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A Call for the Contemporary by Nicholas Wolf

Submitted by site_editor on Sat, 2015-09-05 09:44

The study of contemporary writing requires the engagement with two obstacles: the uncertainty as to what constitutes the ‘contemporary,’ and resistance from institutional and disciplinary powers to the formal study of recently created works of literature, art, and drama. The first, a question of defining chronological scope (and therefore decisions about what texts to address), is crucial but prone to ambiguity. On the one hand, researchers might define this timeframe informally within the framework of a single academic study by choosing a helpful start date and proceeding accordingly. Alternatively, there is the more formal question over the disciplinary convention of applying the label ‘contemporary literature’ to the body of work produced after 1945. In this case the uncertainty is not in the act of assigning a starting date, but rather in fixing an end date to the postwar epoch and thus, as literary scholar Amy Hungerford put it in a 2008 thought piece for the journal American Literary History, setting a termination point for ‘the period formerly known as contemporary’ (volume 20, pp. 410–19).

Even if not overt, such attempts to address the chronological ambiguities of the term involve setting boundaries that affect institutional and disciplinary concerns. The definition of the contemporary impacts university course curricula, genres of academic journal publishing, the thematic territories covered by academic conferences, and so on. These forces are especially active when we consider the second difficulty in addressing the contemporary: skepticism that scholars can adequately assess artistic works when they lack a suitably long historical perspective. Who should receive the attention of a scholar writing critically about the contemporary, and which authors should be assigned to a course syllabus? As Christopher Murray memorably once remarked in reference to assembling a deserving slate of contemporary Irish drama, ‘The enterprise has about it some of the savour of talent-spotting.’ (Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 12.1 [1987]: 27).

This intense scrutiny of scholarly selection of artists worthy of attention has led to self-consciously narrow choices, as Gordon Hutner has cogently explained in a response to Hungerford. Researchers and instructors will turn to the avant-garde and experimental rather than the realist and mainstream in a defensive maneuver to ensure that their subject appears as substantial as the agreed-upon authorial heavyweights of noncontemporary periods (American Literary History 20.1/2 [2008]: 422–23). And yet this has an obvious downside, Hutner notes, particularly where teaching is concerned. Students miss an opportunity to historicize a text rooted in their own time and place because those texts have been excluded as too mainstream. If Hutner is correct about the tendency of scholars to filter out too much of the contemporary because of the shadow cast by earlier artists and writers, then surely few disciplines would be as prone to this as the field of Irish Studies. How can one engage with the contemporary against the backdrop of a national literary collection that features the likes of an Ó Cadhain, a Beckett, or a Joyce? The slate of modernist works from Irish writers creates a daunting task for the scholar of the contemporary. Nevertheless, it is a task that must be done.

A call for papers on this topic for the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Éire-Ireland or hopes to make some headway in this regard by soliciting scholars in a variety of fields, including history, literary criticism, art history, theater studies, and the social sciences, to weigh in on the possibilities of better engagement with the recent past. What are the key features of contemporary writing in Ireland? How do we define the contemporary, and what historical events are essential to our interpretation of this recent past? Moreover, might we extend this engagement inwardly by contending with the future of contemporary writing on academic subjects itself as a topic of critical study? The question may seem unrelated, but consider the longstanding assumption among many scholars of the porous boundary between academic and nonacademic writing. In the discipline of history, Richard J. Evans, citing fellow historian Norman Davies, has alluded to the reputation of scholars in the British tradition as producers of readable, literary academic prose—think of Gibbon and Macaulay in contrast to the continental forms of Ranke—a salient idea given the roots of many aspects of the Irish university system in British forms (Evans, Comopolitan Islanders [2009], 51).

Even if we do not accept Evans’s attribution of such unique literary styling to British approaches, we must consider the deep-rooted uncertainty over the relationship between writing history and, say, writing a novel. Historical writing in the nineteenth century had once been closely influenced by the world of novelists and fiction writers, as scholars have pointed out. How, then, should historians respond to the explosive new styles unleashed by contemporary writing? Did Joyce produced a better approach to writing history than historians, a question noted by Michael Link as long ago as the early 1970s (“Historical Style: Strength or Weakness of the Profession?” Journal of Thought 9.3 [1974]: 195). Literary scholars are no more immune to these disputes, often framed as the conflict between Mathew Arnold’s concept of the literary critic located at a remove from the literary subject, and the possibilities of “criticism as an art of writing” (Gerald Bruns, “Writing Literary Criticism,” Iowa Review 12.4 [1981]: 29). The transformation of scholarly communication in recent years has, if anything, sharpened these questions as blogs, websites, tweets, and digital publications have joined older formats to greatly expand the repertoire of contemporary academic writing.

Our hope is that scholars will seek to weigh in on the theoretical aspects of writing about the contemporary and writing in the contemporary moment in Irish Studies. Certainly, the contemporary offers the prospect of an understudied terrain given the tendency for scholars to favor the unfamiliarity of the distant past over challenge of understanding the present. Mapping out that landscape should hold intriguing possibilities for the scholar willing to forgo the comfort of the long view. 


Nicholas Wolf

New York University