- The Literary Present
Eek Plato seith, whoso can him rede …—Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
I had planned to write about critical futurities. Not so much to make forecasts or appeals about the future of criticism. And not to look at the history of such forecasts and appeals in the past. I wanted to consider how, and why, and when futurity—the future as time, as event, as condition, as an orientation toward the oncoming that could have a history and an archive of its own—became a key concept in literary studies. I wanted, for instance, to retrace some of the many elements in Jacques Derrida's work—the archive, the nuclear, the democracy-to-come—that had put futurity into a new kind of play.1 I also had in mind Reinhardt Kosselleck's notion of futures past, and its use in David Scott's work as a license to dust off forgotten genres for emplotting the future and to put them in place of discredited ones.2 I had in mind, too, how queer theorists had portrayed futurity, variously, as a hetero-reproductivist no-fly zone for queer subjects and as the temporality par excellence of a queerness characterized by utopian political hope.3 I had previously gathered some of this work under a constellation I called critical futurities, hoping to add to it my own thinking about the critical pressures exerted by apparently foreclosed futures.4 I wanted to think about the conditions from which these various critical futurities had emerged, about where they touched and parted ways, and about where they might be pointing.
But I had to let go of all that because the literary present kept encroaching on my attempts to think about futurity. Now, the "literary present" in question was not something like literature today or the literary spirit of our moment. The literary present was a tense. Primed to notice how literary critics wrote about futurity, I had begun paying more attention to the verb tenses in which they did so. What arrested my attention was a practice I had been inside for too long to find strange until then: namely, the practice of writing predominantly in [End Page 367] the present tense when writing about literary works. While describing, characterizing, or analyzing a text's formal properties, what did I—what did we—overwhelmingly use but the present tense? Recapping a work's or a writer's argument? Present tense. Annotating a work's politics? Present tense. And perhaps the strangest and most invisible of all, paraphrasing or summarizing the events narrated in a literary work, even one originally written in the past tense? Present tense. I was to learn that these usages, together, were known as the literary present.
I was first waylaid while pursuing my interest in futurity back to Peter Brooks's classic Reading for the Plot. I wanted to remind myself of Brooks's speculation that the master-trope of narrative was "the anticipation of retrospection," a reading in expectation of a narrative terminus that would, as he put it, "restructure the provisional reading of the already read."5 In the pages that led up to this formulation, Brooks discussed a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm called "Allerleirauh," or "All-Kinds-of-Fur," which he first reactivated through a standard plot summary:
A dying queen makes her husband promise that he will remarry only with a woman as beautiful as she, with the same golden hair. He promises, and she dies. Time passes, and he is urged by his councilors to remarry. He looks for the dead queen's equal, but finds no one; until, years later, his eyes light on his daughter, who looks just like her mother, with the same golden hair. He will marry her, though his councilors say he must not[.]6
Brooks's use of the literary present tense jarred me. The words Grimm and fairy tale had raised in me the wrong expectations. They had sat me, mentally, cross-legged on the floor of the children's section of the library or by the eternal campfire of oral retelling. I had been ready for Brooks to...