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What is modern literature anyway?
A conversation between Samuél and Elle about whether this post counts as modern literature.
Samuél Lopez-Barrantes is a novelist, literary tour guide, and professor living in Paris. He writes nonfiction and fiction for his newsletter, if not, Paris and hosts literary salon discussions online. I thought he’d be the perfect person to talk to about modern literature so I sent him a draft I wrote about dead French writers and my quest to find more modern philosophers. In response, he wrote an incredible response about metamodernism and what modern literature even is. But we weren’t done with the conversation, so here we go: A conversation about what modern literature even is, and whether this post counts.
Elle Griffin: As I mentioned in my recent essay, I’ve been struggling to find modern literature I like.
I think it’s me. I think no one talks the way they did 100 years ago and I’m romanticizing a certain period for its language.
I also think I’m romanticizing a certain period for its nostalgia. I’ve read that Alexandre Dumas was criticized for writing so commercially—like he was a sellout! But now, 100 years removed from its initial publication, The Count of Monte Cristo is considered “classic literature.”
I wonder if I can’t see art now because I’m too close to it. Like maybe at the time, no one thought Victor Hugo wrote beautifully because that’s just how they all spoke back then? Maybe today, a social media post written in all lowercase letters with lots of emojis is art. And maybe 100 years from now people will look back and do a whole college thesis on the art of the emoji, and how writers used it in the context of language and literature. And maybe I can’t see this as art because it’s my own time and I’m too close to it?
I know that I still romanticize books as the form. That was how ideas were communicated 100 years ago, but now ideas are shared on Twitter and social media and news sites and text messages and Substack. Maybe 100 years from now we’ll posthumously publish the social media posts of some famous person, the way Anne Frank’s diary was published nearly 100 years ago.
I’m open to changing my perspective. To studying modern literature in its current language and form. I guess we’re calling this current age metamodernism (are we married to that?). But what does that actually mean? What is metamodernist literature and where do we find it? And is it actually any good?
Samuél Lopez-Barrantes: Thanks for these thoughts, Elle. I’ve been writing in Paris for 12 years, so I also know quite a bit about romanticizing the past. It took me a few years to get past the trope of the down-and-out bohemian who had to be either politically interesting or partying all the time to write something worthwhile, and it was only after a terrible first novel that I wrote a slightly better second novel, Slim and The Beast, which, not surprisingly, wasn’t about Paris, lofty ideals, or crazy parties, but about male intimacy, basketball, and growing up in North Carolina.
I think we mirror each other’s romanticized literary visions, albeit focusing on different times: whereas you see the transition from the romantic to the modernist era in the 19th century as the pinnacle, I find most of my inspiration from the 20th century transition from modernism to postmodernism (Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Salman Rushdie immediately come to mind).
I have to disagree with you on one point, though: I don’t think that the best ideas in this day and age are necessarily shared on social media. For one, I’ve become estranged from social media, because I think focusing on the individual ego is anathema to doing deep artistic work. Social media has been plagued by the same cult of personality we see in politics these days, and for that reason, I think the best work is the quiet work, the work that takes time and doesn’t rely on social media to gain traction, the work that is made to last. Most recently, I’m thinking of authors like Andrés Neuman (Traveler of the Century is a gorgeous ode to romanticism), Otessa Moshfegh (Homesick for Another World blew my mind), or the poet Terrance Hayes (American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is a poignant and devastating portrait of American life today).
Which brings me to the term “metamodernism.” My essay response to your “Dead French Writers'' piece is a deeper dive into the history of these “isms,” but basically, I think literary metamodernism is a purposeful synthesis versus reaction to the literary movements that came before it. For example, metamodernism recognizes the romantic need for the eternal, the sublime, and a more spiritual relationship to existence, while also willing to look reality in the face. As a philosophy, it understands the need for plurality without denying the individual experience, a post-colonialist understanding that doesn’t deny the fact that each of us requires our own mythology to make sense of our own identity. Like postmodernism, metamodernism rejects the idea that there is a Grand Narrative, but it also acknowledges the truth that we all need a grand narrative to make sense of this strange, beautiful life.
Metamodernism, as I understand it, incorporates the most human aspects of the previous literary movements without trying to be dogmatic. It is communal, not reactionary, a synthesis instead of a reaction to what came before it. Ambitious, I know. But here’s to delving in.
Elle Griffin: Admittedly I haven’t read a lot of the authors you just mentioned. I read Otessa’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but found it so arduous I wasn’t compelled to wade through more. For whatever reason, I have preconceived notions about the rest: do any of the authors you mentioned have a book that actually feels, well not depressing? I’m just not up for trudging through something right now, and in my experience, “trudgable” seems a common vibe among literary titles. I’m open to suggestions….
I understand what you are saying about social media—I can’t get into Twitter or LinkedIn or Instagram for the very reasons you mentioned, they are very ego-driven (I actually just deleted my Twitter and Instagram accounts for this reason, and others). But I have been creatively awakened by Substack, even TikTok! The art I have been exposed to on both platforms has completely expanded my mind! And isn’t there the possibility that the next literary great is on Substack? Or that the next literarily great work is a Substack post, rather than a book?
Some I’ve particularly loved: Shifra Steinberg’s fiction and nonfiction stories about the absurdity of life, Erik Hoel’s thoughts on our human systems, Kana Chan’s meditations on living more slowly and intentionally, Jason Logan’s reverence for small moments, Ariella Elovic’s comics that provide commentary on the things all of us feel and experience.
The format just isn’t as important to me as the form these days. I do have the Kindle app, I read books on it quite a bit. But I find myself opening my Substack quite a bit more. I probably consume more essays in a day than I do pages in a book. Or at least equal. And I have become obsessed with the ability to interact directly with the authors, it just expands the art to me. Even Victor Hugo held office hours in the afternoon, when readers could come chat with him about his art. By contrast, a lot of book authors today feel untouchable.
Can I just say though that I hate the word metamodernism? If we’re going to try to define this era of literature I’d rather keep the Enlightenment going. I get what you’re saying that it’s hard to define what we’re all doing right now, but whatever it is, the words “meta” and “modern” are meaningless ways to describe it. It’s like calling it the “very now time.”
Samuél Lopez-Barrantes: Point taken re: the term metamodernism. It’s a bummer that Mark Zuckerberg did humanity real dirty when he put a trademark on the Ancient Greek prefix meta, because it isn’t supposed to mean anything other than “among, with, after.” But I digress.
Since the term “The Enlightenment” already had its heyday, let’s consider a new one. What about “The Age of Illumination?” I’m not sure if that’s a winner, but the term “Illumination” is useful for what I hope to reveal down below, so if you’ll at least indulge me for the next 800-or-so…
Re: aforementioned authors and their depressing tales. First, I think it’s one of these fallacies that we’re supposed to read a book simply because the author is important (I won’t list the number of classics I’ve never read because if I do, you’ll chase me into the hills as a heretic). I haven’t read My Year of Rest and Relaxation and I don’t currently plan to; judging by the description, a book about someone self-medicating in order to sleep for an entire year is, well, let’s just say not what I need right now. If I recommended Otessa’s Homesick for Another World, however, it’s because while it has a darkness to it, the short stories are hilarious and plot-driven and damn well-written. It didn’t depress me, even if some of the stories are admittedly depressing, because the one thing better than a feel-good story is a story that makes you feel good despite the darkness.
And this is what I think honest literary fiction can do masterfully: gaze into the abyss with optimism rather than succumb to it. This, in my mind, is the true lesson of existentialism. I don’t know what the current mood is on quoting David Foster-Wallace, but I’m taking a chance and quoting him in a prescient interview from 1993, because despite his violent and flawed character, problematic legacy, and self-indulgent writing, he also spoke a lot of beautiful truths, and this is one of them:
We’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.
For the record, I know you’re not saying we should avoid books that can be depressing. But not engaging with “trudge-worthy” books also has its dangers, for it is symptomatic of our culture’s obsession with comfort and unwillingness to investigate, let alone understand, the darkness. (NB: This may be why I climbed up on a bookshelf when I was eight-years-old, pulled down The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, studied the subject through a master’s degree, and have spent the last seven years of my life struggling to write–and finally finish, literally last week–a novel about history, memory, and the Nazi Occupation of Poland.)
One of the jobs of today’s artists, in my opinion, is to honor the DFW quote above by shining a light on the goodness of humanity without ignoring our dark side. There is a visual artist in New Orleans who is doing this beautifully; his name is Nic Aziz and he’s very much worth checking out. And so, if I understand you correctly, I think I’m comfortable in saying I mostly agree with you. As readers, we shouldn’t force ourselves to trudge through depressing novels for the sake of “important art” … but if the author has managed to trudge across the doldrums of nihilism, still swinging that lantern of hope from across the abyss, well then there’s no greater gift, in my opinion, than this kind of novel (this is why Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume might be my favorite novel of all time).
Finally, I totally agree with you re: Substack and the form versus the format. One day I might be brave enough to venture into TikTok, but I might reach out for some moral support if that day ever comes. If more people are engaging with literature in this world, that’s a win for all of us. I am still a bit old-school in that I prefer reading things that don’t ring, buzz, vibrate, or send me notifications, but in the end, reading is reading, and writing is writing, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation without the joys of technology.
Here’s to making a new writer friend, and to many future rambles [insert preferred emoji to represent gratefulness].
Elle Griffin: First of all, CONGRATULATIONS on finishing your book!!!! 🥂🎂✨ Please let us know where you will be publishing it as soon as you do. And thank you for all the amazing book recs—I have added several to my bookshop.
Also wow—Nic Aziz is incredible! And I actually love that DFW quote. I like Illumination too, though I wish we could head in a literary idealism direction—just like World War II sent us in a surrealist direction. Wishing doesn’t make it true, however—I can’t find a lot of literary idealism out there, nor illumination for that matter. I agree that darkness can be part of the equation, and I have previously mentioned Taka Waititi as a good example of that. Jojo Rabbit and Hunt for the Wilderpeople concern dark subject matter, and yet both stories are firmly set in the light. Similarly, Schitt’s Creek concerns a ruined family, but is focused entirely on that family’s positive growth.
I want to expand this idea for a future article, because something these films do that a lot of modern literature doesn’t is imagine a world where, though darkness exists, the characters do not live in the dark. I think too much of our literature right now focuses on characters that suffer some form of trauma. And if we grow up seeing that our response to everything should be trauma, we’ll be traumatized. I have friends who see therapists for bullying they experienced in high school. I was bullied, but I never considered that a trauma I should still be thinking about in my adulthood. And perhaps those experiences are not traumatic to me because I never knew bulling should be considered traumatic until now?
For example, if you ever come across a foster child in a book or film, the character typically follows a “traumatic childhood” archetype. But Taka’s work thinks differently: The foster child in his Hunt for the Wilderpeople is fun, spunky, adventurous, personable, and not at all traumatized. And if that was the kind of media you were exposed to as an actual foster child, might you grow up with a different outlook?
Similarly, if you ever come across an LGBTQ+ youth in a story, you expect to see a traumatic coming out story. But Schitt’s Creek didn’t do that—LGBTQ characters are not traumatized, they are just accepted. If you were an actual LGBTQ+ youth, and you were exposed to media that didn’t make that a traumatic thing, might that make your own experiences feel less traumatic? I think so. And for that reason I would like to see a lot less traumatized characters. Characters may experience trauma, but they don’t all need to be traumatized themselves. Just like real people. (More thoughts on this to come.)
In any case, the fact that we are even having this conversation makes me wonder if maybe this is the modern literature we are talking about, the age of illumination personified. Maybe we are an example of how art can exist today, how it can be both literary and beautiful, how it can be positive and collaborative—even adapted for modern media. How “meta” is that…
But I’m not done with this topic. Let’s continue the discussion on modern literature—and what that even is—in the comments. Join us:
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