contemporary fiction

Fundamentals of Contemporary Fiction

Ann O'Brien

Ann O'Brien

December 22, 2022

The term contemporary fiction refers to fiction published in the past few decades. It can also refer to books that have certain characteristics and themes.

These books tell realistic stories about people who resemble people we know. While the books may sometimes belong to a particular genre, they don’t follow the formulas of genre fiction. The stories usually take place at the same time the reader is living in, although some works of contemporary fiction are considered classics that are still relevant many decades after they were first published.

What Era Is Considered Contemporary?

The word “contemporary” means living or belonging to the present day. For that reason, you might think “contemporary” means something published in the past 10 years. That’s understandable since that would be contemporary to us, but most scholars place the start of contemporary fiction writing in the years after World War II. The term refers to literature published after 1940 and up to the present day.

War and Aftershock

Why is World War II the marker? The devastation and horrors of the war left many countries broken. The reality of war, genocide, and bombardment led to a greater awareness of how brutal real life can be. Some contemporary fiction writers served in the war as soldiers or war correspondents. They found inspiration for their writing from those traumatic experiences.

These decades were also the start of various movements for social justice, women’s rights, and other struggles. Writers who came of age during the postwar decade lived through these societal changes.

Examples of Contemporary Fiction

Thousands of novels have been published since 1940, but a few have stood the test of time. Here are some contemporary fiction titles that most consider good examples of contemporary writing.

• The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
• The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw
• The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
• Atonement by Ian McEwan
• Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
• The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
• In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
• In the Woods by Tana French
• The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
• Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
• The Alienist by Caleb Carr
• The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
• The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
• The Secret History by Donna Tartt
• Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

What Are the Elements of Contemporary Fiction?

Several characteristics make contemporary fiction stand out from other writing and from genre novels.

Realism: The characters, plots, settings, and events are all realistic. They mirror real life and may be based on real events. The setting may be historical, but the story reflects contemporary themes.

Questioning: This literature questions our assumptions and reflects current political and social issues. A recurring theme is that of a character fighting his or her way out of harsh social conditions.

Break with the past: Most contemporary novels describe a new way of seeing the world. They depict characters who break with tradition. These characters are often frustrated or disillusioned with the world around them.

Inner focus: In contemporary novels, the character’s inner thoughts are the focus. There is usually no single, all-knowing narrator, and each character may have their own voice and viewpoint.

Non-linear time: Contemporary writing plays with time. The book may not move in a linear fashion. It may stop and start, bring in past events, or tell you the ending ahead of time. One extreme example of this is Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, which tells a man’s entire life story from his death to his birth.

Dissatisfaction with the world: Although there are some exceptions, most contemporary writers describe a world that they find dissatisfying for some reason. This literature reflects a lack of trust in government, institutions, and most authorities.

What Themes Are Part of Contemporary Fiction?

While all these books have different plots and overall themes, most of them are concerned with realistic issues, including loneliness, alienation, families, love, friendship, and loyalty. These books delve into the characters’ thoughts to explore these universal themes. Besides these ideas, many contemporary writers are strongly influenced by the following:
• Social inequality
• War
• Corruption in politics
• Environmental issues
• Economic upheavals
• Ethical and moral questions
• Historical changes
• Poverty
• Religion
• Gender issues

Families Torn Apart

For instance, the book Atonement by Ian McEwan is set during World War II. It combines a love story, a war story, and a story-within-a-story that deals with themes of loss, regret, and guilt. The characters are a family torn apart by war and a terrible mistake committed by one member of the family.

Richard Yates’novel Revolutionary Road is the story of a couple living in an affluent suburb in the 1950s. The book is a classic example of contemporary realism with its portrayal of two bright, talented people who are unable to fulfill their aspirations and end up destroying themselves and each other.

It’s Not Always Bleak

If you’re getting the idea that contemporary fiction is relentlessly bleak, you may be right, but it’s not all dark and depressing. Some writers treat the same topics with humor.

Tim O’Brien’s Tomcat In Love is a black comedy about a delusional linguistics professor who’s convinced that women find him irresistible. Told in first person by an unreliable narrator, the book recounts the professor’s failed—and frequently funny—attempts to win back the wife who divorced him.

The contemporary novel Possession, by A.S. Byatt, tells the story of two scholars researching the lives of Victorian poets. As they delve into their work and travel to key places together, they fall in love with each other. It’s a book about love, wit, romance, and ideas.

However, most contemporary novels have a dark side. This view of the world comes from the historical events the authors lived through, but it also has its roots in a movement known as modernism.

Modernism and Post-Modernism

In the years before World War II, modernist fiction was the precursor to what we now call contemporary fiction.

Modernist writers rejected the traditional beliefs of their day and wrote about the struggles of the individual to find a place in the world. These books were primarily published in the 1920s and 1930s. Modernist writing features dense, often difficult prose, non-linear narratives, and a focus on the character’s inner life.

Classic examples of modernist novels include:
• Ulysses by James Joyce
• To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
• The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot
• Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
• Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

After 1940, the more straightforward style of contemporary fiction replaced the complicated writing style favored by the modernists. Today, most people regard modernist fiction as difficult to read without help. Today’s fiction is much more clear and more straightforward.

Becoming Postmodern

Beginning in the 1960s, a trend called postmodernism became popular among contemporary writers. This style borrowed some elements from modernism but added more humor, irony, and playfulness.

Postmodern books often include metafiction, which involves the author stepping out of the book to address the reader directly. In John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the author appears as a character riding in a carriage with the other characters in the book. The author speaks to the characters and offers the reader several ways to end the book.

Some famous examples of postmodern literature include:
• Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
• White Noise by Don DeLillo
• If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
• Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth

More Compassionate View

The postmodernist movement lost steam in the 1990s, however, when writers—and readers—tired of meaninglessness and bleak narratives. Since then, books like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, and Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius have shown a trend toward a more compassionate view of humanity.

If you like this type of writing, there are many contemporary fiction writers to choose from. You can start with the ones we’ve mentioned here, and build your reading list from there.

Are You a Contemporary Writer?

If you’ve written a work of contemporary fiction you want to get published, talk to us. Publishing Xpress specializes in turning first-time writers into published authors.

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