Who reads long novels today — and why? In the context of the DFG Priority Programme “Times of the Aesthetic”, this research project seeks to analyse forms of temporality in contemporary ‘encyclopaedic fiction’. With this term, we denote long novels which represent objects massively distributed in time, beyond human experience, linear succession, or conventional eventfulness. In representing non-human times, these long narratives fuse a succession of limited, temporal experiences into panoramic overviews. Encyclopaedic novels lay claim to an ultimate durational scale, which emerges from the reader’s active engagement with multiple, intersecting narrative times. In analysing this strategy of exhaustiveness, particular emphasis will be placed on the self-reflexive measures by means of which long novels justify their strategies of figuring temporality.
In addition to this implicit self-reflection, we proceed from the hypothesis that the ‘proper temporality’ of the encyclopaedic form emerges from an interaction with actual, recoverable practices of reading, performed by distinct interpretative communities. This negotiation of temporal knowledge by empirical readers will be reconstructed from the perspective of literary sociology. We aim to describe the communities which complement encyclopaedic fiction with expansive commentary and annotations.
Case in point: online discussions of Alan Moore’s 2012 tome “Jerusalem”take up, translate, and remediate the millennia-spanning timespans presented in the narrative. The formations of time thus derived by sub-cultures, fans, and para-academic commentators take a variable stance on the primary text’s temporal affordances: they imitate and counter fictional time, whilst also establishing connections to their own reading time. What hovers in the background of these efforts is the nagging question whether, quite simply, long novels are worth the time.
Such redoubled self-reflexivity within the novel and readerly communities alike forms the starting point for this project. By analysing both strands, we aim to understand the knowledge generated by contemporary entanglements of aesthetic and social temporalities.