“The Time of the Contemporary American Novel”
Mathias Nilges (St. Francis Xavier U)
The time of our present, as commentators such as Terry Smith have argued now for a number of years, is widely understood to be defined by post-historicism, by crises of futurity, and by the purported end of time itself as we struggle to be anything but contemporary. The association of our present and of the aesthetic and political climate in the aftermath of postmodernism with a ubiquitous presentism, a crisis of futurity, and the seeming increasing absorption of different temporalities into the same broadening present has become one of the canonical facets of current criticism and theory. Examples include the recent work of literary critics such as Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Lauren Berlant, cultural critics such as Mark Fisher (in particular his much-discussed notion of “capitalist realism”), and philosophers and political theorists such as Paulo Virno, Bernard Stiegler, Franco Berardi, and Paul Virilio. What, then, does it mean to speak of “the contemporary novel” in a situation in which the very term “contemporary” is transformed from the status of temporal neutrality to that of a historically specific designator, to a periodizing term? In what ways has the recent novel tasked itself with historicizing the contemporary, and what are the novel forms of our time through which the novel works out its relationship to and critique of the seemingly exhausted temporal episteme of our present?
Peter Osborne has recently suggested that the term the contemporary, in particular if we use it to describe artworks that seek to establish a meaningful, historical relationship to the present, expresses not only a presence in the now but should more accurately be conceived as a critical and analytical relationship to the now as history. To merely be present, in other words, means nothing more than to inhabit one’s time. To speak of contemporaneity, however, is to describe a relation to the present that is grounded upon the refusal to live in the moment in favor of a position of distantiated reflection and critical interrogation. And it is precisely such a relation that any artform that is truly committed to historicizing the contemporary aims to facilitate. Accordingly, I will argue, we may propose to reserve the term “contemporary novel” (as opposed to alternatives such as the “present novel” or the “novel of the present”) to characterize novels that are not merely “of” our time but that engage with the problem of contemporaneity in ways that historicizes and politicizes those forms of thought that structure (and indeed limit) our present—for novels, in other words, that ask us to read the time of the present as a particular, historically specific form of imagining time. The novel is of particular significance in this context, since it is a literary form that has always been bound up with efforts at historicizing time and temporality and at interrogating a historical era’s predominant temporal epistemes. And it returns to these roots today with political urgency and great creative complexity. By way of an example, I will show that the American novel has recently returned to realism in general and to a form more readily associated with European modernism (as in Mann and Proust), the Zeitroman, in particular in order to develop a novelistic form for our time, a form that allows us to read contemporaneity as a relation to the present that does not simply live the now but that interrogates the present as history, a relationship, therefore, of being simultaneously with and without, in and out of time. It is in this sense that the contemporary time novel assumes an important function in the context of a historical situation that, as Smith argues, challenges us to develop accounts of the status of art and criticism “in the conditions of contemporaneity.
Chair: Pia Wiegmink (U Mainz)
“Shakespeare, Novelized: Hogarth, Symbolic Capital, and the Literary Market.”
Jeremy Rosen (U Utah)
In October 2015, Penguin Random House launched a new series of Shakespeare novelizations under the recently resuscitated imprint Hogarth. In honor of the quadricentennial of the Bard’s death, the world’s largest publishing conglomerate commissioned an all-star roster of house novelists to rewrite the Shakespeare plays of their choice. The consolidation of the global publishing industry, which (thus far) culminated in the 2013 merger between Bertelsmann’s Random House and Pearson’s Penguin, has raised fears about diminishing author advances, title variety, and an even greater emphasis on star writers and bestselling books, as well as hopes for increased leverage against the retail dominance of Amazon and Apple. While it may be difficult and too soon to determine the broadest net effects of such mergers on the book industry and contemporary literature, Hogarth Shakespeare exemplifies two clear results of the post-consolidation literary marketplace: the availability of superstar “house” authors for house-generated projects, and the vogue for stylish contemporary reboots of timeless literary classics. This trend is visible across the contemporary literary landscape, perhaps most visibly in “The Austen Project” launched by HarperCollins and its undead cousin Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, now playing at a cinema near you. Hogarth Shakespeare, its name acquired via several mergers from the illustrious and autonomous press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, demonstrates in a particularly vivid fashion several dynamics of this landscape: the importance of reliable, formulaic genres; the emergence of synergistic, conglomerate-wide publishing ventures; and the strategic leveraging of symbolic capital—the deployment of prestigious names that bathe commercial fiction in the luminous aura of literariness.
“Mind the Gap: The Contemporary Literary Novel and Conspicuous Absences”
Patrick Gill (U Mainz)
A cursory glance at the early 21st-century poetics of the mainstream novel in Britain may well convince you of the genre's pessimism: the contemporary novel seems hesitant to offer constructive ideas. Instead it seems designed to call into question many of those features that have largely dominated the form since its eighteenth-century inception and the predominantly humanistic trajectory it has since occupied. Real-world sceptics may recognise in this particular stance a pessimism regarding the state of, variously, contemporary ethics, politics or the environment; the formalistically inclined reader, though, will see a different pattern emerge: that of strategically placed and ostentatiously signposted interpretive gaps. My paper argues that under pressure from other genres, and encouraged by a prize-giving culture designed to foster just such a response, contemporary authors of the literary mainstream find themselves drawn towards a clearly demarcated and signalled encouragement of readerly participation in their texts.
Not that the interpretive gap in and of itself constitutes any radical departure - reader response theory will identify it in the earliest specimens of the English, or indeed any kind of novel. Nor is the idea of deliberately manipulating and misleading the reader or abrogating responsibility to them all that new, as the brief fad of alternative endings as well as the more sustained interest in unreliable narration of the last forty years attest. But while unreliable narration remains a staple of the contemporary novel, other forms of conspicuous absence have established themselves. My paper primarily discusses two such phenomena, viz. the ostensible absence of cohesion, particularly in the recently fashionable composite novel; and the provocative absence of any positive autopoetics, i.e. of any clearly articulated idea of what the novel as a form can and should do.
“The Cosmopolitan Value of the Global Novel.”
Kristian Shaw (U Lincoln)
The novel form is central to cross-cultural understanding and dialogue. Kwame Anthony Appiah perceives the novel to act “as a testing ground for [...] cosmopolitanism, with its emphasis on dialogue among differences”, effectively being “a message in a bottle from some other position” (2001). However, the novel (as commodity) seems to be losing its primacy and centrality in contemporary society due to the increasing digitization of the globalized world. Drawing on examples from contemporary literature, this paper will suggest that novels continue to possess a cosmopolitan value, are able to respond to post-millennial change and will remain central to the transmission of cultural narratives.
“Speculative Histories and Post-Capitalist Realism: The New Narrative’s Search for a Useable Past.”
Stephen Shapiro (U Warwick)
In this talk, I will discuss the difference between periodisation and periodicity as a mode of analysis. Because capitalism is a social pattern that is structurally dynamic, it has familiar waves of development, even as it expands in new ways—each long wave has both general and particular features. Such a claim allows for a new comparative studies based on the analogy of similar moments in different long waves, rather than one anchored to a theory of teleological stage development, temporal continuity, or spatial contiguity.
Building on the work of economists Dumenil and Levy, I suggest that the novel and televisual production has become interested again in historicity, as a result of our current location in a time of crisis. This approach may be contrasted with the new criticism that abjures hermeneutics in favour of distance (Moratti), surface (Best and Marcus), or post-criticism (Felski). Treating arguments about algorithmic governmentally, I will suggest that the new surface criticism risks reaffirming neoliberal algorithmic power, rather than the reverse. The novel, conversely, remains interested in what some contemporary literary studies does not: capitalist power and inequality.
Chair: Franziska Schmid (U Mainz)
“Contemporary Literary Journalism, the Book Market, and the Problem of Social Agency.”
Clemens Spahr (U Mainz)
In a 20123 essay for the New Yorker, George Packer has described the recent turn to earlier forms of literary journalism as “new depression journalism.” Packer’s phrase suggests political and narrative continuities with a tradition of narrative journalism that was largely established by Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890). At the same time, Packer’s emphasis on the newness of the historical situation (“the new depression”) raises questions about the historical specificity of narrative forms and aesthetics strategies. Although the politics of form that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century is still a valuable resource for contemporary American literature, the socio-institutional conditions which it addresses have significantly changed. As Fredric Jameson has pointed out, postmodernism saw the incorporation of “aesthetic production [...] into commodity production generally,” and therefore has witnessed a constant need of art to market itself as new and innovative in a social system structured by the “reification of everything” (Wallerstein). The writers I will analyze in my talk (ranging from Dave Eggers to Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco) respond to these new institutional settings as they acknowledge that institutions assign higher value to what they consider innovative and experimental literature. But while contemporary narrative journalism incorporates new elements of storytelling (for instance, the visual arts of photography or the comic), and while it accepts that a claim to newness is a necessary strategy to succeed in the literary marketplace, its aesthetics and narratives modes point beyond these social, cultural, and institutional limits. A significant branch of contemporary literary journalism resurrects earlier models of narrative that are designed to re-envision forms of historical agency. My talk will assess the risks and possibilities of a practical literature that aligns itself with its historical moment. Moreover, given the complex set of social and institutional conditions from which it merges, contemporary American literary journalism also allows us to investigate the continuities and discontinuities that characterize the production of contemporary American literature more generally.
“Sandman, Aesthetics and Canonisation”
Julia Round (Bournemouth U)
This paper will examine the ways in which Sandman (Neil Gaiman/various: 1989-96 and 2013-15) has used its narrative, format and aesthetic to move ever closer to the notion of the literary text. Sandman is best remembered for its mythological content and literary allusions, and these elements have allowed it to claim its place as a canonised graphic novel. But the comic also drew heavily on mixed media and artistic variation throughout its run and these aspects are less often discussed. This paper will demonstrate that the series used visual elements alongside its narrative and format to establish a coherent identity of both verbal and visual literariness that has culminated in the recent publication of Sandman: Overture.
It begins by revisiting the launch of Sandman (1989-1996) as the flagship title for DC’s Vertigo imprint back in the 1990s. The Vertigo imprint as a whole continued the literary trajectory set by Alan Moore and was ‘totally writer-led’ (Karen Berger, personal interview). Vertigo contributed to the cultural revaluation of comics as graphic novels by placing an emphasis on the author function and offering a critical and aesthetic distance from DC’s other publications. Having established the literary weight of Sandman, the main body of the paper proceeds to close examination of its visual elements. It will demonstrate that Dave McKean’s unique and memorable collage covers and the numerous artists who brought their own style to individual story arcs or single issues matched the diversity of the comic’s content and raised its critical profile.
After giving examples of these this paper will conclude by examining the ways in which the subsequent Sandman: Overture mini-series (Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III, 2013-15) continues to use mixed media in its style, content and format. It will consider the use of alternate covers and varied art; the presence of interwoven stories and multiple character incarnations; and the effect of double-page spreads, fold-out pages, and the hardcover prestige format. It will argue that, rather than using multiple artists, JHW3’s holistic and organic artistic process extends and develops the title’s mixed media approach. It demonstrates this aesthetic is used strategically to reinforce Sandman’s literary worth and to deflect potential criticism of the series’ continuation.
“Aesthetic Experience & The Consumption of Serial Art: Quality TV. vs. The Novel”
Philipp Löffler (U Heidelberg)
As recent studies have shown, contemporary ‘Quality T.V:’ can be compared in many ways to nineteenth-century serial novel with regard to both its formal properties and its broad, popular reception. To engage with this claim I use Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the AMC production Mad Men as examples, arguing that while the suggested comparison highlights a number of seeming similarities (e.g. narrative composition, moments of suspense, character and plot development), it ultimately affirms the distinctness of both genres/formats. What distinguishes T.V.-productions, such as Mad Men, and the ‘Quality T.V.’-world in general from the novel is the social function that both genres fulfil(led) and the respective forms of reception that both formats require and promote. Using book history and reception studies I show that nineteenth-century novels, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Wide, Wide World, were popular in the sense that they reached out to a broad, sociologically diverse audience as forms of entertainment, whereas so-called ‘Quality T.V.’ is and remains to be a university-sustained elite phenomenon representing only a small, yet prestigious segment of the contemporary television market.
“Sensing the Novel / Seeing the Goods.”
Claire Squires (U Stirling)
How editors choose the books they publish is the source of endless conversation, fascination, interrogation, and critique. The processes of editorial selection are frequently described by editors in visceral, physical language (e.g. ‘gut reaction’, ‘instinct’), which seems to imply the texts under consideration have innate qualities immediately apparent to talented editors. Yet these seemingly instinctual judgements are acts of professionalised reading, informed by the development of taste within the literary marketplace, through both literary and market-based education. Editors, whether in conglomerates or independents, operate within commercial environments and through literary networks, which turn literary texts into marketable, commodifiable objects.
Drawing on a dataset of semi-structured interviews conducted in 2016 with a range of commissioning editors (both English and Scottish; and across the genres of literary fiction, crime, and children’s books), the paper explores editorial selection in the 21st century. As the traditional role of the publisher is recast from gatekeeper to curator in the digital age, and in the face of the rise of self-publishing, what is the impact of the frequent mystification of the act of reading submissions, and how might it be understood and communicated?
"Auratic Facsimile: Mark(et)ing the Print Novel in the Age of Digital Reproduction"
Julia Panko (Utah State U)
The marketing appeal of S., a novel by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, lies in its material verisimilitude. S. appears to be a mid-century library book that was annotated and extra-illustrated as it was passed between two readers. In nearly every physical detail, S. obfuscates its ontological status. It purports to be a found object containing non-fictional marginal conversations—an object that has accumulated aura as it has acquired these markings, the evidence of its unique history as an individual artifact. S., in other words, enacts the argument that print media is particularly auratic, even while demonstrating that the appearance of aura can be simulated and mass-produced.
This is not the only paradox of S., however; nor even the only paradox that invites a reevaluation of the relationships among novels, print books, and digital technology. While much of S.’s appeal lies in its print aesthetics, the novel was also marketed through an online campaign, whose transmedia elements further intensified the illusion of S.’s reality. Although S. defies conventional expectations for what print novels should look like and purport to be, its purposeful blurring of its ontological status locates it both within the tradition of the novel genre and as part of a current movement of non-print literary experiments that explore how media platforms may be used produce verisimilitude.
“Indie Publishers and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace”
Melanie Ramdarshan Bold (U College London)
This paper investigates contemporary independent publishing in the UK. It explores how independent publishers based outside of London are shaping the literary market - particularly with different forms of the traditional novel (digital, short, interactive) and emerging authors - based on their desire to promote and preserve regional cultures and identities, and maintain diversity in cultural output. Small publishers in the North and Midlands of England are used as case studies in this research because they constitute small publishing communities that exist alongside the larger, dominant publishing industry in London. Although the foci of the empirical research are the industries in the North and Midlands of England, the paper is contextualized within national publishing discourse.
“Literature’s Symbolic Economies.”
Günter Leypoldt (U Heidelberg)
Looking at recent literary trends – the turn to genre by writers of high literary ambition, or the “reality hunger” discourse associated with the Knausgaard phenomenon – I will explore how literary value relates to markets and institutions. I will argue that distinguishing between literature’s economic and symbolic powers (a book’s sales versus its capability to make a difference within a public structure of feeling) helps us to resolve some of the classic paradoxes of cultural authority, the feeling, for example, that literary hierarchies or canons are either undemocratic or rendered obsolete by a commercialized literary marketplace.
“Unique Selling Points. Creating and Maintaining Hype in the Book Market”
Ann Steiner (Lund U)
Unique Selling Points are, in marketing terminology, the few words or sentences that states how and why your product is unique, special, interesting, new and sellable. In the book market it is the way to make a book visible and can be the difference between hardly being read at all or to look forwards to large international sales. Marketing, hype, buzz, visibility, media attention should have little to do with the production and dissemination of literature, one might argue. And while this is true in some aspects it is clear that literature is not created and produced in a void, but in and for a market that will effect how and if a text reaches readers.
On the other hand, if one argues that the book market is solely a commercial business that pushes bestsellers rather than diversity it is easy to overlook that the movements between authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers are much more complex than such an image solicits. Thus the paper intends to shed some light on how to understand marketing and the market in the present-day digital literary world. In order to understand how literature is affected, concepts such as visibility, abundance, “big books”, international book trade, and genre will be touched upon.
“The Small American Novel: Reading, Marketing, and Evaluating the Short Book Today”
Alexander Starre (FU Berlin)
“The dream of the great American novel,” as Lawrence Buell has recently argued in a book of the same name, has pervaded the American literary field since the mid-nineteenth century and remains very much alive in the present. From Moby-Dick to Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest, the grandeur of the great American novel partly depends on its size. American publishers frequently choose to market novels that surpass the 1,000-page mark as especially ambitious, complex, and wide-ranging.
In the shadow of such printed “door stoppers”, very short novels have thrived as well and have sparked design strategies, marketing routines, and reception modes of their own. My paper engages four contemporary fiction titles—Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (2002/2012), Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010), Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (2011), Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (2014)—and considers their textual, paratextual, and commercial presentation as short novels. Clocking in at little more than one hundred pages each, these books mobilize notions of sparseness, restraint, profundity, and precision, all of which are underscored by elegant typographical designs and airy page layouts.
As we see in these case studies, the commodity of the small book aligns the dual discourses of aesthetics and economics in such a way that material shortcomings (few pages, little content) are transformed into markers of artistic merit to be appreciated by literary connoisseurs. Seen from the vantage point of book studies and literary sociology, the small American novel may even be more indicative of the status of fictional writing as cultural commodity in a modern marketplace than its presumably “great” counterpart.
"Novel-as-Good, Good Novels, Better eReaders"
Jim Collins (U Notre Dame)
Speculation about the future of the novel as a good is an intriguing question because it allows us to consider the novel as a cultural commodity and as form of fictional narrative that promises to deliver some sort of reward or benefit for the labor involved in reading it. In my last book, Bring of the Books for Everybody, I examined the use values that different forms of literary fiction are endeavor to create for themselves. There I devoted most of my attention to two types of recent
Anglophone fiction: Post-literary novels (which fuse canonical novels of manners with self-help discourse in order to provide essential lessons in romantic and material consumerism) and Devoutly Literary novels (which celebrate the act of reading literary fiction as a transformative, enriching experience that transcends mere media culture). In both cases, the valuation of literary fiction is deeply embedded within fictional universes and character action becomes living proof of the validity of those values.
In this paper I focus on the changing mise-en scene of the literary, specifically in regard to the interplay between the solitary and social pleasures of reading. In his essay, “First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton argues that if we want to gain a more subtle understanding of the ideals and assumptions underlying reading in the past, “We could study contemporary depictions of reading in fiction, autobiographies, polemical writings, letters, paintings, and prints in order to uncover some basic notions of what people thought took place when they read.” While Darnton advocates this strategy for filling in significant blanks in history of reading, I want to incorporate this emphasis on depiction in order to make sense of current reading cultures. Here I concentrate on two interdependent forms of depiction that envision a new locativity for the literary experience. First, I’ll look closely at the depiction of reading in the promotion of new delivery systems for the novel, namely the ebook and the audio book. Then I’ll look closely at two literary bestsellers that appeared in the summer of 2016, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter and Claire Louise Bennett’s Pond. Both authors have been celebrated as new literary sensations. Both recalibrate the relationship between the solitary and social dimensions of reading as they re-envision where the literary writing and literary reading take place. Both deliver the goods.