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  • Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present by Theodore Martin
  • Beth Miller
Theodore Martin, Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present New York: Columbia University Press, 2017, 250 pp.

Theodore Martin's Contemporary Drift seeks to discover what can be known about the contemporary by examining aesthetic shifts across five genres: the novel of manners, film noir, detective fiction, Westerns, and post-apocalyptic novels. Per Martin's argument, imagining the present "as a moment" allows the critic to move beyond the self and "think, above all, about the politics of how we think about the present" (5, emphasis original). Genre fiction cultivates a uniquely visible manifestation of the contemporary; though the latter is difficult to pin down, the former allows for a more visible present through "accretion or sedimentation of formal change over time" (7). Critical distance, he explains, stands hand-in-hand with a discipline-wide obligation to historicize analyses. However, the "drift" of the contemporary, measured against the "drag" of genre leads Martin to an interesting point of departure from disciplinary responsibility via narratives' self-periodization. Though willing to accept that scholars lack full objectivity for critically [End Page 396] examining their own historical moment, thus leaving their analysis of the present up for question, he removes the burden of determining historical position to genre fiction itself. To this end, Martin illustrates how popular forms address "the political, conceptual, and methodological questions posed by the contemporary" (6). In other words, the monograph seeks narratives' answers to the question: "How do aesthetic objects invent their own ways of thinking historically in response to the absence of historical distance?" (6).

Martin's timely analysis intersects a unique cultural moment in which both authors and critics more seriously treat genre (8). Within this wider conversation, he explains that "what distinguishes Contemporary Drift is its claim that the project of historicizing the contemporary is inextricable from the dilemmas posed by the concept itself" (2). The problematic nature of this interdependent argument, working to define while depending on definition, lends itself to the consistent and enjoyable irony of reading Martin's book. Readers embark on an argumentative journey in which they must understand and accept that they cannot fully know the contemporary, since they are currently living it, but their guide also insists and demonstrates that there are aspects of the period which they can discern. This dis-cursive experience depends on the charming duality of constant awareness of what might be possible to understand and acknowledgement that inherently, many aspects will remain inconclusive. Added to this, Martin continues to share and clarify aesthetic realities of the present, focusing and blurring its image viewed through the lens of fiction. To say it another way, Contemporary Drift promises its audience knowable ends in an unknowable time.

Moreover, the scholar's embrace of the difficulty of indeterminacy lends itself to a pleasant and informative study. He frames the struggle of academic examination of the contemporary with the history of theory and criticism affecting post-war English departments, the tension "between the formalist legacy of New Criticism and the cultural ambitions of historicism" (16). As scholars of the contemporary are familiar, surveys of the present grapple with fully meeting the demands of either of these fields. Even so, Martin's response to this difficulty evokes the pleasure of working through his refreshing argument and, I suspect, is also symptomatic of the thrill the small rebellion of reading and dedicating oneself to contemporary literature brings within the academy. He names this period "the literature department's bad conscience: an expression of the vexed disciplinary relationship between literature and history by way of a literary period in which the status of history becomes a newly open question" (16, emphasis original).

Two central aspects of Martin's argument emerge among many other successes as the most vital. First, he does not shy away from opportunities to examine political and social implications of long-held beliefs and practices affecting literary scholarship, genre, and the contemporary; his inquiry also offers solutions for what [End Page 397] can change. For example, Martin's analysis of Westerns not only charts their development into an international...


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pp. 396-398
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