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Tense and Time: The Politics and History of Present-tense Fiction (2022-)

Alexandra Ksenofontova, Research Area 4: "Literary Currencies"
Postdoctoral Research Project

This project explores the historical rise of present-tense fiction throughout the 20th century. It focuses on the link between present-tense narratives and the growing prominence of non-normative temporalities in fiction—the non-linear, non-teleological temporalities of traumatized, female, queer, disabled, and other marginalized subjects. The project argues that this link repeatedly enabled the present tense to become a narrative strategy that lends a voice to the Other.

Several misconceptions about tense and time have obstructed the research into the connection between present-tense fiction and non-normative temporalities. Among those obstructions are the ideas that tenses in fiction work in a radically different way than in everyday communication; that tenses in fiction have nothing to do with time; that some narratives are “about” time while others are not. Abandoning these ideas, this project re-establishes the legitimacy of the link between tense and temporality in fiction from a linguistic, narratological, and philosophical perspective. In so doing, it paves the way for a closer investigation of the peculiar temporalities found in present-tense fiction.

Over the last hundred years, literary critics have again and again rediscovered present-tense fiction as a ‘new’ trend. Often such rediscoveries are accompanied by harsh criticism: the present tense has been condemned as the product of the writer’s bad taste, lacking experience, the desire to please Hollywood, or as some other kind of passing fashion. The latest controversy of this kind took place in the early 2010s around present-tense fiction on the Booker Prize shortlist. Ever since, the press and the (mostly anglophone-focused) research have treated the rise of present-tense fiction as a ‘new,’ 21st century phenomenon. By reconstructing a historical genealogy of present-tense fiction, this project hopes to gain insight into the reasons for the continual popularity of present-tense fiction in both anglophone and non-anglophone (specifically German and French) literatures over the course of the entire 20th century.

According to the project’s hypothesis, one of the main reasons for this unflagging popularity is the ability of the present tense to conjure up non-normative temporalities. Present-tense narratives create an odd temporal relation between the narrative act and the narrated events that is inexplicable in terms of linear, teleological concepts of time. This narrative particularity as well as the unique polysemy of the present tense give rise to versatile fictional temporalities. Present-tense fiction challenges the past as the main source of meaning production; manifests a profound uncertainty of the future; undermines the tempo and rhythms of capitalist labour; welcomes contingency and eventuality; explores circularity and untimeliness. In this way, present-tense fiction allows articulating experiences and constructing identities that transcend the boundaries of normative temporalities.