What's the use of contemporary literature? I ask the question as someone invested in contemporary literature, and someone whose teaching often is on, or includes, significant elements of what I occasionally even call simply "contemporary literature" as the course title. So, to start with, a truism and a challenge from the (German American Studies) classroom: nobody cares about contemporary literature. That truism takes a caveat, of course, the most important of which might be that if nobody cares about contemporary literature, the concerns teachers have in teaching contemporary literature (or, at the very least, that I have) are shared by students, but through other forms. What emerges from this constellation is a need to think about why we teach, what we teach, and what else we might be teaching, in the contemporary literary classroom. To follow up, then, a few words on "nobody," "contemporary," and "literature," beginning with the "contemporary."

What the Contemporary Means (in the Classroom)

That the "contemporary" is a theoretical problem is another truism. Theodore Martin points out "how difficult the question [of what the contemporary means] is to settle", that it is a "conceptual problem".1 For Martin, the problem of the contemporary is fourfold: the contemporary may not be a period in the sense literary studies tends to read periods (e.g., modernism); it is, as a term, itself not contemporary, but has its own history (i.e., it's confusing); third, at the same time, it may not be historicizable; and finally, it exceeds mere "presentness".2 I don't want to quibble with these posited problems here, but rather pick up on two: presentness and historicizability.

One of Martin's points is that the contemporary and the present cannot be the same thing: "if the contemporary is merely synonymous with the ceaseless flow of present experience, it ceases to have much discernable meaning".3 In other words, what the contemporary requires is some form of excess, something that makes it more than present: it needs to be able to delimit the range of things that are present and condense our interest down to a more limited set of things that are, well, contemporary. For Martin, the contemporary emerges most clearly from the concerns of art. The "formal conventions of contemporary artworks allow us to envision the historical coherence of the contemporary world" beyond the merely present.4

In positing the contemporary as different from the merely present, Martin hews closely to Giorgio Agamben, whose "What is the Contemporary?" similarly posits an excess to the contemporary over the merely present. "The contemporary," it should be noted, for Agamben is not a period, but rather a form of being: someone is, or is not, a contemporary. Contemporariness is "a singular relationship with one's own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it".5 In Agamben's complex take, the contemporary emerges as a paradox, as "being on time for an appointment that one cannot but miss", but also as a mediator between historical moments, as someone who can negotiate the now to draw on the past for its interrogation.6

Nice work if you can get it. Agamben's contemporary is the teacher's aspirational role, surely: to be the mediator between the dimness of a past and a present that is equally historical and just as dark, "as if this invisible light that is the darkness of the present cast its shadow on the past, so that the past, touched by this shadow, acquired the ability to respond to the darkness of the now".7 The term "mediator" suggests, I think, both the profound necessity of the teacher as an active agent but also her capacity to "vanish," to adapt a point of Fredric Jameson, indeed the need for her to vanish either because her job is done, and she has taught all she can, or the student leaves university.8 To be contemporary, then, is a challenge. It's difficult. It's profound. But, well: not when I teach it. Maybe it's just me, but I don't actually teach the Agambian contemporary; neither do I really teach Martin's contemporary, if by that we mean the kinds of fiction that allow us to genuinely historicize the present. I simply teach what's recent. The aim of such teaching is at least twofold. On the one hand, I certainly hope to acquaint students with what I take to be significant works, fiction which speaks to both the field of literary studies and its preoccupations. In other words, it's a canon-building exercise, a way to talk with students about what significant literary writing looks like today, including potentially its differences from past configurations, such as, say, postmodernism. On the other hand, I hope to acquaint students with how such literature addresses the concerns of the larger present, the ways in which literature speaks about and helps us relate to the world. In Martin's words, yes, I do "turn to fiction to imagine what it means to be contemporary"9, except that I mean "live today" when I say "contemporary," simply because, in Suman Gupta's terms, "contemporary literature is read with a sense of being closer to us than literature from the past".10 Students, in simple terms, are expected to care more for Franzen than Melville.

My students fall broadly into two camps: academic bachelors and masters' degree seekers studying American Studies, and trainee teacher students of English for primary and secondary schools. Most of the B.A. and teaching students are drawn from the proximity of Frankfurt; the M.A. students come from further afield. Most of these students were born in the 2000s, and have come up through the German secondary education system, where English is mandatory for seven years at least and includes some literature training. These students arrive with a smattering of canonical literary knowledge: Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald, essentially. But a dearth of teaching material (so I'm told) makes current literature virtually impossible to teach in schools; and so students without intrinsic reading interests are unlikely to know any. And yet it's not just that they aren't coming to contemporary literature without any background; it's also that the generational gap between them and me (and indeed, between them and the current state of the discipline) makes our perspectives on the "contemporary" often incommensurable.

My contemporary, as I look through my syllabi, seems to extend backwards from today pretty much to about 2010 in my teaching. And in my most recent monograph, I've basically argued that the period that is properly contemporary extends back to about 2005.11 My own inconsistency here is potentially telling about the ways in which research and teaching diverge in practice, if not in idealized theory (a question that John Roache also broaches in this cluster), but it also echoes a large point about the difficulty of the contemporary. Daniel Grausam puts it most pithily when he notes that "much of what we still call 'contemporary' fiction is no longer meaningfully contemporary".12 Some of that "meaningfully" hinges, of course, on the definition of the contemporary, as I noted above. But in the classroom, most of it simply hinges on a text's age. Case in point: I taught Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story with middling success last term, a novel from 2010; a novel published when my students, give or take a year, were somewhere between eight and twelve years old, at least half a lifetime ago. It's not contemporary for them. Students recognized the novel's anxieties about the overreach of social media, but largely theoretically, and (in one memorable instance) as something their mum would say. Their interest was caught by the novel's more-than-awkward representations of gender and ethnicity, but not by its more overt discussion of the value of reading. What they recognized the novel to be concerned with, they were not very concerned about; what was close to them, I frankly thought didn't matter to the novel. As a mediator, I think I failed.

And Why Literature Does Not Matter (to Them)

Agamben at one point phrases the work of the contemporary like this: "To perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us but cannot this is what it means to be contemporary".13 Perhaps the closest I've come, then, to being contemporary is when I taught Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr's 2014 historical novel follows the lives of a German World War II soldier and a French resistance fighter, and addresses itself to a great number of subjects, themes, and ideas that appeared both contemporarily relevant such as science and technology as well as broadly universal, such as the ethics of resistance and service. Insofar as it also won a Pulitzer Prize, it appeared immediately "literary," and clearly also at least "current," acknowledged as being of its time, for its time. There was here, in other words a chance to teach, in my then-estimation, a genuinely contemporary novel, genuinely "contemporary literature."

Doerr's novel also appealed for another reason. Teaching in an American Studies classroom in Germany is a further complication for desires to speak to the "contemporary," simply because my students are already distanced from the object that they are studying by lived experience, space, and language "far removed from their own reality," as Eir-Anne Edgar writes of her Norwegian students. My students relate to the United States and the wider set of potential subjects covered by American Studies almost exclusively through media (the B.A./M.A. system having done its part to slash the possibility of student exchanges, pressed as students now feel into tight graduation timelines). Their access to their subject is always-already mediated, awash in the inescapable mass of American audiovisual and interactive media. The American context is itself one which needs to be taught, and its relevance for my students' own lifeworlds is not always clear. Doerr's text, set largely in World War II France, with a German soldier as one of its main characters, promised a link. It potentially could relate their historical (German) knowledge and background to the context of U.S. literary production asking what it means to read about France and Germany in World War II when one has a background in neither place, and how such a setting might thus appeal differently to an American audience than it did to them. The light yet to be seen took on another dimension of mediation: one in which it was not just a disjunction between present and past, but between here and there.

All the Light We Cannot See, though, did not work in the classroom at all. Despite its potential ability to let us speak about timely concerns and intercultural literary reception, the novel's language (in present tense) and historical distance proved difficult to translate into relevance for students. The problem, though, is more fundamental than the choice of novel. The more urgent point, I think, is that if ambitions we have for teaching literature include historicizing our present lifeworlds, we may be betting on the wrong horse altogether. "Literature" may simply not matter for this in the classroom, anyway. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, not a central aspect of students' relation to the world, by and large. My students, alas, don't turn to fiction to think through what it means to live now. Their and my respective "contemporaries," even if they are "addressed by the popular narratives of our present moment", drift (apologies) apart, largely because the "popular narratives" that they consume are not the narratives of contemporary literature.14

My students' narratives of choice, the ones that are most intimately related to their experience of their own time, are audiovisual and often interactive: streaming shows and video games, occasionally but more rarely film. This is, happily, more than anecdotal knowledge. In a recent class on "Utopia and Dystopia," we spent two sessions on texts selected and briefly introduced by the students themselves. These texts, while they were supposed to be thematically linked to utopia and dystopia, could be chosen entirely freely: a text of whatever sort, from whenever, indeed by whoever (even non-American texts were allowed). From a classroom of roughly forty students, I got essays on eight video games, twelve TV shows, five comics and manga, ten films, three popular fiction books and book series (including a Warhammer 40K novel), and four canonical texts: 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, The Time-Machine, and A Clockwork Orange. What I didn't get was "contemporary literature."

Some of this was not unexpected. Whenever I teach contemporary fiction, I always ask students what the most recent contemporary novel they've read was; and when it's not a mid-2010s Harry Potter equivalent (or Warhammer 40k novel), it's usually whatever they last read in a different class. None of my students, that is, read contemporary fiction of their own volition. It's definitely possible to speculate about reasons for that: reading contemporary literature, largely uncanonized, is a risky time investment where studying is concerned compared to investing time in, say, Melville (although nobody reads Melville). But it's clearly not that students don't read contemporary literature because they do not care for fiction: as my attempt to have them locate they own interests makes clear, they consume and think about fiction in other medial forms extensively, and, as subsequent discussions made clear, with both a good critical eye and both considerable investment and expertise. The reason, it turns out, is often that these texts speak to them: they are relevant for them in a way written fiction often is not.

Be a Comrade, Read a Book, Play a Game

What, then, would it mean to be contemporary in such a classroom? First, a small admission: I never actually taught All the Light We Cannot See. At 550 pages, it was a non-starter in the classroom. To be able to make sense of it, it would have had to come late in the class (although it would have been chronologically early in all other respects), to give students time to read; and we'd have had to devote more than its fair share of sessions to it to do it justice (including thinking about its historical setting and scientific aspirations), all while the assumption had to be that most students would not completely read it, anyway. It just didn't work. But the proximity of Agamben's notion of seeing and the novel's title triggered me into thinking what would have happened had I taught it; and I think its fundamental example applies no matter whether I actually taught it or not it's certainly a better story. Perhaps I'm being too playful here. But I'll continue on this note to say that "contemporary" translates into German in several ways. Bear with me. One of the potential translations is "gegenwärtig," which is also "present" in both the chronological and spatial meanings of the word, but furthermore suggestive of words such as "geistesgegenwärtig," which can be both quick-witted and alert attuned, if you like to the little things about life that might otherwise escape notice, ready to jump on them at less than a moment's notice. The second is "zeitgenössisch," or literally "time-comradely." The German here suggests a familiar proximity and shared agenda, a way to be together rather than apart. Rather than coldly Latinate contemporaries, we might perhaps be more warmly German time-comrades with our students quick-witted enough to translate our interest in teaching contemporary literature into ways that correspond to our students' lifeworlds, sharing our students' time as much as we ask them to share ours.

There is, as I was correctly reminded by Rebecca Roach, a political dimension to this a recognition not just of the fact that the woes and worries and catastrophes of our contemporary world are far more the teachers' fault than the students, but also that we cannot unburden ourselves on the next generation. My failure with Super Sad True Love Story was of this kind, perhaps: it was to take the concerns of the novel too seriously over the concerns (and non-concerns) of the students. That does not mean I think we should give preference to these student concerns over any text's own meaning; but it does call on me at least to be more open to what a shared lifeworld would look like across the generational and teacher-student divide. To do so, I would suggest, requires us to be more familiar with the ways in which our students address themselves to their cultural surroundings. Agamben's point that we tend to correlate contemporariness with relevance returns, too: while we cannot center the contemporary merely in close-to-my-temporal-presentness, relevance is already tied for most people, my students certainly, to temporal and physical proximity. There is some overlap here with recent notions that we need to expand, in terms of literary studies, our understanding of what "literature" means. Robert Eaglestone, for instance, has suggested that we may need a different idea of literature in the current moment, one which thinks of literature in a "capacious sense", including, among other things, video games, creative writing, and young adult fiction.15

This is more than pandering to an audience that does not read contemporary literature: it's a recognition that we need to think about the purpose of teaching contemporary fiction (and poetry, I guess) as the only contemporary "literature." Rob Gallagher, Chloé Germain and Paul Wake raise a similar point elsewhere in this cluster: "games act as literary or cultural texts alongside others;" they are "more likely to feature in our students' lives than the books we put on our reading lists." That alone does not make them more contemporary; but it suggests the ways in which "contemporary literature" catches us in a bind. Against the background of what I have suggested above about the difficulty of reconciling theoretically advanced versions of the contemporary with the lived experience of students, this takes on added urgency, I think. What is it that we advocate for when we advocate for literature? What of that can be translated into other forms, and what cannot? To what extent to we privilege the equation of "literature" as written fiction, and why? The challenge of the contemporary rather than of contemporary literature, which begs the question is to think through this question. And admittedly, it may be an easier question to ask from an American Studies classroom, given the way American Studies was institutionalized as a cultural studies discipline with a wide remit to explore American culture in all its facets. The limits of teaching written fiction only stand out more starkly here, and are more in need of justification.

Says Agamben: "to be contemporary is, first and foremost, a question of courage".16 It's a little on the far-fetched side to suggest that it's "courageous" to call a class "contemporary literature" and then to discuss, say, All the Light We Cannot See alongside Red Dead Redemption 2 or Cyberpunk 2077, or even Pathologic 2 or The Stanley Paradox or, indeed, Disco Elysium. But only a little, and perhaps, wavering unsteadily between hubris and the recognition of necessity, we must call it courageous for our own sake, because we need to do it. Let me stick, for brevity's sake, with video games here. All of these narratively and formally complex texts make demands on us as teachers of literature. At a base level, they ask us to master them in a way fiction does not: video game narratives, after all, open themselves only to those who can "finish" a game (if such an end exists), a process often much more involved than finishing a book. At a further step, they demand of us the same kind of transformative attention that translates a novel into a classroom object. Trained as we tend to be on literary interpretation, video games pose challenges we are unused to, not just in how we read different game play choices, but also in how we can talk about them in the classroom in the first place, without an easy text to lean over. But if we manage to draw up the "courage" to do so, we can find a place where we can share students' ideas of relevance and meaningfulness surely, that's worth our time?

Notes Toward a Conclusion

To teach literature in the (German American Studies) university classroom of the present, perhaps unwittingly, in my case is always to be contemporary in the Agambian sense: to be at once of one's time and not, to "adhere to it through a disjunction and an anachronism".17 It is to be a champion of a form that takes a decided second place to other forms of narrative exploration of the world and its meaning. This, I'm sure, sounds absolutely fabulous to some: we should be championing literature, after all, because it's the best. In that light, it's important to me that I'm not misunderstood here: I'm not advocating for stopping the teaching of literature altogether. Literature is great, and there are a lot of things that we can do with it that we can't easily do with other forms. But I'm advocating for an inclusiveness that would see the term literature expanded to more medial forms, not in an effort to pander to students, but crucially through a recognition that the contemporary isn't accessible through written literary fiction alone. If our aims in teaching contemporary literature are anything like what I've sketched above, if we do not simply hermetically desire to explain a medial form but to utilize the affordances of teaching that medial form to speak to lifeworlds at large, we need to have this expansive vision of contemporary literature. The largest concern here, again, is that the easy conjunction of "contemporary literature" makes it easy to assume that what remains an ad hoc definition from chronological proximity transmutes too simply into a belief in its necessary relevance. From the wide range of my still-anecdotal experience, to draw students in from places they recognize as relevant, be it video games, film, or TV, to written fiction, helps to illustrate the ways in which meaning-making (in a worldly sense) corresponds across different media. What is entailed here is a recognition that while contemporary literature may still be closer to students than older texts, contemporary media is still closer, still more relevant: not just an "in" for instructors, but a necessary "in."

This at a minimum. At its most expansive, my argument proposes rejiggering what it means to say something is "literature." If we're not afraid of opening this definition, if we're willing to accept that almost whatever is meaningfully literary about literature except its medial form is present in other guises in students' lives and the contemporary cultural world at large, I think contemporary literature will remain relevant and lively and will have long life as a classroom subject.

Tim Lanzendörfer works as Heisenberg Research Fellow at Goethe University, Frankfurt, on a project entitled "Reading in the Age of Trump." His current work is on the question of literary studies education and the role of literary studies in society. He has most recently published a monograph, Utopian Pasts and Futures in the Contemporary American Novel (Edinburgh UP, 2023) as well as an edited collection on adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft, The Medial Afterlives of H.P. Lovecraft (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023). He blogs very occasionally at https://platonicmonkeywrench.wordpress.com/ and is always on the lookout for contributions to https://adaptinglovecraft.com/.


  1. Theodore Martin, Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 1, 2.[]
  2. Theodore Martin, Contemporary Drift, 3-5.[]
  3. Theodore Martin, Contemporary Drift, 5.[]
  4. Theodore Martin, Contemporary Drift, 197, my italics.[]
  5. Giorgio Agamben, "What is the Contemporary?" In What is an Apparatus and Other Essays, trans David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 39-54, 41.[]
  6. Giorgio Agamben, "What is the Contemporary?", 46.[]
  7. Giorgio Agamben, "What is the Contemporary?", 53.[]
  8. Fredric Jameson, "The Vanishing Mediator: Narrative Structure in Max Weber," New German Critique 1 (1973): 52-89.[]
  9. Theodore Martin, Contemporary Drift, 5.[]
  10. Suman Gupta, Contemporary Literature: The Basics, (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 3.[]
  11. Tim Lanzendörfer, Utopian Pasts and Futures in the Contemporary American Novel (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023).[]
  12. David Grausam, On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 6.[]
  13. Giorgio Agamben, "What is the Contemporary?", 46.[]
  14. Theodore Martin, Contemporary Drift, 6.[]
  15. Robert Eaglestone, Literature: Why it Matters (London: Polity, 2019), 98.[]
  16. Giorgio Agamben, "What is the Contemporary?", 46.[]
  17. Giorgio Agamben, "What is the Contemporary?", 41.[]