Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Contemplating contemporaneity

I am struggling today with the word “contemporary”. This question has arisen for me most recently in the context of considering “contemporary” literature. That sublime deposit of all human knowledge, Wikipedia, defines contemporary literature as follows: “Contemporary literature is literature with its setting generally after World War II.” Note that this speaks of literature that has its setting after World War II. So presumably, by this definition, an historical novel published today, is not contemporary literature. This seems a little odd, and probably conflates two ideas. The first idea is that contemporary literature must deal with contemporary events. The second is that it must have been written within a certain time frame. I vote that we ignore the first idea and focus on the second. According to the first definition, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written in 1932 but set in 2540, is contemporary literature, while Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) is not.

So, adopting the second criteria, namely that contemporary literature is literature written after World War II, this provides us with about a 70 year window, within which a literary work can be considered contemporary. Oddly enough, if we look up “Contemporary French Literature”, we find that this is defined as “French literature from the year 2000 to the present day.” The French, it seems, have much smaller windows.

The word contemporary contains within it implicitly (indeed, explicitly) a certain “withness”. An event or person is contemporary “with” another event or person. It does not, primarily, mean modern, or during the present era, although it appears to have this as a derived meaning. But Shakespeare was contemporary with Marlowe, although neither of them is “contemporary”. Neither of them is contemporary, in this derived sense, meaning that neither of them is contemporary with me. They do not overlap my time, although they overlap each other’s times.

I think we can see, therefore, that contemporary is a relative term. Any writer whose timeline overlaps mine, is my contemporary. If we assume that the average lifespan today is around 80 years (at least in our affluent western societies) then it seems reasonable to argue that anything written during the last 80 years or so is contemporary: a reasonable number of us were alive at the time. So the 67 years since the end of the Second World War may be too small a window. And we can only assume that the French live very brief lives.

I hope, at the very least, that we can extend the concept of contemporary literature a little further back than the year 2000. Or is a book that was published last Monday just “so last week”? 

Maybe I am just getting old. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece! I have always assumed for the generations born since WWII, that that benchmark still holds... but till when? The concept that based on a current lifetime of 80years to attract the "contemporary" tag seems accurate and applicable.