What is Contemporary Literature? - Definition & Writing Style

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  • 0:01 What Is Contemporary…
  • 1:40 Classifying…
  • 3:30 Contemporary Writing Style
  • 4:15 Contemporary Themes
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

When we talk about literature, there are myriad ways to define, describe and label the content. When we talk about contemporary literature, we are describing writing during a specific time period. Read on to learn about contemporary literature and what that label entails.

What is Contemporary Literature?

The word contemporary means living, belonging to or occurring in the present. So when we talk about contemporary literature, we are talking about literature that is being written in the now about the now. But what does the now encompass?

Contemporary literature is defined as literature written after World War II through the current day. While this is a vague definition, there is not a clear-cut explanation of this concept -- only interpretation by scholars and academics. While there is some disagreement, most agree that contemporary literature is writing completed after 1940.

Works of contemporary literature reflect a society's social and/or political viewpoints, shown through realistic characters, connections to current events and socioeconomic messages. The writers are looking for trends that illuminate societal strengths and weaknesses to remind society of lessons they should learn and questions they should ask. So when we think of contemporary literature, we cannot simply look at a few themes or settings. Since society changes over time, so do the content and messages of this writing.

When we talk about contemporary literature and the start date of this label, we have to acknowledge World War II and the surrounding events. The horrors of the war, including bombs, ground wars, genocide and corruption, are the pathways to this type of literature. It is from these real-life themes that we find the beginning of a new period of writing.

Classifying Contemporary Literature

While there is not one type of contemporary work, each piece sends a message from a person living through and after World War II. However, this does not mean all works will center around the Holocaust or war narratives. These works aim to speak to the injustices in the world and the search for civil rights, the topics and questions that were raised during this traumatic time in world history. The war serves as a catalyst for this shift in mindset, and the authors writing in this period consciously and unconsciously illuminate this shift in thinking through their writing.

For example, Beloved by Toni Morrison, is a classic piece of contemporary literature. The novel follows an ex-slave named Sethe on her journey to fight her traumatic past while raising her daughter Denver. The book serves as a powerful message about the trauma slaves face and cultural injustices slavery brought upon the citizens of the US.

But to the point, this slave narrative does not define contemporary literature. There are many other works that are vastly different, all of which fulfill the definition of the contemporary period. To provide contrast, the novel, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, is another example of contemporary literature. This narrative follows a minister and his family from the US on a mission to Africa where their lives are drastically changed, and their Christian values are tested. It speaks to the idea of forcing one's religion and culture on another and the pitfalls and realizations that come with the task. Completely different from Morrison's Beloved, both are considered works of contemporary fiction.

Let's dig a little deeper into style and writings of contemporary literature to better understand the qualities and characteristics.

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