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…