If you asked people who study literature for a definition of contemporary literature, you would probably get differing definitions from each person. When thinking about the idea of “contemporary literature,” you may find two words whose definition present a problem. In fact, the concept is often contradictory: when we think of “literature,” we often think of written works that have stood the test of time like Wordsworth’s poetry or the plays of Shakespeare. Adding in the idea of “contemporary,” however, seems to challenge this time-tested idea of what constitutes literature.
Also, “literature” is often used as a value judgement to divide works that bear some markers of quality (for instance, does something like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey count as “literature”?). How can being called “literature” be a mark of quality in an era of generally declining readership and the rise of fantasy, erotica, young adult, and science fiction as major publishing forces? In the face of this rising competition from non-literature (or “para-literature”), does the marker, “literature,” denote elitism? Or a specific style of writing?
Moreover, beyond the problem of defining “literature,” how do we define the “contemporary?” Given the major historical break that could be represented by 9/11, does the 1990s still count as part of our “contemporary” moment? But, does something like the violence of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina matter in terms of cultural production?
In order to answer these (and other questions), we will be reading a selection of novels written within the last two to three years, drawn from various publications’ lists of the best books of the year, as well as winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. By reading a broad selection of recently published novels, we will hopefully be able to better understand what counts as literature and what marks our contemporary era.