Contemporary fiction … and risk

Contemporary fiction is all about the values of the day, if you take one of the definitions (for more on various definitions of contemporary fiction, see my post here). But that often comes with a need to shy away from the ‘usual’ and ‘conventional’, and instead push boundaries. This is risky business. Why? Because readers like what they like, don’t they?


I, for one, do not subscribe to the school of thought. If that were the case, ‘different’ books like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and, yes, even Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn would not have made the ripples they had in their audiences if readers weren’t interested in reading something fresh and different. Trying to find a multi-point-of-view narrative that didn’t pass the baton (and failing) was what prompted the writing of my own novel, which charts the same events of betrayal and lust through four students’ (sometimes very) different perspectives.


However, bookstores (if we ignore Amazon) do not like to stock ‘risky’ books unless they have a proven worth. This is because bookstores are themselves a (risky) business that need to make money from selling books, and so they prefer to stock books with guaranteed sale value over those that may be more interesting to the reader but may or may not sell.


So where does that leave us as writers of contemporary fiction? Somewhere in the balance. Authors of contemporary fiction like to create something new and different because it’s inevitable with the issues covered in our fiction. True, some of it is less risky than others, but the multi-genre, oddball structure, unmoulded writing is becoming more common and more sought after by readers.

This is also reflected in some book prizes that actively celebrate risk. Examples include The Goldsmiths Prize, which actively awards the prize to a book that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form” and the Gordon Burn prize, said to celebrate “Literature that challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading”.


But, love it or loathe it, risk is something writers have to bear in mind. The advent of mass self-publishing is part of this backlash against risk-averse publishing. As is the large number of small, independent publishers actively seeking more ‘risky’ literature (such as my own publisher, Urbane Publications). And this gives contemporary fiction the breathing room it needs to keep pushing those boundaries.


This post is brought to you by Christina Philippou.


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