A Reader’s Guide for Contemporary Literature

In the Spring semester of 2020, Chadron State College students were challenged to “find your story” in their ENG 340 Contemporary Literature Course. (A promotional handout for the course appears below with some further details).

We began our semester by exploring readings from anthologies and other resources across three genres (Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry), to help us consider the criteria by which would determine as a class what makes a work of literature “contemporary” and what makes it “literature” (or literary, of some lasting significance and artistic importance, as we came to define over the course of the semester).

With these elements in mind, the class worked hard to “find the stories” we would use to define our selective journey through contemporary literature. As we defined our framework of “contemporary” voices, we started crafting our reading list, determining the additional texts we would explore as a class. Novels? Book-length memoirs? Graphic Novels? SciFi? CliFi? Young Adult? Drama/Plays? Voices from across the globe? We decided that we would consider only works published after 1980, that were significant or held the promise of some sort of literary merit–and we wanted to take up some genres that may not always get the most attention or be assigned in the typical English class.

This was the reading list we finally arrived at:

  • The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
    • An actual A-Z “dictionary” with entries and definitions that, taken together, outlines the ups and downs of a couple’s relationship and forms, in the end, a sort of fragmented novel.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    • This 2017 “young adult” novel engages the issues of police violence in the African American community, particularly related to young men, and the trials and tribulations of a Black teenager trying to “code-switch” between the class and neighborhood strata of the southern city she lives in.
  • “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    • A stirring 2014 essay that appeared in The Atlantic and is now recognized as one of the most important works of creative nonfiction in recent history.
  • Contemporary Poetry: an overview (with Dr. Coughlin). Readings from The Best of the Best American Poetry and additional selections: Denise Duhamel, Mark Halliday, Kenneth Koch, Robert Pinsky, J. Allyn Rosser, Lloyd Schwartz, Robert Wrigley and Richard Hugo.
    • Dr. Coughlin met with the class and tried to help us recognize a selection of the many trends or “schools” that have had an impact on contemporary poetry.
  • The Flick by Annie Baker
    • This play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014.
  • Warren Crichlow’s “Baldwin’s Rendezvous With The Twenty-First Century”  paired with a screening of the “film text” I am Not Your Negro.
    • We attempted to join with Dr. Tucker’s HUM 369 “Philosophy and Documentary Film” class to explore both this essay and the documentary, and discuss the idea of “how to read a film” as text. Disruptions from the Covid-19 health crisis upended this collaboration, but our class read the essay and viewed the film and discussed its implications in the context of “contemporary literature”
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay
    • The author defined this as “A Memoir of (My) Body,” and this long meditation on fat-shaming, body image, sexual assault, gender and pan-sexualism featured many of the characteristics of contemporary creative nonfiction.
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd
    • This work allowed the class to explore the genre of Graphic Novels, as well as comic books, as the book version (published in 2005 by DC Comics/Vertigo) is a collection of the original comic series published in the United Kingdom between 1982 and 1989.
  •  Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds 
    • This 2017 novel/prose-poem by a popular young adult writer offered many interesting contemporary approaches–as the story recounts a young African American teenager’s encounter with gun violence and his own journey (down eight flights in an elevator over 67 seconds) towards potential revenge/violence of his own–and uses poetry and graphic/typographical presentations of the words on the page to propel the action forward.
  •  Room by Emma Donoghue
    • This 2010 novel told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy being held captive in an 11×11 room with his mother offers many interesting narrative approaches and unique elements of point of view, as the young protagonist has to negotiate between the “reality” of his narrow existence compared to the “outside” that his mother hopes to one day introduce him to.

But there were MANY more readings and genres and ideas that our class generated than we could cover in just sixteen weeks, so for our final project, the class put together this Reader’s Guide. Here are the criteria that were set out for this project:

ENG 340 Final Project

Reader’s Guide to Essential Contemporary Literature 

Our culminating project for ENG 340 will reflect the spirit and energy that started our exploration this semester—the goal of helping readers to “find your story” in the midst of an overwhelming amount new publications every year.

The audience of our “reader’s guide” will be those interested in tracking the literary trends of recent publications across genres, particularly students studying contemporary literature. Our guide will provide a context/introduction that explains our project—the definitions of what makes something “literary” as we have explored all semester. We will also share our criteria for what defines a work as “contemporary.”  For our class purposes, we suggested that we would explore works since the 1980s. However, for our final project (to give us some helpful parameters) let’s focus on work published since 2000.

The other parameter will be our emphasis on works that exhibit a “literary” value—though we will have one section of our reader’s guide devoted to simply listing contemporary writers, including any “guilty pleasures” you might have. Our audience (and those of you compiling the guide) are interested in exploring the works of contemporary literature that rise to a higher level of artistic, cultural and literary achievement.

The guide will be posted ONLINE and consist of the following sections:

  • “Lit Picks: A Select List of Important Contemporary Works.” 
    • Our selection of important contemporary works that literature students should consider reading (each student will contribute two individual entries)
  • “Contemporary Authors Reading List” 
    • (collective contributions: we will set up a discussion forum where you all can list as many authors or works that you think students of contemporary literature should consider adding to their reading list, including any “guilty pleasures” that you might add to the list).
  • “Contemporary Literary Genres.” 
    • (collective contributions: we will set up a discussion forum where all of us can flesh out the major genres that students of contemporary literature should be familiar with, and some of the important voices or examples in each.

We hope that you find this guide and our recommendations useful in your own journey through contemporary literature!