Monday, February 20, 2012
Contemporary Fiction: Snapshots of an Era
Do you think contemporary fiction can be used as a reliable source for chronicling a certain time period? Here is a post that I wrote for a wonderful blog, Lori's Reading Corner, during my WOW! Women on Writing Book Tour.
Want to read the best history book ever? Try a piece of contemporary fiction.
Think about it. Can you fathom anything that better portrays the Jazz Age than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?
Contemporary fiction serves as a window to the time period within which it is written, chronicling society and events as they occur. From this, we learn manners and customs. Family stories illustrate people’s everyday lives.
For example, how do the characters speak? Language patterns and slang terminology provide major clues to an era. What do they wear? What kind of music do they listen to? What art or architectural style is popular? What do they eat?
All of these things help piece together an historical record of life in that time period.
I took a class in college, “Historical Reality in American Fiction,” which opened my eyes to the natural pairing of history and literature. We analyzed several early-20th-century novels to see if they provided an accurate portrayal of life in the various decades. It turned out, of course, they did. It was fascinating.
Historical fiction is not quite the same. Although I love it and mean the genre no disrespect, historical fiction works to recreate a time period. That is very different from being genuinely of an era.
It is easy to forget how many of the classics were pieces of contemporary fiction, since now we have a tendency to view them as “period pieces.” For example, when I entered Jane Austen’s home, (also known as a pilgrimage to my holy land, but I digress), it felt like I had walked right onto the set of the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. Somehow before, my mind never made the connection that dear Miss Austen would have written contemporary fiction, if that genre would have existed more than two hundred years ago.
Similar to Austen’s Regency, England, the dust bowl days of the Great Depression come alive in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, while Tom Wolfe illustrates early 21st-century collegiate life in I Am Charlotte Simmons.
I think that is why I enjoy writing contemporary fiction so much. With A Whisper to a Scream (The Bibliophiles: Book One), I wanted to compare and contrast two sides of womanhood — those who have children and those who desperately want them — through Annie Jacobs, who is dealing with a diagnosis of unexplained infertility, and the overwhelmed, stay-at-home mother, Sarah Anderson. I’m sure all of us know people just like Annie, Sarah or probably both. They are most definitely products of our time.
What are some of your favorite pieces of literature that reflect the time period in which they were written?
(Photo courtesy of In my good books...blog.)