Why Contemporary?

I’m often asked why I work on contemporary writing rather than something that has already stood the test of time. I think many people, particularly academics, have this fear of contemporary writing as something fleeting, or are of the opinion that somehow modernity means mediocrity. I’ve always disagreed strongly with either of these views – and I have plenty of reasons for working on poetry post-1990.

Contemporary work speaks directly to my own experience (and probably yours too) because it comes out of how we live. It also offers me challenging new ways of viewing my surroundings. I’m also not much of a historian, and put simply I’d have a fresh new slim volume over a cracking manuscript any day.

And so, the arrival of Leontia Flynn’s latest collection Profit and Loss (Cape, 2011) caused much excitement. Fresh material like the poems in this collection have already sent my research off in new directions, and studying these poems for all they are worth is very invigorating. I had already seen a proof copy, and from that I’d put together a tentative abstract for the Contemporary Women’s Gothic conference in November (another positive – my paper will probably be the first ever consideration of this work in academic circles).

I’ve returned from a long weekend in Northern Ireland, and I can almost see the new term on the horizon since Oxford Brookes are already welcoming their freshers. Now is the time to reflect on the new bounty my poet seems to have thrown my way. I’m beginning my paper with this quote in mind:

‘The poems themselves aren’t hugely influenced by gothic literature, as such, it is more the notion of being aware that gothic literature is a specifically female genre, often about madness and ghosts’

Leontia Flynn, ‘Leontia Flynn’s Profit and Loss’, Culture Northern Ireland website.

2 thoughts on “Why Contemporary?

  1. Excellent post, Al: succinctly explained and argued, plus it’s got me pondering my own research. I’m used to receiving confused looks regarding why I would choose to research contemporary African fiction (little better is the other response of “So your thesis is on JM Coetzee then?” NoooOooooo). I mean, I love Jane Austen but I’d be hard pressed to think of anything new to either say or dig up on her work. That sounds glib but it *is* something I am personally concerned with: I’m not exactly the world’s most original thinker, so what fresh approaches can I offer the study of literature and application of criticism? In the case of my research, contemporary writing serves as an accessible conduit to ideas that have yet to be considered in literary theory. Alas, this is when I have to mention the term ‘interdisciplinary’: this in itself usually receives many an eye-roll but it’s often the case that research on contemporary literature has to engage with other academic disciplines.

    Like your encounter with Leontia Flynn, I had a similar experience this year with Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love; the discovery of that novel added a new comparative dimension to a planned chapter on another author’s work. This means that my work for that chapter has a new dimension that should, hopefully, be more of interest.

    • Ta, Amy.

      Your Coetzee is my Heaney.

      Part of it is originality, yes. But it isn’t just that – it isn’t just that I probably wouldn’t add too much to the existing criticism of Shakespeare, Austen or the Bronte’s. Frankly, I am just not that interested their work (or at least not enough to make a living thinking about it). To me, a new poetry sequence about the banking crisis has a bit more purpose.

      The other important consideration is how contemporary literature relates to theory. Queering Dickens or looking at cross dressing in Shakespeare using theories from the contemporary period will of course allow new readings. But that sometimes seems like adding a v8 engine to a wagon cart – they just don’t match.

      Applying theories to writing that is coming out of the same environment as that criticism, that might even be aware of that criticism – well there we have a bit more harmony.

      I’m half expecting a deluge from medievalists – but there isn’t enough of a debate about the merits of contemporary literature research.

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