Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is genre and genre distinction. During our panel on contemporary YA fiction at the YALSA Lit Symposium, Angie made a very clear point that books set in the 1980s are not contemporary fiction. It’s something that we talked about again when we opened the audience floor up to comments or questions. Someone brought up the forthcoming Eleanor & Park as a fabulous romantic novel in context of contemporary romantic books, and we had to point out that since the book is set in the 1980s, it’s not contemporary. It’s historical.
There’s nothing wrong with setting a novel in any time period, given the story and the characters make sense within that period. It seems lately there have been a number of books published that are set in the 1980s and 1990s (a small sample of them pointed out in this post and comments). Sometimes those stories are set within the period because it’s the story’s setting — such as Rowell’s title — and other times, the books are set within that time period because it’s a book about a specific event that happened during that time period — such as Jenny Moss’s Taking Off. There are books like Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post which sort of blend the two, as her story takes on sexuality within the early 1990s culture of that issue while also exploring a specific historical event in the setting of the story. And while these three examples, as well as the myriad of others, can and do successfully resonate with readers because they tackle bigger issues or stories that still matter today, they’re not contemporary novels. They’re historical.
Yes, it is very, very uncomfortable sometimes to think of the 1990s as historical. But if we’re talking about YA fiction, we have to consider that today’s 16-year-old was born in 1996. Today’s 12-year-old was born in 2000. Today’s teenagers did not grow up knowing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and most of them don’t have a clue who, say, Veronica Mars is. That’s not to say none of them do — they just didn’t grow up with these references. Many are finding them now and many are loving them, but it’s not part of their cultural knowledge.
Let that sink in a second.
I’ve been considering the notion of genre labels a lot since then, especially as I start to think about how I want to frame an entire book about contemporary YA fiction. What exactly is contemporary fiction?
A book published today but set in the past has to be historical fiction. But how far in the past is the past? I’m not entirely sure there is a place you can draw a line, unless it becomes clear and obvious. Take, for example, Brian Farrey’s With or Without You, published last year. It’s a book about being gay and the struggle for accepting and being accepted for that, and it also takes on the issue and prevalence and fear of AIDS within the gay community. The theme itself is universal and the book certainly resonates with readers today. But a careful reading of this book suggests maybe it’s not set in today’s world, but rather, it’s set in the 1990s. It doesn’t come out and say it directly, but references throughout the story, as well as the title itself, suggest it may not be set today. Does it make the book any less valuable or important? No. That setting doesn’t change the story, except that it might not quite be a contemporary novel. The same could be said of Andrew Smith’s Stick, which tackles domestic/family abuse in a similar way to Swati Avasthi’s Split — it doesn’t come out and say when it’s set, but reading it closely and paying attention to the contexts, the references, and other small details suggest it’s set in the 90s, rather than in today’s world.
Both Farrey’s book and Smith’s book, I note again, were published in the last couple of years. Does the setting change the fact their books are realistic? Or are they historical because they’re potentially set in the past? Are they contemporary? I’d argue in the case of both books that they are not historical fiction. Neither book comes out and states a specific time period. It could potentially be argued that my reading of the 90s settings aren’t entirely accurate. It could probably be better argued — and quite fairly — that my adult reading of the novel is what made me read those books with that time setting. Because as an adult reader, my contextual knowledge is much more vast than today’s teens (who again, I note, were born between 1994 and 2000). I have more clues to draw upon and make those assumptions. Whether or not the books are set in the 90s, though, doesn’t change the fact that the issues they tackle are realistic. They are very realistic. These books highlight strong realistic fiction.
But are these books contemporary if their settings aren’t today’s world? Do the cultural references and setting of Eleanor & Park make that book decidedly historical if they don’t take on a specific historical event? Because I could easily argue that Rowell’s book is realistic and not historical because, well, the only historical elements are the pop cultural references. There aren’t historical events being drawn upon. The hangup I have with saying this, though, is that the setting is a crucial and important element of the book, and it’s something Rowell draws attention to in the story itself. Farrey and Smith do not do that in their books.
It’s incredibly complicated and convoluted because there’s not a good definition of what contemporary means. Whereas we have a good handle on what historical fiction is and what realistic fiction is, do we have a strong handle on contemporary? Or is it something we’re using interchangeably?
Here’s another way to think about this and another way to make it even more complicated: Can a book that was published in the 1990s or in the early or mid 2000s that isn’t historical fiction still be considered contemporary?
Rob Thomas’s Rats Saw God was published in 1996. It’s a quintessential bildungsroman, centered on Steve York trying to figure out who he is, where he fits in, and how to tackle all of the challenges of family and friendship and love. It’s a realistic novel through and through, and Steve’s voice and situations are the teen experience. But there is something that dates this book, and it’s a reference to Kurt Cobain. This is a decent part of the plot and a decent part of Steve’s life and experience. Beyond that reference though, there is little else to set this book in the 1990s. The way the characters talk, interact, and experience life aren’t different. They aren’t waxing poetic about the 90s experience and they make few cultural references. Their challenges mimic today’s teen challenges. But that reference to Cobain — does it date the book? Does it make the book historical? Does the fact this book was published in the 90s make it historical?
I’d say no. I’d say this is solid realistic fiction, and for anyone worried about whether that Cobain reference or importance would be lost on today’s teens, I’ll let you sigh in relief of knowing that it’s not. According to the teens at my workplace, they know who Cobain is, and they consider him among other classic rock giants like Fall Out Boy and Snow Patrol (did I need to tell you this post is about checking your own reality — you aren’t reading those two “classic rock” bands incorrectly here).
The thing is, I’d argue this book is not contemporary. While the reference won’t be lost and while nothing in this book makes it historical, the publication date and the reference don’t reflect the contemporary moment we’re living in.
So what about Patricia McCormick’s Cut, published in 2001? The book focuses on cutting and a teen caught up in it. This is an exceptionally relevant title, and it’s one that I read as a teen. It came out when I was a sophomore in high school. And while the story is still pertinent today and while there is definitely still a huge readership, there are elements of this story that date it. For example, the main character needs to use a pay phone at the Dunkin Donuts to reach her family. I’m not sure the last time I even saw a pay phone. Today’s teens are certainly not going to be as familiar with the intricacies or implications of pay phones over cell phones. That’s not to say they’re going to get caught up in or it think twice about it, but that does not reflect today’s contemporary experience. Cut is realistic. It is not historical because of when it was written or because of a reference here or there. But I don’t think it is contemporary. It’s realistic.
The challenge I run across, though, in thinking about these distinctions when it comes to a book like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. Again, published at the very tail end of the 1990s, it makes virtually no references to the time period in which it was written. The topic is entirely relevant and pertinent to today’s teens. It’s read in schools as part of the English curriculum, in fact. And while it has been since the book came out that I’ve read it — and I read when I was in high school as well — I’ve wondered if it were to be written today, would it be different? Would there be references to, say, cell phones? Would that change the plot or the cultural setting of the book? Or would the book have the same effect without those references? Part of what I think makes Anderson’s book so good is that it doesn’t rely on the modern conveniences or trappings of the time period in which it was written. Speak is not historical, despite being written a decade ago, and it is entirely realistic. But I struggle here in wondering if it’s contemporary or not.
Are there places we draw lines to distinguish among what is contemporary or realistic? Moreover, does drawing lines put a sell-by date on titles? Does it mean some books are only going to be relevant for so long before it’s time for them to be gone?
The longer I think about this question and about what defines contemporary fiction, the more I think there are places we draw lines. And for me, it’s arbitrary. I’m still struggling with whether or not Anderson’s book could be contemporary, and if I had to lay an answer down on her title based on what I’m defining as contemporary, I’d say it’s not. It’s realistic. This one, too, is a classic and cornerstone novel in YA fiction. But I’m not sure it’s contemporary and maybe that’s because it has contemporaries.
How do I define contemporary realistic fiction then and what is my time frame?
Is this arbitrary? Absolutely. But it’s also a logical time frame. There are five years between the ages of 13 and 18. In those five years, history and culture shift significantly, especially in the teen world. There is a cultural zeitgeist to be teased out of a five year time frame, too. Think about it: in 2008 — five years ago — how prevalent were ereaders? Smart phones? Wireless access at restaurants, car repair places, or big box stores? Mobile applications everywhere? Skype? The challenges and implications of social networking? The legal challenges of issues like sexting or texting and driving? Moreover, the way you look at the world when you’re 13 is leaps and bounds different than when you look at the world at age 18.
That is not at all to say realistic books an 18-year-old reads that were published for young adults when they were 12 or 8 or 5 aren’t going to resonate with them. It doesn’t mean that a book published in 2007 isn’t going to change the life of today’s 13-year-old. It doesn’t mean any book published before 2008 has to be weeded from the shelves and should be banished because it’s entirely irrelevant to today’s teens. But I do think there are things that change and things that are updated. Contemporary moments are those that are current and that shift with the culture and the world. Contemporary realistic fiction thus reflects a current reality, one that may or may not make reference to pop culture or events of today’s world. A contemporary realistic novel written or published in 2012 can be successful without ever once referencing cell phones or modern political challenges. But what makes contemporary fiction so interesting and why I think there is a time frame to that particular genre within realistic fiction is that, taken on a whole, there are certain themes that emerge. There are things that happen, that cause certain books to be published and there are certain conversations that bubble up because these are stories that are incredibly current.
For example: how many books have been published in the last 5 years that tackle the challenges of technology? There’s Sarah Darer Littman’s Want to Go Private?, Susan Vaught’s Going Underground, and Jennifer Brown’s forthcoming Thousand Words. While these books are relevant and timely now, and while they will remain relevant and timely for quite a while (especially as we struggle with the challenges socially and culturally), will these stories have the same sort of immediacy to a teen in 2017 as they do in 2012? Or will there be a new wave of similar realistic stories that build upon these stories? I don’t think Littman, Vaught, nor Brown’s stories will become historical fiction in five years or ten years. They’ll still be realistic. They’ll still be important and they’ll still resonate with readers. But they won’t necessarily be contemporary, as they won’t reflect the zeitgeist of 2017.
What about the wave of military-related contemporary titles? These absolutely reflect the realities of today’s teens, as they struggle with being involved in the military or having their lives impacted by someone else’s involvement. There’s Dana Reinhardt’s The Things a Brother Knows, Trish Doller’s Something Like Normal, and E. M. Kokie’s Personal Effects, just to name a few. Will these books still be realistic and powerful in five years? You bet. But they might not reflect the same contemporary realities of war in five years. Arguably — and this is for those of you who’ve read Kokie’s title — hers might end up being more along the historical fiction lines today than they are along the contemporary lines (I don’t agree with that, but I see the argument). In 2008, did we have collection of solid military related titles that reflected the social/cultural/political realities of teens? Not like we do now. There’s also the flux of bullying-related titles from authors like Hannah Harrington, Joshua Cohen, Susane Colasanti, Courtney Summers, and more that have made waves in the last few years, too. Though they are contemporary and reflect the realities of today’s teens, what makes books like these lend to my definition of contemporary is that they build upon, converse with, and, in some ways, build upon classics titles like Anderson’s Speak.
How about titles that don’t look at a specific news-worthy issue? Books that tackle more internal struggles — say books by authors like Sara Zarr or Gayle Forman or Elizabeth Eulberg or Steve Brezenoff or Blake Nelson and so on and so forth — are still going to resonate with readers in five years or ten years. Even if they’re realistic and even if they’re not drawing upon today’s cultural realities, they won’t be contemporary down the road.
I return back to my earlier comments about Farrey and Smith’s titles. As an older reader, I see the slight cues in the story that give it a date. My knowledge, my reality, and my reading have shaped my ability to tease out small details. Today’s 18-year-olds can do the same thing with books published in 2007 because their own worlds have shaped their reading. Their knowledge of contemporary is their current reality in 2012. It’s not the reality they lived in 2007.
Obviously, this is a subjective line in the sand and it divides some books from others based on an arbitrary time frame. It’s something that other people might not hold in the same light I do, and it’s something that I think could be argued eight different ways and done so fairly each way. I don’t think there will ever be a moment when we as readers or people who think about books and reading choose to arbitrarily separate “realistic” from “contemporary” reads based on the change of years on a calendar. And we shouldn’t because, well, it’s kind of silly to do that. Rather, I think we do have to think critically about what is and isn’t contemporary to today’s readers. Veronica Mars isn’t contemporary to today’s teens. Neither is Buffy. And today’s teens — at least mine — consider Snow Patrol and Fall Out Boy to be classic rock. They know who Kurt Cobain is, but they don’t necessarily know what he is (and I think it’s fair that they know who he is because of the legacy surrounding him, since they have no idea who, say, REM is).
Is this musing a lot about a single term? It is. But it’s something I’ve thought a lot about and it’s something that has changed meaning in my time reading and reflecting upon what defines contemporary and realistic fiction. For me, realistic is the umbrella term; contemporary falls within that term.
I’d love your thoughts on this. What defines contemporary fiction? What defines realistic? Am I too arbitrary or am I being generous? And at what point does a book become historical — does it require a specific event or is it seeded in the cultural references? If it is the cultural references that make a book historical, then when do today’s contemporary titles become historical instead of realistic? When do we think about the story as story and when do we think about story as it relates and pertains to readership?
There are a lot of questions here, and there’s a lot of thought fodder to unpack. And maybe the most interesting and exciting part is that there aren’t any hard and fast answers.