Welcome to Contemporaries

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With these pieces by Matt Wilkens, Min Hyoung Song, and A-J Aronstein, Post45 The Journal begins publication of a new feature called Contemporaries. Contemporaries seeks to reinvigorate the erstwhile convention of academic critics not only describing past traditions but also actively intervening in current tastes.  At the outset of the post-45 period, the critics who contributed to journals like Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent frequently commented on then-new writers like Saul Bellow, Flannery O'Connor, James Baldwin, and (to choose a figure who's weathered the passage of time less well) Herbert Gold.  We tend to see this period through the lens of nostalgia for the public intellectual, though it's worth remembering that a number of authors who worked in this modeLionel Trilling, John Aldridge, later Leslie Fiedlerwere in fact working academics.

For Contemporaries, we seek pieces by academics willing to take up this challenge, writing about recent fiction (and poetry, and non-fiction, and graphic narratives, and films, and works in other media) with an eye towards both description and evaluation.  As Mark McGurl has noted (and as Matt Wilkens forcefully reminds us in his piece for our launch) there's a lot of good stuff out there.  Given limited resources, those of us who take the contemporary as our remit need some evaluative toolshowever contingent we acknowledge them to bein order to stay abreast of things.  As anyone familiar with the history of criticism knows full well, these heuristics won't always be right: we'll place bets on authors whose reputations won't last much past their active careers, and we'll overlook writers whom future readers will see as defining the era.  But that's the riskarguably the thrilling riskof writing about the new.  And that said, why shouldn't academics, whether critics or creative writers, bring their training in literary history more generally, their knowledge of craft and form, to the game?

The three pieces with which we've chosen to launch the feature lay the groundwork for this project quite well.  Matt Wilkens' "Contemporary Fiction by the Numbers" takes as its starting point the impossibility of keeping up with even a fraction of the fiction currently being published, and then asks whether quantitative methods might allow us to at least begin making some qualitative claims about this deluge of work.  We think it will become a seminal essay.  Min Song's "Race and Racelessness in Ed Park's Personal Days" and A-J Aronstein's "Deborah Eisenberg and the Post-9/11 Moment," meanwhile, take a more traditional approach, writing about particular works by particular authors (in Aronstein's case, Eisenberg's 2006 story collection Twilight of the Superheroes) from the standpoint of their relationship to both other recent fiction and the larger frameworks (the transformation of so-called multicultural fiction, the ongoing resonance of the September 2001 attacks) that shape what we read.  These three pieces also, I should note, embody what we hope will become Contemporaries' house style: elegant and conversational, to be sure, but with an immense amount of learning and rigor either on display or necessarily assumed.

We hope that you'll find these pieces as compelling as we do, and that you'll consider adding thoughtful responses to our comments section.  We also hope you'll consider submitting your own pieces.  How do twenty-first century works in a range of media engage with the present moment?  Which creators and works should people be enjoying more (or perhaps less) of, and why?  These are questions we can only start to answer collectively, in conversation with others.  Our goal is to make Contemporaries, with your help, a forum for this conversation.