WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Why does fiction eschew modern gizmos?

Cracked Smartphone5

It’s broke!

In my interview with Blaise Lucey last week, he raised an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about myself. Has fiction lost touch with reality?

Blaise meant, specifically, that novelists don’t seem to be aware that there’s been a technology revolution over the past 20 years. Characters might use cell phones but they don’t tend to use smartphones the way actual people are using them. When you think about it, most mysteries and thrillers could probably be reduced to short stories if the writers just handed their detective an iPhone.

This is really a fascinating phenomenon. Fiction, through the ages, has generally reflected the times in which it’s written. If trains existed, people took trains. If telegraph lines were around, people sent telegrams. How come our characters are stuck in the late ‘90s?

Maybe writers aren’t considering how technology might change a story line. Or maybe they do consider these things but reject them because they’ll eliminate plot complications that make a book interesting. Does that mean real life has become uninteresting?

Or maybe our technology has rendered us too passive. Maybe we’ve become techno-zombies, in a metaphorical sense, walking around with our heads down in that ubiquitous iPhone posture, slamming into each other and inanimate objects. We wouldn’t make very good characters.

Strangely enough, you do see technology reflected in movies and on TV shows — at least more often than in books. Why is that?

It’s an intriguing question. We could be the first generation of writers who decline to reflect the world around us as it is, preferring a less authentic universe where the skills of a writer are better suited. You could make the case that fiction is evolving away from the longer narrative to shorter, more visual genres that can make timely use of technology. Easily transmitted media files, electronic text, GPS capabilities on phones — all of them can be combined into a personalized experience that’s either ultra-fiction or something so different it needs a name of its own. Don’t know what it is, but it sure ain’t a novel …

How do you see it? If you’re a writer, do you purposely insert technological details to give your work a more contemporary feel? Or do you immerse your characters in the not-so-recent past so that you can ignore Skype, Spotify, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, and Google driverless cars?

If you’re a reader, what do you expect when you open up a novel written in the last year or two? A semblance of reality or an escape from it?

What will future generations make of this era, I wonder, when we stopped telling it like it is?

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33 comments on “Why does fiction eschew modern gizmos?

  1. ericjbaker
    March 22, 2016

    Perhaps correlated, perhaps not: I encounter an inordinate amount of writers who are proud of themselves for not having TVs, not using social media, and not paying attention to popular culture. Like, you simpleminded folk can waste your time with that stuff, but I’m a thinker, damn it. I think that is a mistake. If you want to be a writer who tells contemporary stories, you have to know how people lie and what is on their minds.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2016

      I think you meant “how people live,” but I kind of like “how people lie” better!

      You’re right, though. It feels like we’re turning away from the truly contemporary, as if we don’t get it, or it’s boring, or feels too temporary. Let’s wait for the sequel …

    • cinthiaritchie
      March 22, 2016

      Totally agree with this. Many writers do think they are superior because they don’t watch TV, participate in social media, etc. They’re kind of living in the past and, no doubt, writing in the past as well.

      • Kevin Brennan
        March 22, 2016

        Right, and isn’t art supposed to hold a mirror up to society? Break out those mirrors, folks!

  2. islandeditions
    March 22, 2016

    Interesting. My Bequia novels were purposely set in the early 2000s to coincide with when I was living here full time, since they reflect my experience of life on the island. Much has changed since then and I have to remember not to allow characters to pull out their cell phones or watch Netflix, because these things just weren’t available. Few rental properties came with cable TV. Flat-screen TVs, DVD players, internet connections and Air/Con were just becoming de rigueur for tourists to be able to enjoy “getting away from it all” … but as the novels progress in time I’m introducing more by way of new technology and gadgets. As it stands now, I could possibly be the last holdout on this island who does not own even a simple cell phone. But I do have Skype!

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2016

      Makes sense for you, if you’re capturing a particular time & place. Maybe all novels are “historical” novels now.

      I still don’t have a cell phone, or Skype! Not convinced yet that gadgets actually make life better

      • christineplouvier
        March 22, 2016

        No matter what the era in history, the outlook for readers seems to be bleak. I’ve seen a bit of what passes for historical fiction these days, and the research that went into those specimens was appallingly poor.

        My own work-in-progress is historical Lit Fic that takes place between 1906 – 1936, a period in which there was a mind-boggling mix of 18th- to 20th-century technology in Ireland, Germany, and the Western Front (yes, I meant the 18th century: Ireland was very backward, well into the 1940s).

        Research is a lot of work, but I enjoy doing it, and the positive responses from readers of my first rigorously researched novel reassure me that there are still a few folks out there who want to read books that paint pictures inside their heads, and make them feel as if they’re walking alongside my characters in the Parallel Universe.

  3. kingmidget
    March 22, 2016

    This is something I struggle with. The three novella series I’m trying to work on, but struggling with mightily, has three characters who are between the ages of 16 and 21. Yet, I never have them using cell phones or smart phones. At least not until about half way through the entire thing. And I know this is wrong, but I don’t know how to insert the technology into the story. To me, doing so would interrupt the flow of the story and the interactions between the characters, but that technology is a reality for today’s youth.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2016

      Yeah, especially if you’re working with young characters, you have to incorporate tech into the story. Otherwise it’s just not believable.

      Of course, total believability would probably mean a story told entirely in texts.

      • The Opening Sentence
        March 22, 2016

        Totally believable stories involving 16 year olds would be unintelligable to anyone over the age of 17!

      • Kevin Brennan
        March 22, 2016

        Heh heh.

      • kingmidget
        March 22, 2016

        One of the ways I’ve thought of dealing with this is to place the story in the 1990s. 🙂

        But, if I don’t do that, I do need to figure out a way to get technology more into the thing. Which really pisses me off!

      • Kevin Brennan
        March 22, 2016

        How ’bout the 1890s? That should simplify things!

  4. christineplouvier
    March 22, 2016

    I began writing my first novel in 2009 (contemporary Lit Fic). At that time, I was in my fourth year of using a cell phone that could only make calls and text messages (it went on to serve my needs well for another six years), so my research included consulting people who used smart phones. The story I wrote takes place in 2007 – 2008, and the predominantly middle-aged characters use the Internet for research and cloud storage, send one another e-mails with photo attachments, and they text each other from smart phones equipped with cameras, Internet access and shortcut icons of “all the newest” apps on their displays (even the octogenarian priest uses one to place a call, and he ably adds a number to its phone book). My research for scenes set in Afghanistan turned up the spotty availability and poor transmission of cell phone traffic there, and I managed to find mobile phone coverage maps of Ireland, using the existence of the many dead zones on the island as a plot element. It never occurred to me not to include current technology, although I avoided using brand names, whose planned obsolescence would prematurely “date” the work.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2016

      Sounds like great real-world use of tech! Especially using spotty coverage as a plot point. Love it!

      And it’s true, using a lot of brand names is fraught because things change so fast these days.

  5. Donald Baker
    March 22, 2016

    My novel has two main characters in their early 50’s. One uses modern technology and one has to be shown how to do everything, he doesn’t even know how to text. I also have a computer nerd in there helping them. As for my short stories, I guess I mention phones and computers, but you are right, I don’t think I really have most of my characters using them the way I do. Thanks for something to think about.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2016

      Sounds like a great idea, to have a matched pair of characters doing tech/non-tech.

      I’m finding that much of what I work on these days is set in other eras — the early ’70s, the 1930’s. In my last contemporary novel, Occasional Soulmates, I did have people using phones but didn’t get into much detail about it. Computer dating too, but even that’s starting to feel a little stale.

      Interesting stuff!

    • christineplouvier
      March 22, 2016

      We have to be careful about stereotyping folks with grey hair, and remember just how long ago digital technology was invented, and by whom. Forty years ago, when I began using computers, we had to write line code every time we wanted to perform any kind of input or output. And this was state-of-the-art equipment that was used to process military intelligence (I was working at NSA, and no, I don’t have to shoot you now, you lucky dog, because the statute of limitations has passed).

  6. Parlor of Horror
    March 22, 2016

    I think that technology does too much thinking for us already and eliminates a lot of the thought process and reaction. No one gets a great idea anymore, they just find one on the internet.

    • christineplouvier
      March 22, 2016

      Very true. If there’s a dearth of quality fiction of stand-alone length and complexity, and an oversupply of novellas and series novelettes these days, it’s because it’s easier for many modern writers to default to fanfic techniques (using plot lines already laid out by some famous author or screenwriter), or to do only a little superficial world-building that relies heavily on oddly-spelled personal and place names to convey a sense of authenticity to undemanding readers, who will fill in the blanks with their own Hollywood-based imaginations.

  7. The Opening Sentence
    March 22, 2016

    My novels are full of current tech, fads and gizmos. Central to it all, a rock band from the ’70s making a comeback in the 21st Century and deliberately refusing to allow their music to be streamed, (they joke about their website running out of mp3s). Vampires exploiting webcams to turn their tablets into makeshift mirrors. Hoaxes and publicity stunts released onto Youtube. And a recurring fictitious conspiracy theory website called weerdshit.org

    Everyone else is on the usual social media channels, someone’s writing a novel on their smartphone, people communicating through Skype, email, text, chats… My novels have their roots in ’70s nostalgia and it’s a great way of juxtaposing the two worlds and changing lifestyles. In addition, the stories contain paranormal themes and I’m intent on creating a plausible world; overlooking current tech and gadgetry would simply undermine that aspiration.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2016

      Sounds terrific! I guess someday there’ll be 2016 nostalgia, and all these modern tech things will seem laughably primitive.

      At least we got past mood rings and Pet Rocks!

  8. cinthiaritchie
    March 22, 2016

    Many YA authors are weaving technology throughout their books and for good reason: I doubt that a teen would consider a book realistic if its characters didn’t use smartphones, snapchat, mention what’s trending on social media, etc. It’s a whole different world out there and we need to willingly embrace the latest technology if we want to attract and keep readers.

    • kingmidget
      March 22, 2016

      Sigh. My novella series is about two 16-year-olds and a 20-year-old and in the first novella in the series, I completely skipped technology and social media, etc. ERGHHHHH!!!!! You’re right … if I want to market it as YA, this just isn’t gonna work.

  9. Audrey Driscoll
    March 22, 2016

    I can think of a few reasons for omitting current technology: 1. Many writers are middle-aged or older, writing with inspiration from their youths in the 60s and 70s. 2. Technology changes so fast that by the time you’re writing your second or third draft, the details will probably be outdated, so just leave it out. 3. Literary fiction is expected to be character-driven, so putting in lots of detail about tech gizmos doesn’t help. I think YA does better at this aspect, for reasons others have pointed out. The only way to avoid it in that genre would be in some sort of post-apocalyptic setting where the world has been blasted back to pre-tech times. At the same time, there’s always some sort of “tech,” no matter what the era, so even if you write something set in the early to mid 20th century or before, you really should get it right, e.g. have someone talking on the phone twisting the cord around in their fingers, or waiting for a telegram, or looking for a phone booth. It just comes easier to those of us who lived that stuff to remember it. Younger writers would have to do research. So maybe all fiction is “historical” to someone.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 23, 2016

      Brillian analysis, Audrey! I almost want to ask if you want to recast it as a guest post to follow up on the topic. You game?

      • Audrey Driscoll
        March 23, 2016

        Sure! I’m about to kiss my day job goodbye (to live on a pension, not the proceeds of my writing!) so I’ll have time to do some extra stuff. Just tell me when and where, and I’ll beaver something up.

      • Kevin Brennan
        March 24, 2016

        Beautiful! No deadline, but when you have something ready, pop it onto Google Docs and share it with me: kevinbrennan520(at)gmail(dot)com. I’ll link to the original post and to your blog/books too!

        Congrats on retirement, by the way. Well-earned, I’m sure. 😉

      • Audrey Driscoll
        March 24, 2016

        I should have something within the next month. Thanks for the opportunity, and for the follow!

      • Kevin Brennan
        March 24, 2016

        Sounds great, Audrey! I’ll look forward to it …

  10. sknicholls
    March 23, 2016

    A timely post! Fairly early in my latest book I introduced my protagonist’s iPhone. He snaps some pics to show the sheriff’s deputy. Also, his future sidekick is texting him and sending him pics. Later, he uses his iPhone to look up the number and address to a location. I thought I was doing okay with the tech. We have an Asian girl who speaks little English. After a couple of scenes where they are having all sorts of problems communicating with her, and even take a translator to her, they end up together…and the protagonist suddenly realizes he has Google Translate on his phone. Of course he kicks himself for not realizing it sooner. Cell phones really change the game in mystery/thriller, as there is so much that can be done with them now. It makes it a bit harder to write. You don’t want a person to be able to be contacted, you best remember to have her conveniently leave her purse somewhere. HA!

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 24, 2016

      Hey, nice use of Google Translate! That’s exactly what I mean, about how technology changes the way stories are told. Or can change it, anyway …

      You’re right, too. Sometimes it’s best when a character can’t get her hands on her phone. Gotta fly solo now and then!

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This entry was posted on March 22, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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