We are all contemporary writers in the sense of being alive, here, now, productive, and unframed by criticism; and most of us are struggling for recognition by editors and agents, who stand as gatekeepers to publishers and living readers.
We are not all contemporary, however, in the sense of taking this shared present as our subject and setting, expressing or reporting on the Zeitgeist, protesting or celebrating its politics and mores. Think of such intentionally contemporary fictions as Hemingway’s In Our Time, Fitzgerald’s The Jazz Age, or Lewis’s Main Street and Babbitt for the 1920s. Think of the Harlem Renaissance and Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923). Think of Dorothy Parker, Katherine Anne Porter, and John Steinbeck for the 30s. Think of John O’Hara, Eudora Welty, and J.D. Salinger for the 40s into the 50s. Think of “the Beat generation” and Kerouac’s On The Road or the ironic portrayals of suburbia by Richard Yates, John Cheever, Grace Paley, and John Updike for the 50s into the 60s. Think of the Vietnam War years and “the Woodstock generation.” Think of John Barth’s meta-fictional satire. Think of Philip Roth’s Jewish-American fiction for the 60s into the 70s, along with such “counter-cultural” visions as those of Ray Carver and Ann Beattie, the rise of feminism, and the voicing of minorities by Toni Morrison and others. Think of such women writers in the 1980s as Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore and Meg Wolitzer—all still innocent of computers and the internet, and still uncertain about the wages of women’s agency. Think of Douglas Coupland’s anomalous drifters in 1991s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.
Then we have the millennials (aka Generation Y). According to the Educational Database, they are defined as “the age cohort that was born starting in 1983,” and “the ten best novels about the Millennial experience so far,” though not necessarily by millennial authors, include those by Junot Diaz, Karen Russell, Tao Lin, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Suzanne Collins (whom I have heard of) as well as John Brandon, Marissa Pessl, Téa Obreht, Gary Shteyngart, and Miranda July (whom I have not).
Several generations may be contemporary by being alive at the same time, but we are identified more closely by our situations in coming of age, which seem to “accelerate” in difference. Each decade seems normal to those who have known nothing different, while it seems alien to those who have formed their sense of normality in earlier ones. Hence the 60s phrase “generation gap” is narrowed to twenty-, thirty-, forty-somethings, or under-somethings, each of whom attempt to chronicle or voice an original perspective. Future Shock, as described by Allen Topfer in his 1970s best seller, beats on.
Who remembers the early personal computers with 7-inch floppy disks? Who remembers typewriters and carbon copies? To millennials and post-millennials (that is, my perpetually 20-something students), “technological and social change” is an obsolescent status quo.
As of today normal includes recreational drugs, green hair, tattoos, piercings, porn, birth control, abortion, STDs, Brazilians, multiculturalism, globalization and globe trekking, cell phones, texting, blogs, multimedia, GPS, climate change, divorce, gay marriage, hip hop, Wi-Fi, iPads, streaming video, Skype, YouTube, social media, terrorism and homeland security, airport scanners, CGI, drones, hypertext syndrome, etc. Feel free to extend the list.
Given such markers, are you (and the writers you read and prize) dated or up to date? Are you disposable, evasive, escapist, or quaint? Is your writing durable? Does the world of your fiction responsibly address the world we live in? Does it “capture the quintessence of the Zeitgeist” around you?
Here is David Shields on David Foster Wallace:
His whole project was nothing more or less than trying to convey and articulate and embody how strange it felt to be alive, especially to think, now—the pleasures and burdens of consciousness. So every footnote, ever neologism, every weird mix of highfalutin diction and pop jargon, every overuse of “w/r/t” or “like” as a filler, every qualifying parenthesis—the goal was to try to talk in a new way about what it felt like to be alive at ground level right now.
Here, on the other hand, is Nick Paumgarten on James Salter:
He has ignored the issues of the day; his subjects seem to exist in a world without politics or class or the clutter of pop culture, technology, or even, most of the time, any consideration of gainful employment. His focus has been narrow, personal, subtle. In a time of antiheroes, he has fixated on heroism. He has not been prolific….[quotes from Salter] ‘I like to write about certain things that if they are not written about are not going to exist.’
We speak of contemporary masterpieces, works that we won’t willingly let die. Marketers, of course, push their candidates for this status, attempting to jumpstart or usurp the idea of lasting value. Also, later eras may prize works that we ignore, while the works that we celebrate may retain only historical interest.
The opposite notion to contemporary is classic. John Aldridge was an academic gatekeeper of the classic in his 1992 book Classics and Contemporaries. For him, Faulkner and Hemingway were classics–in the canon, as it were–while then such living writers as John Barth or Norman Mailer were aesthetically inferior and flawed. “Making the distinction between an enjoyable contemporary work that is bound to fade and a book that possesses the possibility of surviving into another generation is, I think, one of the most important, and certainly difficult, tasks of the critic,” writes NPR’s critic Alan Cheuse.
Of course, both Cheuse and Aldridge discount the political and social demands on art, the way that extraliterary agendas replace supposedly aesthetic concerns. Writers on the left in the 1930s condemned Sherwood Anderson for not being radical enough. He responded: “Leave me alone. My fiction is more revolutionary than any of your soapbox speeches or manifestoes.” Or words to that effect.
Contemporary refers to idiom, style, and form as well as to “technological and social change.” Here, for instance, is John Barth, attempting to bridge politics and literary form, in a 1967 essay called “The Literature of Exhaustion:” “To be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect … a good many current novelists write turn-of-the-century-type novels, only in more or less mid-twentieth-century language and about contemporary people and topics.” He prefers Beckett and Borges:
Just about the only contemporaries . . . mentionable with the old masters . . . One of the most modern things about these two is that in an age of ultimacies and ‘final solutions’—at least felt ultimacies in everything from weaponry to theology, the celebrated dehumanization of society, and the history of the novel—their work in separate ways reflects and deals with ultimacy, both technically and thematically.
Much of what we’ve come to label as innovative, experimental, postmodern, and post-postmodern writing shares in these notions, which have also inspired new trends in more traditional fiction. Think of the use of present tense narration, for instance, or second person narration, or both. “You wake up. You are some kind of insect on its back, six legs waving.” Think of metafiction’s focus on the process of imagining: drama’s fourth wall. Think of new pressures on the notion of genre fiction and pop culture. I used Norton’s now dated anthology Postmodern American Fiction for several years in a workshop I taught on Fooling Around in Prose (for details and examples see http://teach.itg.emerson.edu/fap/index.htm), which modeled six distinct strategies: breaking the frame; fact meets fiction, high culture and low culture collide; revisiting history; revising tradition; and technoculture.
Here in a different sense is Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1990) about confronting racism:
I have been thinking about the validity or vulnerability of a certain set of assumptions conventionally accepted among literary historians and critics and circulated as ‘knowledge.’ This knowledge holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans, and then African-Americans in the United States.
Or again: “in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.”
One way to read the American Short Story is to follow the progress of hyphenated Americans as characters into literary agency. Think of the contrast between Hemingway’s Bugs (in 1925’s “The Battler”) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Joe (in 1933’s “The Gilded Six-Bits”) or nearly any of her other characters.
From 1986-2011, we entered the age of the TV talk show, notably Oprah Winfrey’s. As she explored toxic silences, I would be surprised if Charles Baxter, a fiction writer dedicated to news that stays news (Ezra Pound’s phrase for literature), didn’t follow the show closely.
Ellen Meister in Dorothy Parker Drank Here has fun with bringing the ghost of Dorothy Parker (who died in 1967) to witness and interact with the New York of 2015, thereby questioning the idea of contemporary, then and now. Parker as a writer for Smart Set and Vanity Fair in her prime specialized, like Fitzgerald, in signifying her times. But can she grasp our times? What has changed?
“We don’t need a phone book,” Norah said. “It’s the twenty-first century.”
“Oh. Yes. The internet. I’ve been hearing about that for years.” She [Dorothy Parker] took a seat.
“You know what it is?”
“From what I understand, it’s like a massive party line, only with computers instead of telephones—the whole world is available to anyone with one of those little machines.”
[ . . . ]
“Isn’t there any technology that knocks you for a loop?”
Dorothy Parker thought for a moment. “I supposed I found that computer net amusing.”
“Internet,” Norah corrected. “And amusing is a tame adjective for technology that’s revolutionized the world.”
“I can’t see how it would have changed my life very much.”
Parker, incidentally, to the best of my knowledge, was one of the first writers to use the telephone as a device in her fiction (see “A Telephone Call,” 1928). I’m not sure who first introduced television into fiction. I miss it in Salinger’s stories of the early 1950s, but by 1969 it becomes a central presence in Robert Coover’s “The Baby Sitter.”
At what point can a new technology or custom become familiar enough to be accepted and even expected by readers? At what point can we estimate its impact? How many older, white writers have set a story in 2009 or later? How many writers, regardless of race, have introduced a cell phone into a story? Cable TV? A diverse work, social and family life? Single mothers? A foreign visitor? Condoms? Politicians during Obama’s presidency? Airport security procedures? Legal marijuana? If writers haven’t, at what point do the omissions become noticeable and significant; or if writers have, at what point do the inclusions distract from theme, character, and story, indeed, take the place of story, becoming documentary?
It is a weakness of my novel about factory workers, written during the decades of Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, that no President or any other time marker is mentioned. I was trying to keep it timeless, while in fact the setting had to have been the Kennedy years. I couldn’t write explicitly about the sixties in the sixties, except in my notebooks. I needed time to process the times.
There are other risks in using present time frames. I have a colleague who began a novel in 1990, set in the Brooklyn of 1990, but the writing took him years and when 9/11 occurred, he was forced to revise his setting and concept. A former student, more gusher than bleeder, set out to write a novel set in contemporary times, and his main characters were all “corporate warriors” or “freelancers” operating in Iraq. After a year of research, he began writing in April, 2014, and got forty pages in, when suddenly ISIS stormed across the country and established their new “caliphate.” He no longer knew where to go with the book. “I spent days,” he wrote, “just reading newspapers and following events. I’d planned to set the book in the same year as I was writing it, and there I was, watching as the chessboard I’d so carefully constructed over the preceding eighteen months was completely rearranged.”
Silences are the concern of Tillie Olsen’s 1962 book about women writers. They are also the subject of George Eliot’s 1872 novel Middlemarch, source of this famous quote, which I allude to in my 1992 anthology, Other Sides of Silence: New Fiction from Ploughshares: “If we had keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
In editing this and an earlier anthology, I featured “Bests” from the first twenty years of Ploughshares, stories that attempted “to confront contemporary experience at the deepest levels.” One such story was Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” I remember my shock and gratitude when I first read Carver’s story in manuscript (solicited by guest editor Donald Hall), and my letter to him, explaining that my wife and I had just experienced the ordeal of helplessness in the ICU as our five-year-old daughter, who had contracted myocarditis, was given slim odds of recovery. Carver’s story had filled my silence.
By nature, as a writer, editor, and teacher, I am more of the school of Salter than of Barth or Wallace. In its best sense, contemporary to me means more than the topical, the trendy, or the circumstantial. The envelope of history changes but our fundamental humanity remains. Whether we write by candles with quill pens or type on iPads, we write, we listen, we connect. Between selves as between generations we carry our personal silences, our individual versions of the felt and unexpressed. We work to break those silences with art. The dream is permanence. The news that stays news is the kindred heart.
Aldridge, John. Classics and Contemporaries, Columbia: University of MIssouri Press, 1992. Print.
Anonymous. “The Ten Most Defining Novels of The Millennial Generation.” http://www.teleread.com/books/the-10-most-defining-novels-of-the-millennial-generation/ .
Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” The Atlantic Monthly. August, 1967.
Birkerts, Sven. “This Year’s Canon” in Readings. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 1999. Print.
Cheuse, Alan. “On Contemporary.” Unpublished manuscript. Date unknown.
Geyh, Paula; Leebron, Fred G.; Levy, Andrew (Editors). Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York, 1997. Print.
Holie, Nathan. “In Search of the Great Millennial Novel.” http://nathanholie.com/in-search-of-the-great-millennial-novel/the-millennial-canon/
Meister, Ellen. Dorothy Parker Drank Here. New York: Putnam, 2015. Print.
Morrison, Tony. Playing in the Dark. New York: Vintage 1993. Print.
Olsen, Tilly. Silences. New York: Delta, 1979.
Paumgarten, Nick. “The Last Book.” The New Yorker. April 15, 2013.
Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 2010.
Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York: Knopf, 2010.
Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Bantam, 1984.
I second these emotions; thank you Dewitt for this intense and incisive piece. I agree the end packs a punch and this quote is already copied in my notebook: “The news that stays news is the kindred heart.”
I love the insights here … and not just because I was quoted (!). As a writer who has been struggling to find the intersection of historical and contemporary fiction, this was fascinating. And the last paragraph is brilliant–every line is quotable. Thanks to DeWitt Henry for sharing his keen vision.
Compliments & congratulations to Dewitt Henry on this piece, ranging widely yet never falling into the superficial. The distinction between contemporary & classic gets turned this way & that, each angle affording fresh illumination. What Henry demonstrates, finally, is the greater insight a longtime literary warrior can provide — he shows us how an alertness to the cutting edge in fact can contribute to “news that stays news.”