R.M. Berry and Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Eds.: Fiction's Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation

By Slocombe, Will | Style, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

R.M. Berry and Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Eds.: Fiction's Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation


Slocombe, Will, Style


R. M. Berry and Jeffrey R. Di Leo, eds. Fiction's Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation. Albany: State U of New York P, 2008. xv + 295 pp. $74.50 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Berry and Di Leo's edited collection, originally derived from a special issue of symploke in 2004, offers readers an in-depth account of the "state," if we can term it such, of contemporary prose. That said, such blanket statements are not conducive to explaining the multi-faceted approaches that this collection explores. Berry and Di Leo have brought together a range of authors and critics in a bid to address the question, "what does 'fiction's present' mean?" The chapters, whilst exploring the parameters of this question, obviously never fully answer it because, as the editors' preface notes, "the present materializes in quarrels" (xiii). As a result, this collection is difficult to summarize, and this is precisely its point; "fiction's present" is not a monolithic or hegemonic concept, but something to be debated across and between the twenty essays contained within.

In this sense, it offers a US alternative to an UK edited collection, Literature and the Contemporary: Fictions and Theories of the Present, edited by Roger Luckhurst and Peter Marks. Whilst Literature and the Contemporary focuses primarily upon critical understandings of the "contemporary" and the "thickness of time and temporality" in the face of a pervasive sense of acceleration and ahistoricism (10), Fiction's Present articulates a more complex--if ultimately more diffuse--conundrum of where such a "thickness" might be found. Between the editors' Preface and Brian McHale's Afterword is a diverse array of names and concepts brought together to not only understand the historical situation of where fiction finds itself at present, but also how we are to understand the means through which fiction presents itself, and the grounds upon which the nature of "fiction's present" can be debated.

For example, some of the authors in this collection situate "fiction's present" in its relationship to literary history (such as Jerome Klinkowitz, Joseph McElroy, Ronald Sukenick), and their contributions are some of the most useful grounding essays in the book, showing a series of contemporaneous snapshots of fictional "presents." Others, however, situate it in contradistinction to other media forms (Raymond Federman, Robert L. McLaughlin), language (Christina Milletti), globalization (Timothy S. Murphy), philosophical thought (Brian Evenson), or even in textual misrecognition and self-deception (Sue-Im Lee, Alan Singer). Some contributors seemingly believe innovation is to be found in narrative freedom and experimentation (Leslie Scalapino, Milletti, Lance Olsen), others in constraint and historical boundaries (Joseph Tabbi, Robert L. Caserio). Whether situating "fiction's present" within or external to the text, whether "creative" or "critical" writing, whether long or short, each response negotiates with the others to produce an often nuanced, occasionally contradictory overview of the various understandings of "fiction's present."

In these terms, I think the seventh, eighth, and ninth theses of the editors' contribution, "12 Theses on Fiction's Present," are particularly relevant. Thesis 7 tells us that "Totalizing versions of fiction's present must be regarded with skepticism" (5), which goes some way towards explaining the difficulty in bridging between the debates, and the chasm that this thesis opens between theses 8 and 9: "8. All accounts of fiction's present are local and must become so ... 9. All accounts of fiction's present are global and must become so" (6). Fiction is "present" between the local and the global, between its realized past and an unknown future. This leads us to the all-important verb in the subtitle, "situating contemporary narrative innovation." This is not a collection that intends to explain, rationalize, or define "contemporary narrative innovation," but to situate it in the excluded middles which oversimplified perceptions of fiction, criticism, and history elide. …

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