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What Is Contemporary Literature?

J.D. Salinger's contemporary novel The Catcher in the Rye explored adolescent alienation.
John Updike's Rabbit series used strong characters to portray post-war America.
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Contemporary literature is a vast group of written works produced from a specific time in history through the current age. This literary era defines a time period, but it also describes a particular style and quality of writing. Some see this period as an extension of postmodern literature, but most refer to it as a literary era of its own.

Most agree that the era of contemporary writing began in the 1940s. A few scholars claim this period started at the end of World War II, and this is where the era's pairing with postmodern literature comes in. The postmodern era began after WWII, in the 1940s, and lasted through the 1960s. The contemporary period extends to the current day.

Although there are a few disagreements about the beginning of this literary period, the biggest dispute surrounds what qualifies a written work as literature. The word refers to both poetry and prose, where prose includes works of fiction such as novels and novellas, essays, and dramatic works. This term also refers to the quality of writing. In order to be considered literature, a written work must uphold the highest writing standards and contain a particular beauty and style. Many literary works become socially relevant and have the power to influence the public.

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Much of contemporary literature comes from Western authors; however, the term is not synonymous with English or American literature, and this literary period can apply to written works from anywhere in the world. In fact, globalization opened the door to include contemporary works written by many literary figures in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Genres included in this literary period span a variety of writing forms in addition to novels and poetry. Flash fiction, short stories, slam poetry, plays, memoirs, and autobiographies can all be included in this category. Nonfiction is usually not classified as literature, but this era sometimes includes works of creative nonfiction, which tell a true story using literary techniques.

Typical characteristics of the contemporary period include reality-based stories with strong characters and a believable story. Settings usually keep to the current or modern era, so futuristic and science fiction novels are rarely included in this category. Well-defined, realistic, and highly developed characters are important in classifying a written work as contemporary, and most writing in this category features stories that are more character driven than plot driven.

Contemporary literature features a somewhat modern narrative, but it also contains a harsher reality. Contemporary written works tend to be influenced by the prosperous lifestyle that followed WWII, but this literary class is rooted in the devastation that war brought to the world. A new reality blossomed in the post-war mind, and it included a personal cynicism, disillusionment, and frustration that is common to this literary period.

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MrsPramm
Post 5

@Mor - It will be interesting to see what people make of the contemporary period in a hundred years. I think it's quite difficult to group and define a movement while it is happening.

On the other hand, I don't think there will ever be total agreement on what should be included in a particular movement, no matter how much time has passed. And that's particularly true these days when there are so many people writing books that reach the public.

Mor
Post 4

@irontoenail - We haven't gone past it though. I know it might seem a bit weird, because you might think that books written directly after World War Two have nothing in common with books written last year, but they have a lot more in common with each other than with books that came before them. If you've ever read any Dickens, for example, you can definitely see that.

In some ways I wonder whether the rise of other forms of media were the most important aspect of this change though. Even what we would call literature had to move with the times or it wouldn't survive.

irontoenail
Post 3

I really think they should have chosen a better term than this, since, to me, the words 'contemporary literature' imply simply that a work is current, rather than that it was written in a particular time period.

I know it's tough when you are in the midst of a period to talk about and define that period, but surely we can rename it now that we've gone past it.

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