Some time around the beginning of the twentieth century, Ezra Pound declared, “Make it new!” and a famous literary battle cry was born. So came modernism, love child of the avant-garde and a seriously messed-up post-WWI society. The artists and writers of this period referred to themselves as the “lost generation,” and are often remembered as total party animals, drinking away the nights after indulging each other all day in highbrow Paris cafes (think Midnight in Paris if you’re not so big on that whole reading thing). Whether this romanticized era of alcoholic nonconformists appeals to you or not, many literature students are particularly passionate about it, and author loyalties abound. You should be fine as long as you keep mentioning your admiration for all of them. Excuse yourself for a refill if someone brings up Faulkner—you’re not ready for that yet.
This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The quickest way to prove you drink at the kids’ table is to bring up The Great Gatsby. Instead, drop a reference to Fitzgerald’s first novel, a relatable coming-of-age story that follows main character Amory Blaine through the various crises of childhood and early adulthood. The book is also incredibly quotable—drop a line about growing up to find “all wars fought, all gods dead, all faiths in man shaken,” and the English majors will instantly accept you as one of their own.
- Say this: “Twenty years old, in college, and already disillusioned. What’s changed?”
Dubliners, by James Joyce
Joyce is the much-loved poster child of Irish literature, and English majors love to bring him up in conversation, even if the transition has to be forced. Dubliners, a collection of short stories, is good to know because it gives a sampling of the ideas about betrayal, religion, and escapism within middle-class Ireland that Joyce expanded on in his other works. As a bonus, it gives you a head start, as some of the characters from Dubliners also appear in Ulysses—the massive magnum opus that undergrads love to pretend they’ve read.
- Say this: “Dubliners is mostly about how a boring, repetitive life is as bad as death. Joyce would have been right on that in 2013 #YOLO.”
To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
What conversation about twentieth-century literature or feminist writing would be complete without Virginia Woolf? Pretty much none—Virginia’s got your back for both. This emotional stream-of-consciousness novel exemplifies the modernist technique, where plot comes second to abstract self-reflection. As one of the landmark works of early feminist literature, To the Lighthouse shatters the conventional perception of female place in society through the character of Lily Briscoe who, like the author, overcomes much in the struggle to fulfill her dream of becoming an artist.
- Say this: “The fleeting fate of life preserved only in art—it really makes you think. Too bad the only art I will be leaving behind are all those drunk Facebook photos.”