Introduction - Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present

Towards the end of the 20th century, the world was becoming a smaller place. The accelerating pace of technological advances, particularly in transport and communications, brought about a globalization of trade and cultures on a scale never seen before. Political changes, most noticeably the liberalization of eastern European communist bloc countries and the lifting of the Iron Curtain, also helped to foster ever-greater international links.

At the same time as nations around the globe developed their own distinct postcolonial cultures, Europe and North America became influenced by multiculturalism, which led to a realization within the West that its culture could no longer be considered a benchmark for the rest of the world.

This was a period in which the first generation of writers to have been born in nations that had gained independence from the European empires came of age. Many writers admired the new techniques of postmodernism that some South American authors had adopted as a style, and especially the genre of magic realism. The English language still dominated the literary world, however, and it was people from the old British Empire who came to prominence in the first wave of postcolonial literature.


New national voices

India produced authors such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth who, writing in English, portrayed the experiences of the new India after independence and partition. Local voices also emerged in other former outposts of empire, including the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott and the novelist V S Naipaul. In Canada, Australia, and South Africa, where many people had resettled from the UK, British influence on writing waned and literature began to appear that was recognizably of those nations.

New styles of writing were also emerging in East Asia, as writers sought to establish a national identity in a modern China after the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and in a Korea that was now divided into an authoritarian north and a liberal south by the 38th parallel.


While European culture was losing its monopoly in its old colonies, it was also being influenced by rising numbers of immigrants from around the world. Many cities in Europe became cosmopolitan centres, attracting not only people in search of a new life and a better standard of living, but also writers and artists who still regarded Europe as an intellectual centre.

Ironically, many writers who had helped to establish a literary style in their homeland, such as Rushdie, Seth, and Naipaul, had chosen to settle in England, where their presence inspired younger writers, many of whom were the offspring of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. Such authors described the complex experiences of living in multicultural cities, with Zadie Smith exploring the integration of immigrants into British society.

In the USA, however, issues of race and cultural assimilation had a longer history. US society had long been based on the model of its European settlers’ homelands, while a quite separate culture had developed among the African-American descendants of slaves. Even after many of the political goals of the Civil Rights Movement had been achieved, racial tensions persisted and this was reflected in a distinctive body of literature by writers such as Toni Morrison.

International literature

Alongside the development of new national voices, a global trend of adopting postmodern stylistic techniques gave much of the era’s literature an international appeal. The counterculture of the 1960s broke down the barriers between “serious” and “popular” culture, while sophisticated computing and telecommunications technologies were the inspiration for novels such as US author Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Magic realism in particular had become a widely accepted genre, yet new writing continued to draw upon older forms, such as in the allegorical satire of José Saramago and the metafiction of Italo Calvino.

While English is now a second language for numerous people across the world, many novels are also available in translation. The modern readership is international, and authors — no longer restricted by regional boundaries — are quick to reflect on ideas and issues that have global resonance, such as the dysfunctions in modern society and the threat posed by terrorism.