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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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The second day of the 21st-Century British Fiction Conference at Birkbeck saw an opening keynote from Bob Eaglestone in which he provocatively challenged the unformed nature of the field. Citing the lack of intersubjective agreement on the temporal bounding of the discipline and warning that the field was not even at a stage capable of a Heideggerian reflexive crisis (I'm paraphrasing Bob's Heidegger -- I haven't read it, but this encapsulates the sense in which it was used), Eaglestone suggested that contemporary fiction studies would be relegated to the status of cataloguing and describing.

In some ways, this is true, but I'd like to suggest in this informal medium of a blog post that these ontological problems are actually, or are also, ontological prerequisites for a field that cannot historicize because of its immanence. Contemporary fiction must be, and must remain, open: the present is always the time about which we know the most, but simultaneously the least.

  1. An intersubjective consensus on the parameters of contemporary fiction studies need not be agreed beyond an individual's, or subset's, rationale for it being "contemporary". For instance, with reference to terrorism studies, fiction from the Cold War era or before might contribute to that most contemporary of issues. Naysayers must describe why this is a problem.
  2. Once a sub-genre has formed, albeit initially part of "contemporary fiction studies", it need no longer be constrained by the "contemporary" label. In some senses, cataloguing (or incubating) is the job of contemporary fiction studies, but the field must behave, by necessity, as though it were not, so that these subsequent categories are not coerced, but rather "freely" arise.
  3. The thematic selections of contemporary fiction are not necessarily merely a socio-politico-economic "application" to literature, as Eaglestone put it, but are already drawn out from the literature. If it looks as though a social category has been picked as a thematic and then examined in a text, it is probably because literature is not an isolated realm of the pure, but rather that it also interacts with the Geist and reflects socio-politico-economic concerns. "The independent universe of literature and autonomy of criticism are false" as Catherine Belsey puts it. (Belsey, Catherine, Critical Practice (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 27.) Of course, we should be sceptical of a field chasing social and political brownie points, merely capitulating to fashion, but this is not always the case.
  4. As Joe Brooker pointed out, it is not clear that new ways of seeing are required for contemporary literature; which theoretical practices are currently failing? New theoretical methods are required (NB. I'm not saying that it isn't great to innovate. Innovation in isolation (ie. when there isn't a problem, fixing it when it isn't broken) could expose something we're missing. However, to say that innovation is needed requires that the rationale for its necessity be specified.) when there is an intra-disciplinary problem that cannot be resolved without methodological innovation. I do not currently see this problem.
  5. Is it possible to revert to the notions of "value" that Eaglestone suggested without a socially regressive movement of an anti-democratic nature? I wonder.

    Featured image by Enokson