What Is Modern Literature?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
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  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2019
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Modern literature is written in the contemporary period. When modern literature began is hard to define and varies from country to country, but it covers at least the 20th and 21st centuries. Literature covers all written works including letters and journals, but is best known for novels, poetry and non-fiction articles as found in magazines and newspapers. It should not be confused with modernist literature, even though the two groups are contemporary.

It is difficult to decide the exact boundaries of the modern age of literature. Like with defining any era, such delineations are fraught with overlaps and differences between regions and cultures. In Britain, the modern era began in 1901 with the end of the Victorian era and Victorian literature. In Japan, the modern era could be traced back to the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s, but after 1945 may be more realistic. Others may consider Victorian literature to be a sub-division of modern literature and would instead date the modern period back to the 1700s.

In America, a different time would mark the beginning of the modern literature. The breaking point could be the advent of modernism around 1900. Steven Byrd of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke says “whereas previous American literary periods were best defined by certain stylistic conventions or popular schools of thought, the modern period of American literature is better defined by the traditions it broke.”


Modernism is a branch of modern literature that tried to move away from the realist novels that dominated the Victorian era. The movement reached its height between 1900 and 1920. Modernist luminaries include T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. The movement displayed a disregard for conventions and other forms; this led to fascist flirtations and rampant narcissism. It also led to some works such as Joyce’s “Ulysses” being inaccessible to many readers.

Poetry further broke down conventions as part of modern-era literature. It also embraced music to form jazz and blues poetry. One of the great modern poetry movements in America was the Beat generation of Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. Ezra Pound was also a leading advocate of the end of poetic conventions and said “make it new.”

Modernism led to postmodernism, structuralism to post-structuralism and colonialism to post-colonialism. The various types of literature built upon and diversified away from previous types of literature. Many new countries, often artificial constructs, tried to forge a new identity through the promotion of modern-era literature.

The number of books, magazines, newspapers and journals multiplied throughout the modern periods. This included, towards the end of the 20th century, its explosion online. This gave way to new forms of literature and new means of sharing it. Modern literature also saw an increase in prizes and translations such as reading Japanese works from Haruki Murakami to Ryunosuke Akutagawa to Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.


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Post 3

Modern Japanese literature is really amazing. If you are looking for something different to read, I would suggest looking up some good translations of these. It has a different feel to English literature, which can take some getting used to, but it's definitely worth it.

Post 2

@pleonasm - As long as they don't try to read Ulysses while on holiday. The downside to reading almost any kind of literature while you're on holiday is that it might be either very difficult or very depressing (or both!) I do think it's a great idea to read books that relate to the country that you're in, but make sure they are going to be books that you can enjoy.

Personally, I would go for poetry or short stories instead of trying to read novels. In my experience they tend to be a little bit less likely to end with everyone dying and they are short enough that you can keep your mind on the sights rather than constantly wishing

you were back in your hotel room, reading one more chapter.

I also don't think that enough people read modern poetry. There's some amazing stuff out there, but they only ever get taught the older, somewhat stuffy classics and never realize what else there is to enjoy.

Post 1

If you are visiting Europe anytime soon I would suggest you take the time to study a little bit of modernism in literature. I know that sounds a little bit stuffy, but if you are at all interested in that kind of thing you will find a wealth of places to visit while you're there.

And there is nothing like being able to read Kafka while visiting Prague. Although I found it a little bit expensive to go and see most of the museums and things they have set up around him, the books are out of copyright so they, at least, are free.

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