For the past couple of weeks, I have been contemplating a piece of writing advice I read from Lydia Davis in an article from Lit Hub, an assigned reading for a summer course in grad school. The article, which is an adaptation of an essay from Davis’ book, Essays One, lists ten recommendations for good writing habits, the last of which reads: “How should you read? What should the diet of your reading be? Read the best writers from all different periods; keep your reading of contemporaries in proportion—you do not want a steady diet of contemporary literature. You already belong to your time.”
Davis’ literary diet recommendation recalls an experience I had last summer while working as a greeter for international undergraduate students at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. One day, a man came up to ask for help with directions. Making a lucky educated guess on his accent, we both switched to talking in his native Russian, a fact that so delighted him that the conversation lasted for over an hour, traversing a number of topics and quickly acquiring a condescending and deeply misogynistic tone. One of the things discussed, interestingly, was literature and after a number of twists in the conversation, the man voiced an opinion that was eerily similar to Davis: why read contemporary literature, he claimed, when there was barely anything “worthwhile” to read, especially when you have a canon of “greats” that you can always return to and continually rediscover for yourself?
I continue to be struck by this argument against reading one’s contemporaries: whether in one’s own genre, if you are a writer, or just generally. This argument that ranges from the extreme disavowal of contemporary literature, as in the case of the Russian man at the airport, to merely point words of caution expressed by Davis. This position often makes contemporary literature sound like some kind of junk food, a guilty pleasure that keeps being neglected while the healthy vegetables that are the classics are dismissed and discarded by the temperamental reader-as-child who refuses what is supposedly good for them. There are many entry points for a counter to this argument, like the fact that contemporary literature is inevitably the most diverse point in literary history. We have by no means achieved the goal of equal representation in books or how many authors of which identity are being published; we are still inarguably much further along compared to the face of the (Western) literary canon, which is famously predominantly white and male. Similarly, there is a more diverse number of foreign literature being translated into Western languages like English and being introduced to people. There is also the fact that how stories are told has inevitably changed, as the famously repeated example about how many words were added to the English language thanks to Shakespeare. Form changes, genres are born (and inevitably die). Literature does not stand still, so why should readers be told to stand still when it comes to their “reading circle?”
The other issue this type of advice raises is related to the question of personal interest — should you read what you want or read what is recommended to you? More importantly, who is doing the recommending? Unpacking further, the question can be taken further by asking what it means to want to read something versus to not want and the inherent privilege contained in this very statement, “I am reading X book because I want to read it.” It can be difficult to untangle personal wants and reading interests from the standards imposed by society — whether through social media, academia, the literary community and literary awards, or by some other means — and ask oneself, “do I think this book or writer is worth reading because they have been highly praised and elevated or because there is something in this work that appeals to me, to my personal or research interests, whether or not it reaffirms or challenges my own stance?” It is especially difficult to ask these questions when debating a book that one has not read before, which makes it all the more significant to consider and identify the factors that are at play in making the decision.
This question of want and personal interest is something that I have been contemplating lately, particularly in light of the resurfacing conversations surrounding the need for more diverse books. Not only for BIPOC individuals to see themselves represented in literature, but also for more BIPOC authors to be paid fairly to share their narratives. There is a great deal of privilege contained in the ability to read what one wants without feeling like there are consequences, that is, to not feel like there is a lack of literature that appeals to one’s interests or does not represent at least some facet of the reader’s self. What are my obligations as a reader, as a critic, as an editor, to the literary community? Is “obligations” even the correct word, or is it more of a question of good literary citizenship, to not be well-read, not just in the familiar academic sense but also open to welcoming and learning from different literary traditions, perspectives, narratives?
The caution against reading too much contemporary literature is inherently political, for not only is it a stone’s-throw away from the logical conclusion — that there is not much worthwhile material in contemporary literature — but, it also creates a logical dead end, for who are books being written for if they are not being read? This is not to say that classics should only be read by students and scholars within the context of academia, or by writers who are looking to respond or disrupt an existing literary legacy. Rather, it is more of a word of counter-caution. After all, who knows when a book released tomorrow becomes a revered classic in the next century?