Our definition of “contemporary” is out of date

A thread on my favorite writer forum, Absolute Write’s Water Cooler, reminded me of something that I’ve been questioning myself.  Our culture seems very slow to re-qualify what constitutes terms such as “classic” and “historical.”

Case in point, if you ask a publisher or agent what qualifies as a “historical” novel, you will get some differing opinions.  Most say “pre-World War II.”  Some go so far as to say “pre-World War I.”

I say, “You have to be kidding me.”

Let’s look at that WWII example.  That means that anything post 1945 is considered “contemporary.”  This, by the way, is the most used qualification for what is considered historical in fiction.  That means that something that happened sixty-seven years ago is considered a contemporary piece.  Those folks who use WWI as an example, that war ended ninety-five years ago.  That’s right folks.  Anything that happened in the last ninety-five years should be considered contemporary in the literary world.

I submit to you that these definitions are outdated to the point of becoming silly.  No one who is going to the bookstore, or browsing through Amazon looking for a contemporary novel to read, is looking for one written about what happened nearly a century ago.  In my opinion, a novel set in 1953 should not qualify for contemporary.  That’s sixty years ago, and an era that bears little resemblance to the world today.

“Why is this important?” you seem to ask.  Surely, this has no real effect on the real world?

The failure of society to update the way we view what is classic or historical is having an effect on the real world in some cases.  I recently had a part time job as a prescription delivery person.  I delivered solely to nursing homes.  This point really hit me when I walked into a brand new establishment to deliver meds.  It’s a beautiful building.  It’s been stocked full of new equipment and kind staff.  It is decorated completely in the Victorian style.

The Victorian era ended in 1901.  Now, when my grandmother was in a nursing home and suffering from memory loss, a Victorian themed nursing home would have been just the thing.  Waking in a building decorated in the style of her early childhood would have been very comforting.

Imagine, if you will, the current eighty year old patient.  He wakes in a building, his memory muddled, and not knowing exactly where he is. He looks around and sees a place decorated in a fashion that even his grandparents may not have used.  Nothing reminds him of who he is or where he comes from other that what personal effects are allowed in his room.

I think that someone, sometime, realized that the Victorian age was comforting to the residents in their care because it reminded them of their childhood.  That then became “Victorian décor comforts old people” and it never changed with the times.

My father was born in the forties, had his formative years in the fifties, and would feel like he was visiting a museum if he was stuck in the current nursing home norm of décor, which thankfully he is not.  What is wrong with people?  Where are the nursing homes in the style of the fifties?  Where are the juke boxes and pink and black tile?  Why do we chose one set of qualifications, and then decide that we are done?

I suggest to the folks that have decided what constitutes “historical” in the literary world to consider updating their qualifications, especially those pre-WWI enthusiasts.  I fear that even five years from now, when their view of what constitutes contemporary fiction is 100 years old, they will stick to the same out-dated qualifications.

"Contemporary" dress

“Contemporary” dress

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About Julianne Q Johnson

I am a 48 year old woman who moved recently from Louisville to Indiana with 3 cats, 2 ferrets, 1 goldfish, and one fiancé. I have been writing all of my life, but now I have finally buckled down and written a book. This blog is a place for me to share my writing, my love of taking pictures, and my trials and tribulations in trying to get Ghost in the Park published.
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5 Responses to Our definition of “contemporary” is out of date

  1. Those are the terms I use. I have an historical novel (antebellum), and a contemporary novel (current day). I am working on a book of social commentary.

  2. Tina Cones says:

    I agree. My grandmother, who passed away last fall at the age of 98, wasn’t born until 1914. I would think Victorian would be a shock to her. I even think that the 80′s wouldn’t be contemporary. Think of all the things we have now that weren’t around for general use then.

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