Monday, October 25, 2010

Current Events: Contemporary Literary Trends

by Dina Sleiman

Today, I’d like to take a look at the present state of literature. Many of us finished school 20, 40, perhaps even 60 years ago. Chances are you have no idea what precisely the current literary trends are. This creates a problem for writers who decide to pen their first novel decades after completing their educations. But whether you are a writer or a reader, it’s always good to keep learning and growing and to be aware of the world around you.

Let’s look at a few hallmarks of contemporary literature.

Experimental – The current postmodern worldview rejects the concept of absolute truth. Therefore, people of this generation are always searching to create meaning. They reject the authorities of the past and look for new structures and models for viewing the world. This can be seen in literature in a number of areas such as nonlinear plots, stream of consciousness writing, deconstructionist criticism, experimentation with grammar, loss of dialogue tags, plots that do not resolve, ect… While Christians maintain that the word of God is absolute truth, that does not mean that we necessarily accept the Webster’s Dictionary, the Oxford standards of grammar and punctuation, or a specific five point plot structure as absolute truth.

An example of experimental literary fiction can be seen in one of this year’s Christy Award winners, The Passion of Mary-Margaret. This book is written as if you are reading Mary Margaret’s personal journal. It is a sort of fictional memoir. She jumps back and forth in time between the present and random moments in her past. She has rambling reflective segments of “telling” that normally are not allowed in fiction. However, the whole book works together to create a very moving and meaningful work of art.

Mixed Genres – As a natural result of this experimentation, mixed genre writing has increased in popularity. For example, National Public Radio employs “literary journalism,” which removes the cold objectivity of standard journalism and allows us to enter an experience with the journalist using fictional techniques and poetic language. In the Christian arena, several books which have hit the New York Times best-seller list have been mixed genre books. Blue Like Jazz is a poetic memoir full of personal stories, which includes a series of comics. The Shack is a sort of fictional memoir which combines suspense and allegory.

I wrote my first narrative nonfiction book last year. It is basically a series of thematic lyric essays. The idea of the lyric essay is that it explores a theme in a somewhat poetic, disjointed, scene by scene fashion, braiding or weaving all of the ideas together, and tying them up tight at the end. So I was able to include poetry, personal stories, short stories, essays, devotionals, and scriptures, weaving them all together into a unified collection.

Distrust of Authoritative Voice – Since the postmodern reader rejects traditional authority and absolute truth, they tend to distrust an authoritative voice as well. In nonfiction, because we no longer believe that true objectivity is possible, this leads to books full of anecdotes and personal example stories to illustrate the logical points. In historical books and biographies, this leads to the author treating themselves as a character as they search for meaning in the various accounts of history. In fiction, the omniscient narrator has fallen out of favor. The most popular point of view is now multiple third person. This allows us to see the world up close and personal from a number of perspectives and lets us to draw our own meaning from the experiences of the characters.

In my newest novel, I feature three main characters from very different backgrounds: a Christian, a Muslim, and a New Age postmodern thinker. By using multiple points of view, the reader can see how each character reacts to the world and to each other. The reader gets an in-depth look at each mindset without being told what to believe. Since this is a Christian book, I did place my Christian character as the primary protagonist, and one of the other characters will undergo a significant change. However, my Christian will also learn and grow from the views of the other two women.

Multi-sensory – Now we get to the aspects of contemporary literature affected by both postmodern philosophy and our film and television oriented culture. We need a lot of sensory stimulation in our books to compete with visual media. So more than ever our words have to draw our reader into the story, bringing them all the way into the heads and bodies of our point of view characters so that they can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell what our characters are experiencing. However, you can still see the effect of postmodernism, because we want to have a relationship with a character and draw meaning from their experiences rather than just have those experiences reported to us.

Even in schools, children are being taught in a multi-media fashion. My children now have something called “Promethean Boards,” which are basically giant touch screen computers, in each of their classes. This takes the place of the chalkboard, overhead projector, and movie projector all at once. This shift in our culture is going to continue to change our thinking and learning styles. Sheer left-brained logic is no longer the rule of the day, which is why intuition, experience, relationship, and image have become so important to our younger generation.

Use of Scenes – The last area I would like to cover is the use of scenes. Of course this relates to television and film and our attention deficit culture. We’ve become used to scenes set in one time and place. A quick switch of the camera, and we accept that we’re in a new time and place, which is the next significant time and place in the storyline. We don’t need an explanation about how we got there or what happened in the interim. We don’t question if the writers and directors have left out some significant information that we need to know. But again, this also relates to the postmodern mindset because we want to draw our own conclusions and don’t want everything explained to us from an authoritative point of view.

The way this plays out in both fiction and nonfiction is that we can now give a brief scene or a segment, leave a space or insert a “***,” and the reader accepts that we are in a new place or on to the next subject or story without much explanation. Readers no longer desire superfluous transition. Just get to the point. Stick with what matters and move the story along. In nonfiction, this often minimizes the authoritative commentary. Instead, the author lets the reader take in the information and waits until the end of the chapter to wrap things up. At that point the author can offer their own conclusions, but in a personal way that says, “These are the conclusions that I have drawn,” leaving space for the reader to draw their own.

In trying to be brief for this blog post, I probably broke a lot of the rules of postmodern literature by explaining the subject in an authoritative voice ;) So what are your experiences with contemporary reading and writing? What trends have you seen? How do you notice our culture affecting today’s literature and media?


  1. Interesting, Dina. I know I live in a postmodern world, but I don't have an entirely postmodern mind!

  2. I think as writers, its helpful to know about our culture and how it has affected the expectations of our craft.

  3. Your first sentence in your last paragraph struck me because I just noticed in two recent novels that I read, the only indication that it was switching from either character to character or time frame to time frame was the chapter heading -- in small print, none the less!! Until I realized that was what was happening, I found it quite confusing. Once I realized the chapter headings were crucial...then I was okay. I didn't know the rationale for this though until now! Thanks!
    Elaine King

  4. So Elaine supports my premise that this affects readers too! Cool. A lot of what I wrote about here will be seen in "literary" writing more so than in "popular" writing.

  5. Interesting post, Dina. I haven't thought of some of this since my college days, although I recently read a biography of Pocahontas written in a circular narrative and it exercised my brain cells in a good way. It's been a while since I read something like that, as I (motly) read the genre I write these days. Thanks!

  6. You've made some interesting points, Dina. I see this era as full of opportunity and less restrictive.

    As a writer of literary fantasy containing elements of adventure, romance and suspense, I mix not only genres but literary conventions. Die hard readers of literary fiction reject the notion of literary fantasy but the public embraces it. (The Harry Potter books are an example.)

    Thanks for an interesting post with lots of food for thought.

  7. Susanne, I like reading books that give my brain a work out.

  8. Excellent example, Janalyn. I hope it does well. I'll be doing a collection of sci-fi and fantasy novels for our "Backlist Promotion" in November by the way.

  9. I found your site from Adventures of the Grigg Boys. I love it. I’m going to poke around a little bit, but don’t worry I’ll put everything back where I found it!!

  10. Okay well I feel like this was a great post. I find my writing changing to more of a research type writing which I have no idea why but it's not about me so I just have to hang on and enjoy the ride.

  11. Louise, just keep in mind that Christian writing is usually less experimental. We tend to be a more traditional sort of people. And romance and historicals in general are more traditional due to the subject matter. People look for comfort in familiarity.

  12. Dina, you are an amazing teacher/writer!

    I always get so much out of your posts on post-modernism...

    Someday it will sink in and we'll be able to have an intelligent conversation. :)

  13. With my background in literature, I'm not sure I would call books like The Shack and Blue Like Jazz emerging trends. More like exceptions to the rule of contemporary literature. Stream of consciousness writing has been around for a long time, with the occasional book leaping out because it hit a chord with the general population and then people read it because it was uncool not to, though many don't get it or just don't like it.

    Look at publisher guidelines and agent guidelines. Few want or will represent, respectively, literary fiction. Why? Because the market for it is so very tiny. A few slots in awards like The Christy Awards remain open for that category.

    Literary elements, however, are wonderfully enriching to an otherwise fast-paced novel regardless of whether or not it's fantasy, historical, romance, or contemporary women's fiction. For me, employing the poetic creativity of literary elements in symbolism and metaphor better sets tone, mood, theme of a story. Subconsciously, I created an entire novel that is a historical romantic suspense on the surface, but also an allegory. Will any readers figure that out? Maybe.

    As Dana Fuller Ross/John Jakes once said, literary elements are generally lost on readers. They're reading for entertainment and just don't get them.

    I think they do subconsciously, though, so will continue to employ all that stuff I learned from my gazillion literature courses because I know they're there and have so much fun inserting them.

  14. Thanks, Cherly, I'm afraid I scared a lot of our regular commentors away today :)

  15. Laurie, I agree that we don't see as much of the experimentation in popular, general market fiction. On the other hand, I think 100 years from now the stuff that will be looked back on as "literature" from this period will reflect these trends. I also think it might be more memoir and these mixed genre books than straight fiction, just an impression I've gotten, could be wrong.

    I know that when I was in Christian schools, the literature education always cut off at the 1950's. I was hungry to learn about this stuff, so I've made an effort to go out and learn about trends in contemporary culture and literature whenever I can.


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