Who’s afraid? Is it writers? Or is it the market? Who’s responsible for this gap, this avoidance of new technologies and new media in contemporary fiction? I don’t think it’s readers. I think readers are quite happy with truly contemporary narratives – if they’re given a chance to read them.
I have no figures (does someone want to find me some?) but based on my bookshop browsing, there is a hell of a lot of historical fiction coming out of mainstream publishing houses right now. Historical fiction, which in this context is any narrative set before 2000, is popular, and it’s important. We should have books that look back at the world we used to live in – it can be a real comfort as well an instructive reminder of how we’re changing. However, the creeping dominance of the historical novel means we’re in danger of taking the safe, comforting option too often.
In order to be honest and brave, and to live fully, we have to engage with the world as it is. We might not like what we see – personally I feel icky about social media, and worried about how quickly technology is changing us culturally – but someone has to admit to how things are. If we don’t, in a few short years there will be literally nothing except tame historical fiction on the tables in Waterstones.
Publishers are conservative, because they’re businesses and that’s how it works; they’ll publish what they think will sell. Whether this is a matter of ‘blame’ depends how you look at it, but that’s their contribution to the gap. What about writers?
I understand writers’ nervousness about ‘dating’ their work. In 2011 I made my initial sketches for the novel I’m working on at the moment, which has new media, personal data and identity at its heart. (It’s also a rip-roaring page-turner, of course.) Facebook was absolutely dominant in 2011, but in the few years since, younger people have more or less abandoned it for YouTube and Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, maybe Twitter, and probably several others I haven’t heard of. It’ll be different again in two, three, five years.
My book’s tech giant is fictional – I avoid real brand names – but because of the ways the characters were using its products, it felt dated even before I’d finished the first draft. At that point it would have been easy to drop the idea and head for the safe harbour of a known historical period.
But I started to question the idea of ‘dated’. I started to think about it from a reader point of view.
I’m a reader more than I am a writer, and when I read fiction from the 80s, 90s or 2000s, which incorporate the new technology we had at the time (carphones, pagers, email, dial-up world wide web), I might, at worst, semi-consciously note that things have changed. But I accept that’s how it was then – fine! On with the story. It’s the same for classic films. You don’t switch off Kramer vs Kramer because of Dustin Hoffman’s brown flares, and you don’t dismiss E.T. because the little extra-terrestrial wants to use a Speak & Spell to phone home.
Anyway, isn’t ‘dated’ interesting in itself? Look at E M Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909). (Really, if you haven’t read it, do; the text is here.) Its foresight is stunning, and – not that it’s meant to be a prediction – what it gets wrong about how we live now is interesting too, because it tells us about Forster’s vision of the future as a reflection of his present. That is, it dates the story, in the true sense. It sets it in the context of its time, and from there, a reader can identify interesting points about the mores of the time, separating them like egg white from the yolk of what we might consider the story’s universal themes.
Not only that, but a dated story might make us ask, later: okay, well what changed in our society that meant things didn’t turn out that way? (Why did we start legally rationing internet access for under-18s? Why did pubs disappear completely? Why did we stop using mobile phones and get nanochip comms implants in our jawbones instead?)
So I’ve come to believe the fear about technology ‘dating’ a work is a red herring. Maybe a more justified fear, for both writers and publishers, is that there aren’t any rules yet. We don’t know how to incorporate it in a way we can guarantee is going to work. Failure is possible. Failure is likely.
However, I still don’t think we should let that stop us. The novel may not be dead, but if all we write and publish is historical fiction because we’re scared about what’s happening now and we haven’t established the rules for dealing with it within a fictional world, you can start polishing your shoes for the funeral. Sure, you’ll still be able to pick 400-page paperbacks off the shelf at Tesco, but in artistic terms, denial of the ‘real’ and the ‘now’ is a type of death.
As a side note, I do wonder whether writer avoidance comes from a view that new media is trivial, somehow non-literary. Perhaps we’re uncomfortable that it’s where the vast majority of self-expression takes place now. As if we can’t bear to admit that a huge number of people are expressing themselves, and that using words publicly (and having people listen) is no longer the privileged domain of the special and talented literary authors we hoped we were? Might that be what makes us queasy?
I mean, I’m queasy too, because wow, this fairground ride is spinning fast, and previous generations couldn’t have prepared us for all this. We’re on our own in an unknown land. But someone has to explore these cultural changes (denial = death, etc). I cling to the possibility that actually, this might be a unique moment in human history, in which writers and other artists have an enormous amount of truly new stuff to play with. New content for narratives, new forms which are untested and thrillingly frightening, even new emotions for which we haven’t yet got names. Who cares about seeming dated? We haven’t got time to worry.
Ruby Cowling was born in Bradford and lives in London. Her work has won The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and been shortlisted in contests from Glimmer Train, Short Fiction, and Aesthetica. Recent publication credits include Lighthouse; The Letters Page; The Lonely Crowd; Unthology; the Galley Beggar Press Singles Club; I Am Because You Are (a Freight Books collection of work inspired by the theory of General Relativity); and Flamingo Land and Other Stories (Flight Press). She is Associate Editor at Short Fiction and The Writing Disorder, and is a Spread the Word Associate Writer.