The call for relevance in literature always suggests that literature should directly engage some important aspect of its historical moment, whether in its content, structure, or most thoroughly in the relation between its context and structure.
Anyone who has spent any significant number of years paying attention to poetics discussions has probably noted the frequent repetition of the call for relevance. In fact I would say constant repetition if it weren’t for the fact that the call bubbles up more frequently at some moments than others. Oddly, if not surprisingly, the assertion that literature should be related to its moment is not itself related to any moment. Insistence on the relevance of the moment is not momentary but repetitious.
Given that oddity, it might be worthwhile to ask, what are the relevant issues in any call for relevance in literature?
One issue is certainly that the call for relevance to a historical moment begs the question of what are the most important historical conditions of that moment. That is, what elements of contemporary conditions are most relevant to a call for relevance in literature?
It turns out that different writers have different answers to that question. Some calls for relevance might call for literature that responds to specific historical events, most likely ones related to violence and the abuse of power. Some might call for response to the troubled and even horrific conditions in which some people live, that is, for writing that speaks directly about poverty or the appalling work conditions created by globalist political and economic operations. Some might call for a relevant address to globalist operations understood in their totality; rather than literature addressing some particular group of people or circumstances, this call for relevance asks for literature that exposes the operating mechanisms of global power. Some calls for relevance might suggest that literature, as a structure of information itself, needs to speak to changes in contemporary structures of information, with particular reference to how those structures of information restructure the lives of people using them, for better or worse. And still other calls for relevance might suggest that we need to look again at social problems whose relevance we have forgotten too quickly, for instance various patterns of systematic discrimination which we may think have been resolved but likely have not. This would be a call for writers to recognize that some issues relevant in the past continue to be relevant now.
The result of such calls might be a poem about the Iraq War, a poem for the poor and disenfranchised, an essay that critiques globalist power structures, a piece of conceptual or procedural writing making use of the structure and information found on the internet, or an essay reminding us that gender problems have not vanished just because we have talked a lot about them in the past.
There may be many other kinds of calls for relevance, but the ones above are the ones that seem to have the highest profile recently, at least that I’ve noticed, which might suggest that they are, at the moment, the most relevant calls for relevance. Certainly all of them take up issues of crucial human importance.
That said, many debates occur around the degree of relevance of various calls to relevance. Calls for relevance frequently come into conflict with other calls for relevance, with some people suggesting that their call for relevance is more relevant than some other. Yet it is also possible that all these calls for relevance are relevant, although it’s certainly not unreasonable to debate the extent of the relevance of each specific call for relevance. What all this might suggest is that there may be multiple points of relevance, multiple things about which to be relevant in any given historical moment.
Is there something to consider regarding the reactive nature of the idea of relevance? That is, the call for relevance presupposes that literature should respond to already existing social conditions and that the writer is therefore a social critic. But this fact raises the question of what constitutes a successful or at least a worthwhile response. Does a relevant work of literature prioritize describing that social condition or celebrating or speaking its outrage against it? Does it prioritze imagining another, perhaps better, possible condition? Is it a call for its readers to group together to change or even overthrow the social condition that it speaks against or to engage more thoroughly the condition that it speaks in favor of? Can it be described as successful or not in the degree to which it leads to such change?
Another issue worth taking up is the basic fact that the call for relevance presupposes that a successful work of literature is defined by its relevance. But if we look at the issue of relevance historically, do we actually find that those works of literature most defined by their relevance to the social concerns of their moment are the works that we find most relevant at a later time? It’s intriguing to consider the varying ways and degrees of relevance to their moment of, say, Wilfred Owen, Marinetti, Stein, Dickinson, Hughes, Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and really anybody else. How does one measure, after the fact, the relevance of each of these writers to their historical moment, and how much that relevance is or is not related to the degree of relevance which different people might assign to them today?
And in order to be thorough in discussing the relevance of relevance, we need to consider the other side. Is it possible that an irrelevant poem, however we would know that it was irrelevant when we saw it, might still be engaging and worthwhile? Is it possible to conceive of literature as not reactive, maybe less a response to its times than a creator of its times? Or even maybe as removed from the issue of its most immediate times? Or if some of the extremes implied here may not quite seem possible to some of us, is there a possibility of worthwhile literature that is more irrelevant than relevant, more creator than reactor, more removed than engaged?
None of these issues can finally suggest that calls for relevance are irrelevant. There’s no doubt that relevance remains relevant. Yet it might be worthwhile, in calling for relevance, to consider the dynamics of relevance as part of the problems related to calling for relevance. On the other hand, it’s certainly true that many times, a call for relevance will be related to an issue so genuinely pressing that considering the issues related to the dynamics of calling for relevance will be of secondary or no importance. Yet I suspect that even when that is true, the dynamics of what it means to call for relevance will still come into play when somebody calls for it.