Life is FASTER than fiction

I was recently reading a novel that takes place in the present day and a character called directory assistance to get information.

In another recent novel, someone went to the library to do basic research. He also asked someone to check out the meanings of some words, and this person called his secretary in his office, where she cracked a dictionary.

Another character in another recent novel pulled out a map to find a location—the kind you have to fold up afterwards. (I can never manage to do that properly.) In another story, a character who was a writer had a typewriter and stacks of paper on his desk.

What all these situations have in common is that they ignore the seismic technological and social changes that have taken place in the last five or six years. I’ve noticed that in novels and movies, and on television shows, characters are still doing things, to a large extent, the “old fashioned” way.

They’re hanging out in bookstores. Listening to vinyl records. While of course people do these things in real life, I note an absence in modern fiction of Googling, of using iPhone apps, of downloading music and movies from the Internet. There are some exceptions—The Big Bang Theory features electronic devices because it’s about the kind of people who use them—but our fiction is considerably stuck in the 20th century. People still watch, en mass, the local news. On regular TVs. They look up numbers in phone books. I haven’t seen a phone book in seven years. They read traditional books and find them in libraries. They are out of reach when traveling, or so their answering machines tell us. You know, the kind with little cassettes in them that beep after the greeting.

It’s interesting that fiction for the most part has not kept up with the times in which we live. People texting in line, people texting period, people swiping their fingers across their iPads and iPhones, people swiping their money cards at checkouts, people forsaking books and magazines for online material…it occurs in our fiction today, but still fairly uncommon. In the recent movie The Perks of Being A Wallflower, the main character, who wants to be a writer, uses an old fashioned typewriter. Now, it’s partly symbolic—typewriter and ribbon and paper mean literary; computers are for spreadsheets and business and schoolwork, but that’s precisely my point: gadgets just don’t have romanticisms attached to them. They’re sterile.

In a lot of the recent fiction I’ve read, characters struggle to find information or get into arguments about something that can be checked on a smartphone in seconds. As I speculated a while back, a world filled with instant information will be harder on the novelist, because so many plots hinge on something being unknown. If everybody can be tracked, if every fact can be found, if every piece of data is instantly available, fiction suddenly will require much larger suspensions of disbelief. My friend Susan Gabriel says she likes to write stories about secrets. Well, secrets are going to get harder and harder to have. Imagine how boring the Indiana Jones movies would be if Indy had a smartphone. (“No need to decode the ancient scrolls, Indy. This app figured it out already!”)

Sometimes it’s better not to have the whole world at your fingertips. Discovering it is far more interesting. And it’s more romantic to say “Here’s looking at you kid,” than it is to snap a picture of it on a phone.


2 responses

  1. Hi John,
    You are so right about this. Anne and I are always commenting on how recent movies still use answering machines. It seems bizarre, but how else would the audience know the message being left?

    Perhaps that’s one of the reasons historical fiction is having a big run right now. We as novelists don’t have to guess at what will soon be out-dated. Plus we can use google, et al, to do our research!


    November 27, 2012 at 6:50 am

  2. Maureen Owen

    Nice one. Again.

    I have noticed this too, if only subliminally, and this post made me laugh. There are many benefits to smartphones being wired in, but old fashioned devices are also nice. The discrepancy is interesting–people in real life spend a lot more time sitting on their duffs watching things on their little phones than they do in the fictional world, where they still go off and *do* things. Maybe by watching fictional people do things we get the OK to sit on our asses and play on our phones. That’d be sad if true.


    November 27, 2012 at 12:25 pm

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