Why do so many modern literary authors avoid writing about our technology-driven lives?
From the printing press and the pen to TV and mobile phones – technology transforms our world. But it is the internet that has had the most profound impact on society in the last twenty years. Now, everything we do from browsing for books or browsing for partners happens online. A massive 83% of the UK population is ‘plugged in’ and we spend stupid amounts of time goggling our screens and devices.
Mobile is the fastest growing media industry in history. Anytime, anywhere connectivity is standard. In fact plenty of social commentators believe we rely on technology to such an extent that 21st century humans have, pretty much, turned into cyborgs – according to the word’s strict definition anyway. Yet most modern literary fiction only refers to the internet in passing. Meanwhile the same books are being read on digital 3G devices that can download a new title in seconds while readers tweet about, and retweet, the books they love – and hate.
Sci-fi v literary fiction
Science fiction writers, of course, have been speculating about how technological developments will impact humanity since Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels back in 1726. In the twentieth century, themes of human and machine co-dependency proliferated – from H.G Wells and E.M Forster to Aldous Huxley and Isaac Asimov. But these writers, and plenty of others of their era, achieved the kind of cross-genre popularity that most sci-fi writers today only dream of.
Despite us living in a version of the techno-futures that Wells and Huxley predicted, modern literary fiction – with some notable exceptions – still seems preoccupied with the past. OK – there’s not much dramatic tension in someone programming a computer or writing an app for their iPhone. It’s dull to dwell on the minutiae of any activity. (My editor suggested several cuts in The Game is Altered where I’d overloaded the narrative with technical details.) But I’m not sure writers are avoiding technology because it lacks traction or is too tricky to describe. It’s part of the writer’s job to imbue all manner of dry subjects with drama and tension. No, something else is going on.
Many writers (and readers), I believe, suffer from left-brain prejudice. It’s like the old ‘science versus arts’ argument at college – you were either a geek or a creative. Never both. Back then your willingness to embrace technology or eschew it, placed you firmly in one camp or the other. Even now the Kindle v ‘real book’ debate illustrates the passionate resistance new technology can evoke. And although it provides us with the tools for entertainment and creativity – computers, software, file sharing, printers – technology is not creative in itself.
Definitely more left-brain than right, sci-fi writers are a weird crossbreed between hormonal mathematicians and Dungeons & Dragons players, aren’t they? Sure, they can string sentences together. But if you’re a ‘serious’ writer you don’t want your work to have a sci-fi label. It’s not real literature. When my publisher asked if I envisaged The Game is Altered being marketed as sci-fi I said, ‘Certainly not,’ without blinking. ‘Anyway,’ I went on, ‘the book is sci-fact. All the technologies I describe are already with us.’ An aspiring literary novelist doesn’t want to find their work consigned to the sci-fi shelves for the men with bad haircuts and body odour to thumb through. Sure, literary readers will recognise names such as David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing – who all use recognisable science fiction tropes in their novels – but they wouldn’t pick up a Hal Clement or a Larry Niven without some persuasion.
Science fiction novels aren’t judged in the same way either. There are different competitions for people who want to turn their binary-driven obsessions into a narrative. Literary fiction writers have festivals – and very lovely they are too – with hay bales and colourful tents and lots of nice, middle-class people eating quinoa-based salads in the sunshine. Sci-fi writers have conferences and conventions. People dress up and speak Klingon in huddles. There’s something about sci-fi that smacks of literature’s nerdy teen cousin. It’s not grown up.
The uncluttered past
Barry Unsworth didn’t write sci-fi, but he did write contemporary literary fiction until his sixth novel. With Pascali's Island (1980), he retreated into the past and received his first Man Booker Prize shortlisting. The shift from contemporary to historical fiction, and the subsequent prize listing, reflects one of literary fiction’s unspoken credos: the future (and even the now) is not an adequate setting for serious themes. Unsworth himself experienced a loss of confidence in his ability to register contemporary life with sufficient subtlety and accuracy. In the past, he said, the writer is freed from ‘surface clutter’ and is able to say ‘timeless’ things about the human condition.
The belief that the past is the only acceptable province for serious literature continues to pervade modern writing. By fixing your writing to a particular time or referencing ephemeral trends and mass media developments you’re in danger of ‘dating’ your writing before it’s even been published.
I spoke to several writers about this and got some interesting responses. One woman (we’re in the same writers’ group) said she found it hard to include technology in a ‘domestic’ novel she had written. It took three years to complete and in that time technology had changed. Add editing and publishing time and technology will have changed still more before the book makes an appearance in the world. The writer felt that in order to be ultra-contemporary she had to be able to anticipate technological developments rather than simply represent them. But what’s the difference between the near or distant past? Readers are just as happy to read a book set in 2009 as one set in 1800, so why worry?
Problems with plot
Other writers I spoke to mentioned issues around plot. The inclusion of even the most basic technology allows too many opportunities for revelations and unwanted communication. I had to create various situations,’ said one writer, ‘where people forgot their mobiles or had them switched off – for dramatic reasons. Characters needed to turn up on doorsteps when in real life they would probably ring or text.’
Technology removes an array of plot devices that writers can employ. Your characters can’t accidentally turn down the wrong road and find themselves in another district if they have a Sat Nav, for example. They can find addresses, phone numbers, consult databases, access people’s photos and personal data all with a quick search and click on their mobiles. Technology removes the randomness some writers rely on to smooth over the cracks in a plot.
In a recent article for The Guardian (2011) – and one I favourited on Twitter at the time – author, Laura Miller wrote: ‘Literature is where you retreat when you're sick of celebrity divorces, political mudslinging, office intrigues, trials of the century, new Apple products, internet flame wars, sexting and X Factor contestants – in short, everything that everybody else spends most of their time thinking and talking about.’ This idea of literature as sanctuary from modern life is quaint and, frankly, odd. Surely – and Miller does go on to reference Trollope – literature should be about the way we live now.
Another writer I canvassed said that fixing literature in the past in order for it to be a sanctuary from modern life – or timeless – is nonsense on stilts! Historical fiction, he said, still has to be ‘intimately rooted in the specifics of the historical period, otherwise it doesn’t work.’ Timeless fiction (other than deliberate fable) is almost always about rooting universal truths, feeling and emotions in the realities of a very specific moment. That’s what makes it work.
Change is afoot
Things are changing though, aren’t they? You only have to look at the growing roster of speculative fiction and sci-fi writers teaching on the UK’s Creative Writing degrees to know this is true. But while academia might have cottoned on I’m not convinced the majority of writers and readers have caught up. Still, I have read several novels recently where the internet and modern technology have been embedded in the narrative.
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, uses gameplay, textspeak, email and mobiles to push the plot forward and create engaging psychological asides. The, mainly adolescent, characters are continually online – searching, updating, messaging – and this, coupled with a thrilling story about what it is to be young and male and dispossessed, means the novel is seamlessly authentic. Similarly, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad does not shy away from examining our relationship with technology. Like Murray she doesn’t explore this in a clunky way – but with the insouciance of a digital native.
Technology in both these books is not the subject. It is not forced. Neither of them say ‘look at this new-fangled thing – isn’t it strange?’ And perhaps this is what it will take. The new generation of writers for whom technology is the water they swim in, to simply acknowledge it without feeling scared of it – or even amazed.