Time is not a strictly literary category, yet literature is unthinkable without time. The events of a story unfold over time. The narration of that story imposes a separate order of time (chronological, discontinuous, in medias res). The reading of that narrative may take its own sweet time. Then there is the fact that literature itself exists in time. Transmitted across generations, literary texts cannot help but remind us of how times have changed. In doing so, they also show us how prior historical moments were indelibly shaped by their own specific philosophies and technologies of timekeeping—from the forms of sacred time that informed medieval writing; to the clash between national time and natural history that preoccupied the Romantics; to the technological standardization of time that shaped 19th-century literature; to the theories of psychological time that emerged in tandem with modernism; to the fragmented and foreshortened digital times that underlie postmodern fiction. Time, in short, shapes literature several times over: from reading experience to narrative form to cultural context. In this way, literature can be read as a peculiarly sensitive timepiece of its own, both reflecting and responding to the complex and varied history of shared time.
Over the course of the 20th century, literary time has become an increasingly prominent issue for literary critics. Time was first installed at the heart of literary criticism by way of narrative theory and narratology, which sought to explain narrative’s irreducibly temporal structure. Soon, though, formalist and phenomenological approaches to time would give way to more historically and politically attuned methods, which have emphasized modern time’s enmeshment in imperialism, industrial capitalism, and globalization. In today’s critical landscape, time is a crucial and contested topic in a wide range of subfields, offering us indispensable insights into the history and ideology of modernity; the temporal politics of nationalism, colonialism, and racial oppression; the alternate timescales of environmental crisis and geological change; and the transformations of life and work that structure postmodern and postindustrial society.