The Time of Others: The Present-tense Novel as a Challenge to Normative Temporalities

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Alexandra Ksenofontova


Since the mid-2000s, both research and the press have been following the global rise of the present-tense fiction with growing attention. The initial apprehensions about the present-tense novels, such as them being merely a “bad influence” of Hollywood, have given way to appreciation of their heterogeneity and narrative complexity. Yet an idea of why the present tense has been on the rise is still lacking.

Building upon recent studies and my own postdoctoral research, I propose in this paper a new perspective on the present-tense fiction. I argue that its historical rise throughout the 20th century and its recent popularity are due to a narrative asset of the present tense: its ability to convey non-normative temporalities. The present-tense use creates a temporal relation between the narrative act and the narrated events that is inexplicable in terms of linear and teleological concepts of time. Instead, a present-tense narrative can convey ‘fuzzy’, circular, suspended, and other non-normative temporalities, which often manifest a break with the past as the main source of meaning production and a profound uncertainty of the future. This is why the present-tense narration often lends a voice to marginalized subjects such as trauma-ridden people, queer, disabled, and Other narrators; it features in several postcolonial novels and has been especially prominent in feminist fiction. Surveying several noteworthy examples of present-tense fiction from Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964) to JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), and complementing them with examples of German and French present-tense narratives, I demonstrate that the present-tense fiction is not a 21st century trend but a phenomenon with deep roots in the 20th century literatures of and about minorities.

Published: Nov 14, 2022

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Minorities and/in Literature