Near the end of the quarter this past winter, the students in my graduate seminar and I were discussing my favorite books. As part of the conversation I expressed by chagrin about the fact that I don’t read much contemporary fiction, a lack that probably distinguishes me from most of my friends and colleagues. My graduate students, however, were not terribly surprised by this revelation. As one of them offered by way of explanation, “You’re so eighteenth century!”

It’s true that I love my period, but as a literature professor it is often awkward to admit how ignorant I am about contemporary literature. It can also lead to some embarrassment, even if only in my own mind. (I should note that I do read contemporary literature from time to time, just not as much as other people I know. I love, for example, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and Edwidge Dandicat’s The Dew Breaker. I also read contemporary GLBT lit.)

Case in point: last night my department (or at least the Creative Writing Program in my department) sponsored our annual Writers Harvest, a benefit for hunger relief. The program featured three writers who read from their own work and a short “interlude” of selections to be included in the first issue of the New Ohio Review (at least that’s my understanding of what these latter selections were).

All three readings were interesting, but I was particularly struck by the final reader, who is a visiting writer here for this quarter. Earlier this quarter, my partner and I were spending every other Wednesday watching Project Runway with a friend, who doesn’t get Bravo. We hoped to expand our little PR circle, so we invited a couple of other people over to watch with us, and our friend invited the visiting writer (VW). I enjoyed having the VW over that evening; she’s interesting, engaging, and just plain cool. An international traveler, she told us about staying in Paris, Berlin, and other places I have yet to go. And she was a good sport about PR. Since I’m on sabbatical, I haven’t seen her much since. We occasionally wave to each other in our building or on the street, but that’s it.

When one of our colleagues introduced the VW last night, she delivered a funny, respectful, and informative introduction, one that aroused my semi-annual chagrin about my ignorance: this VW, the woman about whom I know nothing except that she’s been to my house, watched Project Runway, drank relatively cheap wine, and ate brie with us, is a MAJOR writer. A simple google search when I got home last night confirmed that she has been making important contributions to literature and performance for more than twenty years. And she’s been to my house! I immediately begin to think, “OMG! If only I had know who she is, I would have bought better wine and gotten my picture taken with her!” (Notice that my first response was not that I should have read her work!)

It reminds me of a previous meeting with one of our visiting creative writers. A few years ago, I was asked to have dinner with one of the writers presenting her work at our annual Literary Festival. I agreed and had a very pleasant evening with her, another writer, and my partner, who had just been hired by my department. Again, I had no idea who she was. It turned out that she is a MAJOR poet whose work is right up there with Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde as an example of the lesbian feminism of the 1970s and 80s. (I’ve made amends with my conscience by subsequently teaching one of her poems in my GLBT lit class each year since that dinner.)

On one level, I’m embarrassed that I’m not particularly curious about or appreciative of contemporary literature outside hearing the occasional reading in my department. (Some of these readings have penetrated my eighteenth-century shell: hearing Sharon Olds read some of her poetry was revelatory. I had no idea poetry could do that.) On another level, I’m not. When I mention the authors I write about and love the most — people like the earl of Rochester, Sir George Etherege, and Aphra Behn — my colleagues and friends hardly ever know who they are or what they’ve written. Why are contemporary writers so important (other than for the fact that I might unwittingly have dinner with them or have them over to watch reality t.v.)?

All I can say is that, if the Creative Writing Program ever finds a way to bring in Rochester, Etherege, or Behn, I’m ready. I would be ecstatic to have the chance to find out if Rochester thinks Daniel Vosovic is as cute as I think he is. I would love to exclaim to Etherege, “I am Medley,” just to see if he’d look at me like I was crazy, which is how my students react when I share that little tidbit with them. And dinner with Behn would be a great chance to find out if “Mr. Behn” really existed or was just a creation of hers to provide her with greater social mobility.**

Perhaps I will stop feeling chagrined about my ignorance of contemporary lit, at least until my friends and colleagues start feeling embarrassed by their lack of knowledge about the writers I love and enjoy so much. Maybe someday one of them will exclaim after reading Rochester’s poetry, “I had no idea poetry could do that!” Until then, I’ll happily admit that I’m so eighteenth century.

** I’m pretty sure the answers would be 1) yes, Rochester would think Daniel V is cute and would subsequently write a sexually explicit poem expressing his interest in him, 2) yes, Etherege would think I was crazy but would also get the campy fun of my identification with Medley, and 3) yes, Behn would admit that she embellished the “facts” of her marriage!

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