The Contemporary Novel

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.

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,
might not authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf
seem contemporary with Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo?

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.

Konstantinou, August 2011

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Image: Spiral staircase
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