The Contemporary Novel

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(Introduction to “The Contemporary Novel” colloquy at Arcade.)

Any colloquy on the contemporary novel faces two immediate challenges.

We must deal first with our adjective. What do we mean by "contemporary"? The primary sense of the word, according to the trusty OED, is "[b]elonging to the same time, age, or period; living, existing, or occurring together in time." This sense brings to mind the calendrical fetish so deeply ingrained in the DNA of literary study. We have long presumed that synchrony conceals a cultural logic–an episteme, a Zeitgeist, a generational affiliation, whatever collective term we wish to employ to describe a moment–in need of analysis or exposure by the astute critic. Everything is connected, many of us imagine, and our job is to show just how.

Our faith in the significance of synchrony, in the sanctified integrity of the period, links up to the OED’s fourth sense of "contemporary": "Modern; of or characteristic of the present period; esp. up-to-date, ultra-modern; spec. designating art of a markedly avant-garde quality, or furniture, building, decoration, etc., having modern characteristics." After all, if each period has a unique character, what might the character of the present be? When did our period begin? How is it changing? Even historical scholarship opposed to histoire événementielle (event-driven history) doesn’t bypass these questions, but merely folds in longer durations of time into the "moment" of the modern. From the perspective of the long durée, after all, might not authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf seem contemporary with Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo?

The second challenge, the challenge of our noun, is both simpler and more vexing. The term "novel" already betrays a relationship to time, such that the adjective might seem redundant. In a sense, inasmuch as they have since their eighteenth-century rise always advertised their newness, all novels are contemporary novels, at least with the moment in which they are written. Without delving here into novel theory–this is the job of our bloggers–we might begin questioning the noun from another perspective, the perspective of genre. After all, what is a novel? And whatever it is, isn’t the contemporary moment defined by its failure, exhaustion, waning, or death? Don’t newer technologies, media, and genres more effectively give us a taste of the Zeitgeist than the stale conventions of realism and metafiction? In an era when, it seems, television, the graphic novel, and nonfiction have stolen the novel’s proverbial thunder, who wants to give Jonathan Franzen the time of day?

That we don’t have good answers to these questions, or at least answers that form anything resembling a critical consensus, speaks to the vital need for this colloquy. My hope is that Arcade will evolve into an important, if admittedly informal, zone where we question the key terms of this multifaceted field, work to form a consensus or at least understand our differences, and organize the early stages of diverse research programmes that will in time find their way into our scholarship and public writing.

—Lee Konstantinou, August 2011