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.


Where stories come from

Tell people you’re a writer and invariably you get the same responses coming up time and time again. These are the four I get the most:

1. You should tell my life story – it’s fascinating.

2. I’ve always wanted to write a book but don’t have the time.

3. But what do you really do?

4. Are you the next JK Rowling?

It’s the first one that I’m going to delve deeper into today. Not by telling someone’s life story, although I have been told some great ones on some of the long train journeys I’ve been on, but in looking at the inspiration for writing and where ideas come from. For me, it’s a very different process for my novels and short stories.

The premise of my debut novel, As If I Were A River, came to me over a period of months as I kept coming across stories about people going missing. I was living in London and sometimes on the tube I’d flick through the Metro or the Standard and tucked away amongst the celebrity gossip there’d be little news pieces about missing men and women. I started to wonder how you would deal with it if someone in your life went missing. What it would feel like to not know.

A documentary programme on the same subject then inspired the main character, Kate, whose husband vanishes one night on a trip to the local shop. After watching that, Kate took up camp in my head and I had to start telling her story.

The novel I’m writing now, working title of All Be Forgotten, has also been brewing in my mind for a long time. I first had the idea around 3 years ago and it was inspired by my day job as a features journalist, in which I write about sustainability and renewable energy. I became a little obsessed with visions of the kind of world we could end up with because of global warming. The main character, Evie, is an environmental and social activist who ends up living in that world. But although this provided the initial inspiration for the setting and the idea, it’s turning out to be about superstition and prejudice, that element of human nature that takes the dark path even though there’s a chance to start again.

My third novel is actually the one I’ve been thinking of writing for the longest. I had the idea for this one about a decade ago. It’s historical crime fiction inspired by real life events that happened in my home town of Reading, close to a flat I used to live in by the River Thames. A story I stumbled across when researching something else in the local library. I’ve been researching it and thinking about it on and off for all of this time. I finally figured out how to tell it so the planning proper commences this summer.

So my novel ideas are creepers. They come from the things around me and I never know what might turn up next. In contrast, every single short story I’ve had published has come from a prompt or writing exercise. Usually where I’ve written the entire thing in one burst. In starting to write novels, I discovered I love to write short fiction. Thanks to the creative writing tutor in one of my first ever courses who said writing shorts was a great way to keep your motivation going as you actually get to finish something!


This post is brought to you by Amanda Saint.

The place of place in contemporary fiction

Sometimes it seems as though there are only two types of books: those that can be described as plot-driven, and others that are seen as character-driven. But what if still others are as much driven by place, in which character and plot emerge fully formed from the landscape?

I’m halfway through Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Neither British nor contemporary – any longer – it does deal exceptionally well with place. In fact, I would go so far to say that the story is a story of place above all else. The human and ovine characters (there are a lot of sheep) feel transient, incidental. They are formed of the black peat, and their stories are rooted in the marshy turf. Their hopes and tribulations meander on the sticky beck at the valley’s floor. The valley itself has a history, and previous events, centuries old, cling to the stones, ominous and foreboding. The menace that drives the book lurks under the cairn marking the pass above the perennially dismal Summerhouses; menace hangs from the blue mountains that fade into and out of view with the weather.


The evocation of place is one of the most direct routes into a novel’s universe. This is unsurprising: all stories take place (the word is everywhere) in space as well as time. When we visualise a character, the ground they stand on is solid. Every dark and stormy night rages somewhere.

That is not to suggest that good novels are always set in real places, either now or in the past; just that the ground on which they play out should be able to bear the reader’s weight. Nor does it equate good writing with lengthy descriptions of landscape, any more than strong characterisation can only be achieved through the detailed description of a protagonist’s face. As with character, we need to recognise a place, either from our memory or our imagination; as with plot, place needs to be solid, believable.

From sweeping landscapes of Icelandic moors to the more mundane environs of a West Midlands shopping centre: in Catherine O’Flynn’s 2007 debut, What Was Lost, place is almost indistinguishable from character and plot. The characters do not simply occupy the space, they are occupied by it. The missing girl ghosts through the darkened arcades and service corridors as if buried in the foundations. But while the evocation of a space I occupied relentlessly in my own teenage years was powerful enough, it is the ghost of the derelict industrial space that lies beneath it that stays with me most powerfully. To this day I do not know to what the title refers, what it was that O’Flynn most feels was lost.

Grounding stories in place, rooting them in landscape and the myths they hold, has been a central concern in my own writing. My first novel evolved from a story told to me amid the dust and noise of a city street in India; my second, out in May, began as an attempt to discover anew my own city, but in the end emerged from the weathered stones of a small Scottish island. I took a trip up to the Small Isles in search of my eponymous ‘cursing stone’ and, while I didn’t find it, the landscape of Canna did give flesh to a hitherto minor character and also sparked an unexpected plot twist.

Place is no substitute for character and landscape cannot replace plot. But nor is it an also-ran, simply a setting for people and action. The best fiction – or at least, the fiction that I want to read – makes place an active participant in the story. It is how memory works. Madeleines might have been enough for Proust, but for me it is the light on the hillside, the glugging of the brook, or a glimpse along an empty city street that takes me to the heart of a story.


This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.

What is contemporary fiction?

Welcome to the site on launch day!

It is my pleasure to kick off our weekly blog post on issues related to contemporary fiction reading and writing. Which, of course, has to begin with a definition of what contemporary fiction actually is. And that is what I’m going to be discussing today.

So what is contemporary fiction? There are numerous definitions and, as we like to think of ourselves as an inclusive lot here at Britfic, we seem to cover the whole range.

9781910692707  Dotsr  Too Charming

There’s contemporary fiction as a ‘genre’, normally encompassing ‘the leftovers’ of anything that doesn’t fall into a nice, neat category. But we don’t like to think of ourselves as leftovers and, indeed, our authors hail from a range of ‘genres’, including romance, crime, and fantasy.


Then there’s contemporary fiction defined as anything set in the present or very recent past. The present, however, very quickly slides to obsolescence and this then (rightly) begs the question of ‘when does contemporary fiction become historical fiction?’ Again, this is open for debate, and is one of the many topics we hope to be discussing on our YouTube channel over the coming months.

TiesthatBind  Beltane  AIIWAR

The other issue with a ‘present or very recent past’ definition is whether contemporary relates to setting, technology, or lifestyle. Not all of our novels are set in 2016, and not all of our novels are set in the current ‘era’ of smartphones and social media (but Britfic are on Facebook and Twitter). Does this not make us contemporary?


And then there is the definition, which is the one I prefer, that defines contemporary fiction on the basis of contemporary themes, and is more flexible in terms of setting. This allows for books set a decade or so ago, while still enveloping a broad spectrum of genres.


So how do you define contemporary fiction?


Enjoy the party – and don’t forget to follow our website (via email or WordPress) to be entered into the giveaway.


This post is brought to you by Christina Philippou.