Recently Theodore Martin, author of Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present just published in the Literature Now series, and Matt Hart, a co-editor of the series, discussed Martin’s new book. Here’s their conversation:
Matt Hart: In the opening paragraph of Contemporary Drift, you write that your goal isn’t to say what “the contemporary” means but, instead, to explore “how difficult the question is to settle.” Why is that? I mean, why is it so hard to define the contemporary and what do you gain by focusing on the difficulty of that question, rather than trying to answer it?
Theodore Martin: A great many people study contemporary culture without agreeing—or even feeling the need to agree—about what “contemporary” means or what its historical boundaries are. This fascinates me. How should it be possible to get such critical mileage out of a concept that has no consensus definition? When I suggest that we focus on the difficulty of defining the contemporary, I mean to call attention to the simple fact of these competing definitions. Faced with the question of whether our contemporary moment begins in 1945 or 1973 or 2001, it would be nice simply to be able to choose one of these options and get on with it. But I strongly believe that would miss the point.
MH: Miss the point how?
TM: Because there are bigger and more complicated questions at stake. How do we decide in the first place that the contemporary means what we think it means? How do we manage to make sense of the lived and living history of our volatile present moment? This how—the conceptual and critical work that give us some basic idea of what counts as contemporary—is at the heart of my study; it is what I think the “difficulty” of the contemporary names and illuminates.
MH: So should we give up on trying to define “the contemporary”?
TM: Definitely not. There’s a considerable distance between difficulty and impossibility; I don’t think it is impossible to define the contemporary. Nor do I mean to suggest that the difficulty of the contemporary inevitably terminates in plurality, multiplicity, or undecidability. I simply think that the real work of analyzing and unpacking the concept of the contemporary should be expected to yield something more significant than a set of dates.
MH: Do you think it’s always been hard to define the contemporary? Or is there something about the “contemporary contemporary” (sorry!) that makes it particularly tough to pin down?
TM: That’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I began writing this book, and I think it’s an extremely important question to get right. On one hand, this means acknowledging that the problem of defining the contemporary—of grasping the historical moment one is living in—is in one sense the central historical dilemma of modernity. Since at least the French Revolution, modern historical consciousness has been shaped by the question of what it means to live in a present that seems in some fundamental way distinct from the not-so-distant past.
MH: So what’s different about the present?
TM: It seems to me that both the desire to pin down the contemporary and the difficulty of doing so are more pronounced today than they have been before. It’s not hard to imagine why that might be. The story of modern capitalism is a story of constant acceleration. All the temporal rhythms by which we measure contemporary life—from economic cycles to news cycles—have sped up to unimaginable degrees in the past half-century. In this context, we can see how the hyper-accelerated forms of capitalism that have reshaped western societies over the last several decades would ultimately conspire to make the present an intensified site of anxiety, instability, and uncertainty. That uncertainty—the sense of being at sea in a present that is itself at sea in history—is what my book calls “drift.” What is unique about the problem of the contemporary in our contemporary moment, I would suggest, is the way it indexes the unprecedented challenges that come with trying to orient ourselves in a present that is, in very real and historically specific ways, more adrift than it ever has been before—while also reminding us that such challenges are not themselves sui generis but have their own history.
MH: In your book, you pay particular attention to five familiar narrative genres—realism, film noir, the western, the detective novel, and post-apocalyptic fiction—and you argue that “the historical drag of genre” gives us a kind of analytical counterweight to the “drift” of the present. Can you explain what you mean by “drag”? How does paying attention to genre help us think historically?
TM: I see genre and the contemporary as two versions of the same problem: the problem of how we articulate an image of the present by deciding where it departs from the past. In the case of the contemporary, that image is prone to uncertainty and drift; we hear the term constantly but can never be quite sure what it means. Genre, in turn, counteracts that drift by allowing us to trace the process of exactly how our ideas of the contemporary get formulated.
MH: And that’s because genre tracks change across time, right?
TM: Yes. Genres show us how the materials of the past are reassembled in response to the concerns of the present. This is how the drag of genre—its development and alteration over time—balances out the drift of the contemporary. When artists update older genres, they’re telling us quite explicitly how they see the present they live in as both continuous with and different from the past. The way genre makes a case for what defines the present happens at the level of literary form—it’s in the new way that detective novels end, or the new ways that novels of manners compile extraneous details, or the new ways that noir films use voiceover narration (to mention just a few examples from the book). The slow but unmistakable formal changes to which genre keys us are both models for and examples of the kind of historical thinking we need to do—and indeed already do—in order to make the contemporary a meaningful historical category. That’s because these are changes that tell us not just what’s happening at a given moment (current events) but how that moment itself becomes recognizable and categorizable as a form or period we call “contemporary.”
MH: Tell us some more about one of those examples. How do changes to endings in detective stories help us better recognize the nowness of the now?
TM: As a genre, detective fiction is all about expectations. We read detective stories because we want to know how they end—we can’t wait (though of course we do wait) to find out the answer to the mystery.
MH: And some of us cheat and flip to the end!
TM: Of course! Because sometimes the waiting just feels unbearable. But either way, the interesting thing to note is that for the first century or so of the genre’s life, the answer to the mystery was reliably forthcoming. The confident expectation that detective fiction would end with the certainty of a solution corresponded to historical eras invested first in the promise of scientific knowledge and then in the capacity to navigate increasingly complex urban spaces. In the later decades of the twentieth century, more detective stories began to end not with a clear solution but in uncertainty—a formal change that correlated to the post-1960s skepticism of scientific authority and of the politics of knowledge.
MH: And now?
TM: Interestingly, twenty-first-century detective novels don’t fit neatly into either of these categories. Wary of ambiguity and open-endedness, contemporary detective fiction returns to the genre the pleasures of solution and epistemological certainty that had been withheld by the postmodernists of previous decades. But it does so with a twist. That twist is a new thematic and politicized preoccupation with the temporalities of delay and deferral—the times of waiting—that have always been central to detective fiction’s narrative form. So in a novel like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (an excellent book, by the way), the ending juxtaposes narrative satisfaction to political disillusionment: the murder mystery has been solved yet the violent geopolitical antagonisms of the wider world remain.
For Chabon, the detective is the figure who is forced most explicitly to live with this double-sided sense of time: the end of the mystery on the one hand and the endlessness of unresolvable antagonism on the other. This new interest in forms of waiting that outlive the mystery’s solution seems to me both a symptom of and a response to the condition of a post-9/11 world felt to be endlessly at risk. That feeling of perpetual risk is captured by novels like Chabon’s when they give readers a clear solution yet suggest that we are condemned to wait regardless. What we come to know about our own contemporary moment in contemporary detective novels, I believe, is the way that we have been trained to expect not to be able to know anything about our world—and the way such expectations of indeterminacy may yet, with any luck, turn out to be mistaken.
MH: There’s been a lot of interest in genre fiction among readers and critics over the last few years, with some people arguing that distinctions between “literary” and “genre” fiction are increasingly meaningless—and others suggesting that there’s a kind of literary gentrification going on, with high art writers seeking a kind of specious authenticity by dabbling in genres they don’t really understand. Does Contemporary Drift have a dog in those fights? How do you understand the so-called genre turn in contemporary literature?
TM: The assumption of Contemporary Drift is that genres—not just their forms and their content but also their cultural status—change over time. If we accept that as a premise, then it doesn’t really make sense to distinguish between authentic genre populists and dubious genre gentrifiers. Such a distinction is just one of several processes that make up the material history of a genre.
MH: But genre distinctions still carry social baggage, right?
TM: It’s certainly true that genre plays an outsize role in how cultural consumers, no less than cultural critics, imagine the boundaries that separate the popular from the elite; one need look no further than the separate shelves for “literary fiction” and “mysteries” at your local bookstore (if you can find it) to see that. But it’s a mistake to think that a genre like detective fiction existed apart as a popular and populist art form until high-status interlopers like Michael Chabon (with his MFA) and China Miéville (with his PhD) decided to try their hands at it.
On the contrary, the history of detective fiction has long been shaped by the oscillation between high and low status. Even before the Library of American canonized hardboiled fiction, the relation between low and high culture was a live tension in the careers of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who both went from writing for pulp magazines at the rate of a penny-per-word to being published by a prestige press (in both cases, it was Knopf)—and who both saw that jump as an important affirmation of their literary ambitions for the genre. All of which is a long way of saying that I understand genres to be categories that include these tensions—between the authentic and the imitative, the original and the copy, the low and the high—rather than categories that exist on one side of them.
Indeed, this is one of the most important lessons I hope readers of Contemporary Drift will take away from the book: how to see novels like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Zone One and films like Sin City and Meek’s Cutoff not as high-class imitations of popular forms but as part and parcel of the complicated cultural histories we call genre.
MH: Do you have an ideal reader for Contemporary Drift?
TM: One of the reasons I wrote Contemporary Drift was simply that I everything I happened to read and watch in the early 2000s seemed to be a new version of an older genre, and I was sick of the implication that all these wonderful new genre fictions were nothing but nostalgic and essentially vacuous retreads. That response to the afterlives of these familiar genres just didn’t seem very interesting or explanatory to me anymore. So I would say that—even as Contemporary Drift occupies itself with more technical questions about the temporality of the present and the place of historicism in literary study—the book is really written for anyone who shares my sense that new Westerns and noir films and detective novels are worth taking seriously in their own right, and that working within the constraints of classic genres remains a vital—and historically illuminating—way of making art today.