What is the contemporary in contemporary literature?

Hanna Engelmeier

Event Details

Margaret Atwood publishes an adaption of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, titled Hag Seed; Schrott translates love poetry from ancient Egyptian into contemporary German. Are these texts to be seen as contemporary literature? What could or should they be categorised as otherwise? A current bestseller from the German Hörverlag is Gert Westphal liest Thomas Mann. Die große Höredition [Gert Westphal reading Thomas Mann. The unabridged audio book edition]. Is this an example of contemporary literature because it is offered in a digital format? Without the author’s presence at public readings, a successful book cannot survive on the market. Should we be speaking of ‘the contemporary’ when Danielle Steele reads from The Mistress, or is this not rather the case when Marcel Beyer presents his acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize? Why should one be categorised as such over the other? The German Literature Archive Marbach curates not only the written bequests of late authors but also catalogues materials by living philologists and writers. Boxed and sorted, the present has already been archivally preserved for the future. What consequences does this have for the future past? Group 47 is firmly canonized by now. Should its living members be considered authors of contemporary literature, or is this position in the literary period system reserved for younger generations? Last year, the IASL published a special edition with the theme of contemporary literature and its research. The editorial presented this as an established subject of academic discussion and yet, critics voicing scepticism at the legitimacy of this whole field of research had to be included. Why is the idea of the contemporary in literature and literary studies more of a problem than a period index? After all, historians have established the field of contemporary history in theoretical and methodological terms and media studies hardly struggles with categories of contemporary film or contemporary television.

In the critical engagement with the present and the contemporary as a period and subject of literary studies, different basic views are at odds with one another: On the one hand, the literary present has been described as a construct which is naturally impossible to define conclusively, since it continuously transforms itself and becomes, thus, highly contingent. The present in literature, however, is understood as a more observable and largely defined space and scene of negotiating present and future. Depending on which perspective one chooses to adopt, relevant models of the relationship between literature and society become pertinent. Nevertheless, fundamental questions surrounding the aesthetics of production and reception, oral and written culture, presence and performance, marketability and distribution, as well as canonization and critique are essentially defined by the question of the present and the contemporary. This has consequences for the direction of literary studies as a whole: The concept becomes a quasi-ideal site of reflecting on the recent history of the discipline and its resulting self-understanding.

The research group ‘Schreibszene Frankfurt’ takes ‘The Poetics, publishing, and performativity of contemporary literature’ as its focus and is engaged in considering these questions. In our second workshop, we intend to broach the question of how methodological and systemic difficulties can be made productive by examining the concept of the present and the contemporary. This event will be organised in collaboration with the Frankfurt Humanities Research Centre at the Goethe University Frankfurt and serves as its annual conference. This allows for openings towards other disciplines which are equally challenged by their engagement with the present and the contemporary. This includes history, as well as historically oriented philology and education studies, also theatre and media studies – we welcome contributions from these as well as adjacent fields of research.

We would be delighted to welcome you here in Frankfurt for a conversation about the above-mentioned topics. Questions we are particularly interested in include:

  • Periodisation and literary history: Is ‘contemporary literature’ a meaningful category of periodisation? If so, when does contemporary literature begin? If not, what kinds of methodological and systemic consequences arise from a problematisation of this concept?
  • Spatial frames of reference: To what extent should we be speaking of simultaneous or even multiple instances of ‘the present’ and ‘the contemporary’ in literatures stemming from national and transnational constellations?
  • Subject history: What kind of relationship exists between the economy of certain research questions, economies of theory, and contemporary literature and its research’s status as a subject?
  • Interdisciplinarity: Are literary studies alone able to investigate the question of contemporary literature in sufficient depth or is this inevitably an interdisciplinary project? Should social history and sociology contribute pivotal input and which other disciplines might be helpful to include?
  • Mediality: Digital reading situations lend new emphasis to ideas, such as simultaneity, diachronism and synchronism, in the reception of texts. How can this be made fruitful in an understanding of what ‘the present’ and ‘the contemporary’ are and how literature generates them?
  • History of genres: Which shape and form of literature is privileged by contemporary literature? Which constellations of highbrow and lowbrow, of emerging forms of popularity can be observed? Is there a growing distinction between shorter forms and great novels? Which consequences arise for contemporary literature when considering these questions? Has the period of long monographs passed, and should we hail the age of the essay? Or is the concept of the present and the contemporary to be treated independently from questions of genre?


Confirmed Speakers:


Ines Barner (Basel) | Monika Dommann (Zürich) | Robert Eaglestone (London) | Hanna Engelmeier (Frankfurt) | Innekentij Kreknin (Dortmund) | Johannes Lehmann (Bonn) | Christiane Lewe (Weimar) | Armin Nassehi (München) | Lionel Ruffel (Paris) | Christian Spies (Frankfurt) | Jan Wilm (Frankfurt)