Let’s use the word “unpack” in a contemporary way, by unpacking the word “contemporary”.
1630s, from Medieval Latin contemporarius, from Latin com- “with” (see com-) + temporarius “of time,” from tempus “time, season, portion of time” (see temporal (adj.)). Meaning “modern, characteristic of the present” is from 1866. http://www.etymonline.com/
But what are “modern characteristics”? The world moves so fast. I almost added “these days”, but people have always felt that. Luddites who destroyed machinery putting them out of work; American pioneers watching from wagons as steam trains thundered across the prairies; grandparents shown by teenagers how to use technology.
Most writers want their fiction to have a decent shelf life, retaining meaning for future generations. Some set off specifically to capture a zeitgeist, (Irving Walsh; Malcolm Bradbury). Other, perhaps more elegant authors couldn’t have foreseen how they would quietly resound down the ages. Most people can respond to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, through sequels, spin offs or Colin Firth’s torso, whether or not they’ve read Pride and Prejudice, because even in a more equal world we’d all still like marriages with love and money. Universal subjects and her economical, clear writing style explain why Jane Austen’s 19th century novels still have contemporary resonance and the individual personalities she creates transcend her sexist world.
Other assumptions date with more damage. In CS Lewis’s otherwise wonderful Narnia series the imagery of The Last Battle is repugnant to us today, as its blonde, upright Archenlanders and Narnians fight the sly, cruel, dark skinned, hook nosed Calormenes. Fantasy doesn’t have to be like that – try Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, written between 1958 and 1966, for some more acceptable shivers that have worn better.
I had a Puffin book as a child, in which mothers collected their children “in their Minis and Vivas and little Fiats”. I remember that sentence perhaps because the cadence runs off the tongue, but also because my mother had a Viva. However, what the author wanted to show was school picking up time. If he’d left out the Vivas the sentence would work as well in 2016 as it did in 1970. (I’m afraid both author and title have slipped my contemporary mind.)
Elizabeth Jane Howard’s brilliant The Long View (1956) cleverly avoids such issues by knowing it’s not contemporary. The sections reverse through 1950, 1942, 1937, 1927 and the book ends where the story began in 1926. The plot settles on significant moments for the heroine, gradually revealing how she got to where she is “now” (in fact it doesn’t end: “… she was living; and so unable to escape from the passionate gravity of the present, which physically, is always now….My new life, she thought, and sat down to it.” Period details from each section catch the eye – how the characters travel, or what they drink. In 1937, Imogen’s flatmate deems her hair clean enough for a date because “you washed it two days ago”. It was normal to wash hair only once or twice a week right up to the 1980s, but not to wash it for a date in 2016 would be anachronistic.
It’s worth finding Frozen Summer, by Crysse Morrison, (2004) on Amazon. Like many novels, it involves time. The heroine has amnesia after an accident. She returns from hospital to a family and home she doesn’t recognise and must learn to re love. She isn’t even sure about her name, which may be Kirsty or Kate. The novel works well and the feelings remain universal, but not long after publication the author’s intention was ambushed by an unforeseeable snare. Kirsty or Kate’s maiden name is Middleton: “not noticeable but not completely anonymous”. Well, until Prince William met that other Kate, anyway.
There are advantages in setting a date. Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, published 2016, takes place over two months in the unprecedentedly hot summer of 1976. She can play around with chart hits, makes of car and ice cream as much as she likes as long as they’re true to 1976, and yet the emotions (coming of age) and the issues (missing people, misguided accusations of paedophilia) resonate very strongly with a 21st century readership.
Lots of novels, past and present, feature (or don’t feature) missing people. The internet makes trying to find them duller and easier. That’s why The Trouble with Goats and Sheep works well in 1976 but couldn’t in 2016. Frozen Summer refers only to an “Amstrad” in the study although the characters do send emails. Clem Chambers’ fascinating recently reissued Dial Up for Murder is probably most meaningful to those who remember when – not so many years ago – you couldn’t use the telephone and surf the net at the same time. I set my novel The Infinity Pool in 2010-2011 on a Greek island which only had very unreliable broadband. Just one year later, the laptops had come out in the bars and the story wouldn’t have been possible. J K Rowling sidesteps the problem by noting computers don’t work for magic communities (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). The limitations rather than the possibilities of technology may explain why so many distinguished contemporary novelists have set their most recent work in the past – Helen Dunmore; Julian Barnes; Kate Atkinson.
And my point is? It’s dangerous to use specific contemporary details such as brands. Instead use background events to pinpoint time (although, at the time of writing this, political events in Britain are moving so fast you’d be pinpointing nano-seconds). But well written prose dealing with universal themes has permanence. In 200 years, will your novel be as contemporary as Jane Austen’s?
This post is brought to you by Jessica Norrie.