SYMPOSIUM: What is the Contemporary Novel?

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A few weeks ago, graduate students in English and Literature at Duke University and UNC, Chapel Hill convened a two-day symposium on the contemporary novel.

Jane Eliiott (King's College), Justin Neuman (Yale), and Hector Hoyos (Stanford) presented papers at the event, after which the floor was opened for graduate student responses and general discussion. 

Below is the description of the Symposium. 

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What is contemporary about the contemporary novel?  By no means all recent novels suggest that the novel form—and presumably the cultures that produce and consume this art form--are undergoing something on the order of a paradigm shift. Those novels that do register such an event ask us to consign old worlds, scientific methods, forms of agency (human and otherwise), along with literary genres to the dustbin, forcing us to try out new ways of imagining human life. The novels we want to consider “contemporary” exploit the world-making power of their respective national traditions to make sense of this event, not only by critiquing the categories of self, household, property, and nation that organize traditional fiction and the world it asks us to assume is out there; these novels also try out alternative ways of inhabiting that world and engaging both the social forces that blow it apart and the affective glue that holds it together.

To emphasize the “contemporary” component of “the contemporary novel” automatically raises the question of how novels from various national traditions identify themselves with the present moment in the history of the novel, the nation, international capitalism, and the subjects that populate the novel’s version of community. It will be the job of this seminar to ask what order of event distinguishes this moment in the manner of such earlier periods as, say, “the Enlightenment,” “the Age of Empire,” and so forth.  If we determine that no such event marks this period, on the other hand, we’ll have to ask whether and how the contemporary novel calls periodicity itself into question and how we would then historicize such presentism? 

If we shift the emphasis to the “novel” component of “the contemporary novel,” we raise the no less difficult question of genre, medium, form, or style (call it what you will). Is there some cluster of stylistic features, themes or topics by means of which contemporary fiction makes itself formally coherent?  How do these formal changes turn the novel away from a national readership in order to address a global readership?  Do the formal changes responsible for the new “world novel” support or challenge revisionary philosophical models of human reason, emotion, ethics, secularism, governmentality, sexuality, mediation, aesthetics. 

As a composite concept, “the contemporary novel” is productively invertible: How does it remodel the traditional “world” of the novel—its scope and the kind of event that shapes it? What social, sensory, and affective qualities are required to inhabit it? How does the novel in turn ask a readership, presumably not the national readership of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community,” to reimagine its relation to the real? What inducement do such novels offer their readers? How does fiction supplement other explanations of the event requiring such changes in the categories that organize our world?

The answers to some if not all of these questions hinge on the issue of how we decide which recent novels by which authors count as contemporary and which do not. If we assume that the contemporary novel makes ethical and political demands on its readers, which novels are making these demands? If we assume that the contemporary novel is not interested in garnering the reader’s sympathy for its characters, which novels are eliciting new modes of affective engagement? If we assume the contemporary novel refuses either to set up or invert distinctions between the center and the periphery, what novels are offering these new models of community?

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