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


Deborah said…
We're thinking along the same lines today, Karen!
Kelly Hashway said…
You had me at The Great Gatsby, one of my all time favorite books! I'm thinking about great Dickens books for historical reference too.
R. Doug Wicker said…
Nothing quite like reading Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries to get lost in Victorian London. Absolutely love everything from the descriptions to the dialogue.

As for The Great Gatsby, must be an acquired taste. Worst book I ever read (in my personal opinion only, of course). Dreaded every word of that book from the opening line to the painfully anticipated ending.
angel011 said…
I'm not sure that the contemporary fiction is always accurate of the era it was made in; a bunch of things could be just made-up (slang would be an example). It still can give an insight to the era, no doubt, it just isn't always accurate.
Deborah: I believe so! :)

Kelly: I really like Gatsby as well.

R. Doug: Sorry about your Gatsby disdain, but I understand loving Sherlock Holmes and getting immersed in Victorian London.

angel011: I see what you are saying. I think contemporary fiction gives a portrait of more the societal norms of a period.

Thanks so much for your comments, everyone.
Beverly Diehl said…
Wonderful point here, Karen.

I think with contemporary fiction, even if certain elements are wrong - let's say a character refers to an event or place that didn't actually exist - we still have the feel and tone of the time. That's why I love it, too.

Pride & Prejudice, of course. And Little Women.
Anonymous said…
I think contemporary fiction can easily be used to learn more about an era, not so much about actual facts, but about people and emotions. The Great Gatsby makes fantastic points about materialism, and what was important to "high class" society at the time. It's not a timeline, it's a statement about culture of the twenties.

One of my favorite books ( that many of my friends hate ) is The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I love that it was banned. That sounds funny, but it was such a bold move on Chopin's part to release it in 1899. Though I may not agree with leaving one's family to follow desires, it shows a very raw version of a woman breaking societal barriers to do what she pleases.


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