On the Teenage Angst of 20th-Century Literature
From the Lit Century Podcast with Sandra Newman
and Catherine Nichols
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
This week features part two of a discussion between co-hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols about the first ten books discussed on Lit Century. How did suffering come to be seen as cool in the 20th century?
From the episode:
Sandra Newman: This is making me think that a lot of 20th-century art—and maybe all art, but 20th-century art anyway—is about people wanting to think that they are the one, they are the pain-haver, and to fantasize about being the pain-haver. We even talked about, like in The Designated Mourner, the upper middle class or even wealthy artistic type writing the play in which he can fantasize about being the person who’s going to be killed first by the fascist, which is absolutely ridiculous. There’s no reason that he would be that person.
Many of these books, there’s a certain thing where as a young person reading these books, you are framing yourself as the person who has the special experience that’s not like anyone else’s, and usually—not always, not in Cheaper by the Dozen, but in most of these books—it’s not just a special experience; it’s a more tragic experience than everyone else. It’s a very teenage thing. You’re feeling the pain no matter what is happening. Like as a teenager, the pain that you feel is completely off the charts, even if you’re really just sitting in your room watching television.
Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the author of the memoir Changeling as well as several other nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in Harper’s and Granta, among other publications. She lives in New York City.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel and The Seattle Review, among others. She lives in Boston.