A few weeks ago, I read an article about something along the lines of when a contemporary novel becomes historical fiction. I don’t remember where I read this article, I want to say Bookriot but I’m not sure, but the idea has been floating around in my head ever since. Does a contemporary novel ever become historical fiction? And if so, when?
Before I start answering this question, I need to make a couple of disclaimers. The first one is that I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction. I enjoy historical fiction and I often find myself buying historical fiction, but after reading history books for four years in university, I find that I don’t pick up these books too often. The second disclaimer is that I’m defining contemporary novels as novels that are set in the time that they are written.
When I think about contemporary novels, I tend to think about books that were written in the last fifteen years or so. I think of novels like This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper or The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. I don’t really think of novels like Pride and Prejudice or To Kill A Mocking Bird as contemporary and I also don’t think of them as historical fiction, instead, I think of them as classics and label them as such on my reading log.
Since I label novels like Pride and Prejudice and To Kill A Mocking Bird as classics instead of historical fiction, it leads me to draw the conclusion that contemporary books don’t become historical fiction. This makes sense to me because when I think of historical fiction, I think of novels that were written now but take place in the past, usually around a specific event or period. I also think that it takes quite a bit of research to write historical fiction because the author wants to ensure that they’re writing about the period correctly; whereas it doesn’t take as much research to write a contemporary novel because it takes place in the same world the author lives in.
If contemporary novels don’t become historical fiction, what happens to them after the period that they take place in is over? I asked my friend this question and her phone autocorrected contemporary to temporary and this led to a conversation about whether contemporary novels are just temporary. I feel that in a sense they are temporary because they either become classics or end up somewhat forgotten; for every To Kill A Mocking Bird or Huckleberry Finn, how many other books are there that ended up mostly forgotten?
I think that contemporary novels can act as windows into the period that they were written and the issues that shaped the period. For example, if you pay enough attention, you’ll probably notice differences between books written before and after 9/11 because that was an event that influenced the social issues that shape our world. I also feel that as time goes on, certain books end up standing out as books that describe the social issues of the time and that they live on as classics whereas other books fall through the cracks and don’t stand the test of time.
Overall, I don’t think that contemporary books turn into historical fiction. I feel like historical fiction is its own genre and that an author sets out to write historical fiction and they put a lot of research into accurately portraying the period they’re writing about. What do you think? Do you think a contemporary novel can turn into historical fiction? What do you think happens to a contemporary book as the period they’re set in passes by? I’d love to hear your thoughts!