren't the conversations we should be having. Maybe it's simpler than that--our job as readers, writers and publishers might just be celebrating work we think should last, rather than condemning what will not.
We still read The Jungle though the Progressive and New eras have long passed. Les Misérables depicted France's 30-year-old rebellion upon its publication in 1862, but it mattered and continues to because its examinations of law and morality aren't tethered to time. There is still so much we can learn. So, too, I hope readers will say 150 years from now about books depicting our early Internet age, our passing countercultures, our confused ecological disasters.
Here are five contemporary authors with the makings for longevity, and whose books speak to classic writers who've already proven what can--and will--last.
There's something particularly Joycean about Joshua Cohen, and not just because the writers share nearly identical round eyeglasses or a penchant for long sentences and penning 800 page novels. The most obvious parallel between the two is Joyce's Ulysses and Cohen's Witz, for their stream-of-conscious language play and paper weight at 736 pages and 824 pages, respectively. But elsewhere, too, they render their drastically different landscapes similarly: Joyce meticulously dictates the corners and crosswalks of Dublin throughout several books the way Cohen investigates the virtual space of the Internet and the blogs that populate a simulated neighborhood in his short story collection Four New Messages. Both have a knack for dirty jokes and amusingly rendered (sometimes solo) sex, and their characters need not be likeable for us to love them anyway.
I don't know that any contemporary essayist could stand up to Virginia Woolf the way Joan Didion does. While Susan Sontag and Zadie Smith could rub shoulders with them just fine at what would possibly be the best dinner party of all time, there's a way in which Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Didion's "In Bed" and "On Keeping A Notebook" are pure songs to each other. Both have written definitive essays on place (Woolf's "Street Hauntings" about London, Didion's "Goodbye to All That" about New York), and each confronts and closely protects the hazy space between private and public life. Woolf and Didion are extraordinarily elegiac writers, whether sitting at a desk in England watching a moth die on a window sill or waiting in a Maui hotel room for a typhoon that will never arrive, both are laudably restrained and aware of limitation within the spaces they're compelled to investigate.
The protagonists of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
and Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers
might have been great friends had they lived within the same novel. Fitzgerald's Nick and Kushner's Reno both observe more than they act, and exist at the edges of cultural movements in New York--the pre-Depression extravagance of the Long Island elite, and the art scene in a destitute 1970s Manhattan. They're narrators who watch closely enough to cast cutting--and true--dispersions. "They were careless people," Nick says of Daisy and Tom. And Reno, watching her fair-weather companion Giddle, determines that she has no true friends "since they were merely an audience to her performance." It's also worth nodding at the silly gendered reviewing The Flamethrowers
received -- "a macho novel by and about women," Adam Kirsch wrote.
I don't know that we'd call Fitzgerald a particularly "masculine" writer, but I've yet to hear The Great Gatsby
coined a "feminine novel."
It's hard to read The Yellow Birds and not think of Hemingway's languid yet spare sentences and straight delivery. There's the overlapping subjects of war in Powers's acclaimed novel and in a handful of Hemingway's, perhaps most notably A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. But the authors are in conversation beyond their subjects, down to an echoic yet non-derivative cadence. While Powers's narrative unfolds a bit more digressively--we shift ahead and then back in time, being led by a narrator's thoughts more than chronology--both Hemingway and Powers's writing is highly attuned to the tactile elements of war. We're haunted by the sand of Powers's Iraq, and the pine needles of Hemingway's Spain.
What calls Anaïs Nin to mind so strongly when considering Alissa Nutting is less the women's writing styles than the literary world's reaction to their subjects. Both are controversial writers, and critical responses are often centered more on that controversy than the writing within the books themselves. Tampa, a sexually explicit novel about a pedophiliac 26-year-old female schoolteacher, was called by many the most controversial book of 2013. A conservative reading public had trouble with Nin's erotically charged narratives, and the feminists who might have welcomed her disagreed instead with her ideas of femininity. Both women are particularly psychological writers in their investigations of taboo sexuality--Nutting's narrator who insatiably longs for her 14-year-old students, and Nin's incestuous relationship with her father. These are two of the gutsiest women we've seen in literature, and both craft--and sometimes embody--undeniably riveting femme fatales.