What exactly does ‘contemporary’ mean?

I ask, because this is one of the many aspects of writing for YA that make me feel I’m barking up the wrong tree. I’ve already written about the ‘kick ass’ injunction that to my mind misses the point about feminism completely. Same for the ‘diversity’ imperative. I recently read a review raving about a new YA space opera about colonising a new planet in which the reviewer went into overdrive about the most original and awesome aspect of the story, which was that all the characters in the story were queer. So much for the colonisation project, I thought, but more seriously—ALL the characters?

I admit; I’m completely out of the loop as far as modern culture is concerned. I don’t even know what’s on French TV never mind anybody else’s. The way people use the English language has changed since I learned to speak. It probably has in the US too, but on the odd occasion that husband tunes the tranny into BBC Radio 4, it’s like listening to a different language. The intonations are all different, and the way the phrases rise and fall in weird places and the fear of pronouncing vowels (Dr Heew springs to mind), make me wonder what my writing sounds like to these new Anglophones.

I recently had a story rejected by a magazine and was given quite extensive feedback. It was interesting, not because of what it told me about my writing, so much as what it told me about how other people were reading my writing. The story is set in pre-Christian northern Europe, and the main problem the editors had with it (apart from the unacceptable level of violence) was the language. It was suggested that it would be better written in a contemporary style. Whose contemporary did they mean, I wondered? The request was coming from people who objected that the word ‘fuck’ was anachronistic in the context of Iron Age Scandinavia. To my amateur knowledge, the word is of very early Proto-Germanic origin and predates the discovery of the Americas by possibly a thousand years. Just because it is used and used to death in modern American does not mean that Americans invented it! ‘Contemporary’, unless the setting is contemporary, is anachronistic, period.

I also find myself totally at sea with the naming of literary characters. Family names like Riley, Bailey, Taylor, Cameron, or Blake are commonly used as given names for male or female characters—not so common are Bottomly, Burtle or Pratt. Geological features like Brook, River, Sierra and Savannah pop up everywhere but I have yet to meet an Escarpment, Tundra or Swamp. You can call someone Red or Sienna, but not Yellow or Puce. Try it. “Hey, I’d like you to meet the twins Pratt and Puce.” There’s no logical reason why you should find yourself rolling your eyes at Pratt and Puce, any more than at Cameron and Sienna. But you would.

I don’t understand this mania for inventing names to be original. They end up being not. Maybe I’m just being fuddy-duddy, but it seems to me that nothing dates a story like its use of contemporary speech, especially when contemporary means cult phrases, original names or product placement. Imagine a novel full of Amstrad computers…

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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

10 thoughts on “What exactly does ‘contemporary’ mean?”

  1. You hit the nail on the head.
    Sadly so many in working world now (pumped full of self esteem and believing their own press from positive reinforcement by schools and parents) are so poorly educated – and don’t know it. They were not taught a broad range of literature/pieces to read and analyze – history knowledge is slim.
    The old and trusted rule is to write for the universal and timeless if you ever hope to become a time honored “classic”. Easy to date a story

    1. You’re right. It is sad. Especially when we are working with words, language, we should know what we’re working with. I don’t understand how anyone can be in the world of words and have no curiosity about how they got there. We don’t expect a surgeon to decide which instrument to use on the grounds that it has a fancy twiddly bit on the end!

      1. Maybe the difference is that previous generations tried to create things that would last and hold meaning long term – ” investment” type pieces – rather than a disposable throw away society reinforced by being a first adopter/on trend is more important…which is pushed by an immediate need for profit by publishers and companies.
        There’s a great deal of talk about teaching “higher level thinking skills” yet the factory mode of education which cherishes group work, scripted lessons (so we will all be on the same page – even if the kids need to go in a different direction) and multiple choice tests creates herd thinking and “wait for my prompt before responding to the answer you have just been taught”…all carries over into the business world and life. Educational experiments tend to be very costly in the long term.

      2. Marx said it first, but we really don’t seem to want to ‘teach’, just ‘form’ minds that will fit the job they are likely to be offered. Think? You’ve got to be kidding. Understand? Not on your life.

  2. I get your ‘fuck’ reference! Just because it’s a word still in use, doesn’t mean it’s a recent invention. The same with the ‘C’ word – in the medieval period there was a London street cluttered with brothels with this word in its name, though many people would assume it was anachronistic if used in a Dark Ages set story. I used the shortened name Rich in a Tudor period setting a while back and a reader said it sounded too modern – do people really think our ancestors spoke Received Pronunciation, devoid of slang, swearing or contractions? And yes, unless you want to write in Old English – thereby making your story unsellable and unreadable – anything will be anachronistic.
    And don’t get me started on surnames as first names – a bugbear in our house. It’s something that began in America I think but is certainly creeping in here – we never used to have Baileys and Taylors in my day! My brother and his pals have a game where you randomly generate a suitable name for an American TV anchor by choosing a surname and the name of a British town. Try it – it works!
    I feel your frustration, Jane and share it too. It’s no help to you, but I do 🙂

    1. It’s a form of parochialism to assume that ‘how we do things here’ is the yardstick by which all shall be judged. The diifferent variants of English are merging thanks to pressure from the TV and internet, and the dominant variant is American English. Often American speakers don’t hear the glaring anachronisms in their pseudo-medieval speak. Nobody seems to care how a language is created and grows, and why it is becoming so poverty-stricken. Imposing an idea like ‘contemporary’ language is not understanding that there might be lots of different ‘contemporary’ languages, and yours didn’t begin until some were already very very old. The names are just another form of the same phenomenon. Why Kent and Devon and not Suffolk or Cheshire? Who’s making up the rules anyway?

  3. “Whose contemporary did they mean, I wondered?”–HA! I feel like a lot of people think contemporary simply means now. I really do not care for historical works that use modern language entirely. Worse is fantasy, in a medieval world, that uses modern slang! How do you suggest, naive writer, that those wizards came up with those particular phrases? Slang and idioms are developed in specific contexts. I try to avoid all but the most general idioms when writing old fantasy. I find it also makes the writing easier to read. That being said, I am happy to have things like “thou art” and such discarded. More often than not they are used wrong anyways.

    1. But whose now? It depends on who you are and where you live. Not everybody is on intimate terms with upstate New York or Hicksville in the Mid West. The basic accepted non-slangy language is already different to my basic language. People speak in idiomatic language, always have done, but when you use modern (implied American) idioms you get idiosyncrasy. The thee and thou are to be shunned like the plague though. As you say, they are rarely used correctly or even consistently. If you have thee, you have to use ye as well, and thine and mine, and why stop there? Best leave well alone.

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