Why do I not read contemporary fiction?

Posted June 18, 2017 by Lory in discussions / 49 Comments


I think of myself as an eclectic reader. In the last few months I’ve read fiction, historical fiction, classics, children’s books, YA, fantasy, mysteries, memoirs, diaries, romance, science fiction, nonfiction about history, science, and social issues, biographies, and more.

What I have NOT read, though, is contemporary fiction — by which I mean realistic fiction written in the last two decades or so, and set more or less contemporaneous with its writing; it should also spend most of the story in the “present” and not in the past of its characters or their relatives. The most recent example that I can find is The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, which I read last October (and found rather ho-hum). Yet this is a genre that many people seem most excited about, including several bloggers I follow. I respect their enthusiasm, and in theory have nothing against the books they’re reading, but for some reason everything else seems to take priority on my TBR list.

Why is this? Do I prefer worlds of fantasy, or imaginative ventures into the past, to novels that explore the present day and time? Do I have something against contemporary life?

There’s something in that, actually — ever since my obsessive early reading of the Oz and Narnia books, books have been for me a gateway into another world, one that seems richer, more colorful, more exciting than my own. Even though I grew up to love realistic fiction just as much, I still gravitated to nineteenth century novels, historical fiction, and other books that took me to a place or time removed from my daily life.

Now, I know that there are excellent contemporary writers who use the magic of words to illuminate the depth and richness that does lurk hidden in our everyday world. I’m not intentionally an escapist reader. But for me, it takes a bit more effort to seek out those authors and books, and I’m not one to read the latest bestseller just because it’s on everyone’s lips. Sometimes I like to give a bit of time for things to settle, for worth to prove itself beyond the momentary hype. But then, all too often, I forget about those books and never get around to them.

I’m not looking to change my reading habits in any extreme way; I don’t feel apologetic about preferring the books I generally tend to enjoy. However, I think I would do well to push myself a little bit, to try out some titles that otherwise I might overlook or set aside. I might just discover something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

To that end, I’d love some help from you. What contemporary fiction would you advise me to put at the top of my list? I shall undertake to try at least three or four of your suggestions.

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!



49 responses to “Why do I not read contemporary fiction?

  1. I joined a book club last fall, and so once a month I read contemporary fiction. I find it hard to finish most of the books; being as used to kids and YA as I am, I feel they drag on too much, and the characters are harder to cheer for, and the stories less interesting.

    • I know, isn’t that weird? Is modern life so boring? I think there must be some authors who are able to do more interesting things with it, but I have a hard time finding them (or maybe am not motivated enough to look).

  2. Such an interesting discussion…and I like to read mostly contemporary fiction…or at least fiction that’s set in the latest few decades. I tend to love late 80’s/90’s because that’s when I was in school…or coming of age.
    I think I like contemporary fiction b/c writing that astutely observes everyday life and then spits out its observations in “yes, that’s exactly how it is” writing is the thing that most resonates with me in my reading. I love it when a story makes me think “I’ve felt that exact same way about something and the author just put that feeling into the most perfect words.”
    Contemporary fiction that takes you to another world…I’d recommend The Wanderers by Meg Howrey and The Shore by Sara Taylor (this actually spans lots of time periods…historical, contemporary, and dystopian). Both books kind of make you feel like you’re in a little different world.
    Will be interested to hear what you end up reading and what you end of thinking about this!

  3. I also read little contemporary fiction. I have nothing against it. There seem to be some great works out there. It is just that there is so much else out there to read.

    I am not sure if it is contemporary enough, but I have read a lot of Philip Roth and a little John Updike. I like them both.

    • They would both count for the kind of book I’m thinking of, and I haven’t read anything by them either — with the exception of Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, which I hated. It seemed the product of such a nasty mind. However, maybe I should give him another chance.

  4. This is a great discussion and really makes me think. I don’t list genres for a book when I review it just because contemporary fiction is such a gray area. The span of books that can fall in that category is huge. I look at it like a spectrum from really formulaic, almost production line type books to those that may in fact cross the line into literary fiction. That range can give some people a bad taste for contemporary fiction.

    All that bing said, I read quite a bit of contemporary fiction, but I keep it toward the more literary end of that spectrum. I’ll recommend two: All Stories are Love Stories (not really a love story) by Elizabeth Percer and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I just finished the later one and it may be my favorite book this year. Both books will end up making you feel good about humanity.

    I hope you find something that works for you!

    • Eleanor Oliphant sounds very appealing! I’m not sure about “All Stories” as earthquake scenarios are particularly nightmarish for me (being from the Pacific NW). However, I’ll take a peek and see if I can stomach it. Anyway, thanks for the suggestions!

  5. I’m not much of a contemporary fiction reader either! Especially since I tend to read a lot of YA, and contemporary YA usually leaves me either bored or eye-rolling or both. HOWEVER. I did recently read Girl Out of Water by Laura Silverman and LOVED it. It made me very nostalgic and kind if wistful/wishful. Definitely recommend!

    • Putting it on the list! Love to see all these recommendations of books that I would otherwise never pick up for myself.

  6. Same here – contemporary fiction is not something I generally seek out, but I do dabble from time to time. Recently I read and liked The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and anything by Liane Moriarty.

  7. I have thought all these same things about my own reading habits. While I’ll read just about anything, my preferred genre is historical fiction. I love being able to step back in time and experience something that I would never be able to experience without the magic of reading. Like you said, I don’t consider myself to be an escapist reader, but often contemporary fiction just isn’t as interesting to me as other genres. I especially find this to be the case with YA contemporary fiction, for some reason. I still read some, but not enough.

    That being said, I just finished “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty and I LOVED it!

    • I’ve seen many raves for Gone Girl…but the thriller genre is one that is usually not for me (another exception to my eclectic reading — I can’t do anything too scary). However, Big Little Lies does look really good. Thanks!

  8. Looking back over my list, I realize that I don’t read a lot of contemporary books, either. But the most recent one I’ve read that I’d recommend is The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes by Bridget Canning. It’s both fun and thought-provoking. (But I also realize that it might not be as easy for you to get.)

  9. Deb

    I like historical fiction more than contemporary fiction too – but here are some contemporary reads I’ve really liked this year: Commonwealth, Hag-Seed, The Leavers, The Hate U Give. I liked The Nest quite a bit, but thought it faltered at the end.

    • Aha, I did not think of Hag-Seed as fitting into this category, but why not? The Shakespeare connection may give it more depth and resonance than I often find in contemporary stories, which is all to the good. The Leavers and The Hate U Give also look amazing and eye-opening.

      • Great post, Lory and I agree with you. I just really like the 19th and early 20th centuries and I read that fiction like history books!

        When I do read contemporary literature it is often historical novels or contemporary nonfiction biographies, histories, natural science, religion about that time period, so I am really no help here.

        However, I have read some contemporary fiction recently that I highly recommend: The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue and The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill. The first I would call a religious mystery based on true events, the second is witchy/fantasy. Good luck with your search!

  10. I think we all tend to lean toward certain genres that make us happy. For me, I find that YA is my favorite, especially YA Fantasy (though I’m okay with YA contemps too). I’ve tried some adult contemps, but they tend to bore me, honestly. I don’t know why that is—I think I DO read for escapism a bit, so adult contemp doesn’t give me that.

    • I’m all for reading the genres that make us happy, and I don’t think anyone should feel they “ought” to read certain books. I’m just getting curious whether I’m missing out on some books that I might actually enjoy — trying out some of these suggestions should help me figure that out.

  11. I’m not really much of a contemporary reader myself, so I know what you mean. My favourite genres are fantasy and historical fiction, and I guess I just like reading about stuff that takes me out of my own world and into another one, or into the past where it’s so different it seems like another world. I’ve read thrillers recently which I guess are contemporary in that they are often set in our world, in our time, but I don’t know if I’d count them seen as they’re a genre of they own? I can’t say that I’m that keen to change my reading habits either, but I’d definitely never discount reading a contemporary if I liked the sound of the story enough!

    • Thrillers I suppose I would count as more of a genre of its own for the purpose of this discussion. Books that are just about ordinary contemporary life (insofar as there is such a thing) are what I’m particularly thinking of. I’ve not been consciously avoiding them…but they are certainly not what I gravitate toward. I’m so happy to have some suggestions to try out now!

  12. I’m the last person to ask about contemporary fiction, Lory! Looking back over the last six months or so I find that the only ‘contemporary’ novels I’ve read (one by Kate Atkinson, the other by Donna Leon) happen to be genre fiction — in both bases, crime novels. Otherwise, like you, I tend to navigate towards fantasy, YA, classics, non-fiction, pretty much anything not labelled contemporary.

    In fact I’d have to go back to September last year to find something to fit into this category (Julia Rochester’s The House at the Edge of the World, reviewed at http://wp.me/s2oNj1-edge) and before that it was Phyllis Edgerly Ring’s The Munich Girl (reviewed http://wp.me/s2oNj1-munich) which flipped between present day New Hampshire and Germany in the middle of the 20th century. Both of which I enjoyed, by the way, but which either attracted me because of a fantastical title or because there was an historical backstory.

    So why do I resist? Perhaps because ‘contemporary’ too often suggest ‘parochial’? Or something angst-ridden? Or reams of unending tragedy? Or perhaps something faux-realistic in that no resolution may be offered at the end, in an attempt to imitate everyday life? Nothing wrong with any of these identifiers per se of course, but my heart does sink a little when I contemplate what could be something quotidian: life itself offers enough depression without seeking to escape into fictional recreation of it.

    You know of course that I’m being totally unfair!

    • I have read more of those past-and-present type of narratives, which seem to be increasingly popular — but I’m not counting those as “contemporary” because they have such a large historical element, which generally attracts me much more than the “today” part.

      I think I also have the impression that contemporary fiction = depressing (when not merely boring). I’m hoping that reading some of the suggestions above will prove me wrong!

  13. By following the Tournament of Books over the past few years, I have encountered a handful of newly published novels, some of which that deal with contemporary issues or story lines. I like that this helps keep me slightly current!

    I am loving the suggestions in the comments and making notes myself! Please do let us know what you end up reading and how you get on with it. I have heard good things about The Wanderers by Meg Howery, but I think I am more keen to pick up her debut novel The Crane’s Dance, which is supposed to be super compelling.

    • Following the Tournament of Books would be a good way to find a few titles each year to try. Though my favorite method is asking other bloggers for their faves. 🙂

  14. Our reading habits seem pretty similar. It’s not that I have any active dislike for contemporary fiction, it is just that there are so many other genres out there that appeal to me more, and there is only so much time.

    • Exactly — though I do tend to get stuck in a rut of what I already know I will like, and sometimes feel the need to branch out.

  15. I used to read a lot more contemporary fiction before I started really focusing on my work as a reading teacher, so most of my favorites are not very current. That being said, those favorites include:
    The River Why by David James Duncan (also The Brothers K)
    Barbara Kingsolver’s books
    Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I JUST finished listening to
    One Plus One by Jojo Moyes (light, but not entirely fluffy)
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (not super current, obviously)
    Raymond Carver’s short stories (also not super current)
    anything by Roddy Doyle
    most things by Julia Alvarez

    Lately I read a lot more YA contemporary than adult. If you need any suggestions for that category, my list would be much more up to date!

    • Right, there are also books which were contemporary at the time of their writing, but now feel more foreign to me because their “present” is not the same as mine. Books from the sixties and earlier tend to fall into that category for me.

      I’ve not read any of these except Barbara Kingsolver’s (which I like a lot) — thanks for more great suggestions!

    • I can totally relate to that! I wonder if there are some contemporary books that are also good escapist reading — Where’d You Go, Bernadette? springs to mind.

  16. Oooh, I second Americanah; also On Beauty by Zadie Smith and Lorrie Moore’s short stories. I liked Nicole Kraus’s Great House too, and Michelle Bailat-Jones’s Fog Island Mountain is wonderful.

    I read more British than American contemporary fiction; would British qualify or tip over into the ‘other worlds’ category? If it qualifies, then I love Ali Smith’s novels (I read How to be Both recently, it’s split between present-day London and Renaissance Italy). I enjoyed Justin Cartwright’s Promise of Happiness and plan to read more of his work. You might also like Weathering, by Lucy Wood (her short stories are lovely but tip into fantasy so not really per remit). Hilary Mantel and Jeannette Winterson, Jane Gardam and Helen Dunmore are all brilliant too.

    • Contemporary books set in other countries are a little more exotic, but I still tend not to read them either — and I should! Thanks for all of these great ideas…I do love Jane Gardam but I’ve gone through all her list.

  17. I love Barbara Kingsolver and Hilary Mantel. I also love Anne Tyler, especially Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. How about trying Nick Harkaway, who defies genre and is my favorite contemporary writer?

  18. I don’t read much contemporary fiction, either, so I’ll be curious to hear which recommendations from this post you pick. The last contemporary fiction I really enjoyed was Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, but I am not sure if that would be something you are interested in reading.

    • That looks interesting, and is short as well! I can more easily sample books that are not such a huge time commitment.

  19. I have this issue less than I used to, I think? And the change is at least partly due to my wanting to read more work by authors of color, and I have an easier time finding contemporary lit fic by POC authors than some other genres. I think??? I dunno. Anyway! I am so excited to give you recs!

    Tell the Wolves I’m Home is set in I think the 80s or 90s so I don’t know if that counts, but if yes, it’s an absolute angel of a book and you should read it. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is beautifully written and so thoughtful and incisive, even if the plot is maybe a little slow? And Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is also very excellent. Those are my recommendations.

    • I think anything set within my lifetime can still be counted as”contemporary,” although those years of my childhood are feeling more and more quaint and historical.

      Those are three great ideas that I’ve seen lauded elsewhere, but a recommendation from you makes them even more compelling.

  20. I don’t read much contemporary YA or romance, probably because (fairly or not) I associate those genres with light reads without much substance. That said, I have read a lot of contemporary reads that I’ve really loved. I’d highly recommend Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, The Assistants by Camille Perri, One Plus One by Jojo Moyes, and The Time of My Life by Cecelia Ahern.

    • Those all sound so good too — you guys are making it difficult for me to choose where to start! Should I get a huge pile of books from the library and pick one blindfolded?

  21. I am in the same boat (prefer anything with a touch of magic or something out of my ordinary), though I read more contemporary fiction now than I did before I started blogging. I have tried to open my mind up to some books I might not usually read. One area of contemporary I have been learning to enjoy is Indigenous fiction. Some books I’ve enjoyed include Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and The Evolution of Alice by David A. Robertson. I also sometimes read diverse contemporary YA. One book I recently loved in that ‘genre’ is Radio Silence by Alice Oseman.

    • Blogging has really helped me to open up to some books I would not have found otherwise. Hopefully this will be another step on that journey.