Listen to Pilot Light

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fiction in a consumer world

Being contemporary ain't what it used to be. Especially for a writer.

Fiction, the kind of fiction that I enjoy, attempts to capture some facet of life, to discuss an issue or, as Milan Kundera says, deal with some existential question. (Not answer it, mind you... just explore it). That doesn't mean that the stories are necessarily realistic, but making that facet of life or existential question relevant to the reader does require a certain one-to-one correspondence with the world that readers know.For it to be true, it has to fit in with what else they know to be true, or at least appear to.

Given that premise, the job of writing fiction is growing increasingly difficult and the reason is consumerism. The continuous introduction of new products and technologies and the (eager) desire to interact with the world in new ways means that the world itself changes significantly in increasingly short spans of time. Much science fiction from the past twenty years seems childishly simple in today's world. Some futuristic predictions considered extreme when they were written are rather bland compared to the real changes that have taken place. Tweeting is one. Social media an important tool of big business? Who woulda thunk it?

The rapid rate of change is old news but the implications continue to manifest. Here is a simple example of how these changes confound a writer. I ran across a story idea I had filed away a few years back, intending to write the story when I had a better idea of what to do with it. I liked the idea, but it has a problem--it hinges on a character sitting at home waiting for a phone call and yet having an urgent need to leave the house. What young reader would understand that now? I can hear them mutter: "Take your phone with you, jerk!"

Even if I established that this took back in ancient times, say the 1980s, would today's readers really understand the situation? Would the tension it creates be felt? I don't think so. They might accept it, but that dilemma is not visceral enough to grip. Better to toss that one. The shelf life of ideas is shrinking. I will need to date stamp them--"Best written before..."

It is an era of rampant consumerism. You can love it or hate it, but a writer cannot ignore it. It even changes our vocabulary at a frantic pace, leaving the writer the concern that having one character text another might be a totally archaic action in a few years. People still use Skype, but with rising competition and new technologies emerging, is it safe to have characters do it?

What is a bit maddening about this is that these things seldom have much to do with the story. But they do involve the telling, and the telling affects the reader's enjoyment. Most writers want to entertain at least somewhat. Regardless of the "point of my novel" I want readers to enjoy the experience, even if it is darker.

Unfortunately (in terms of being aware of these changes) I am not an ardent consumer, nor an early adopter. Many years working in the vanguard of technology as a journalist made me rather bored by change for its own sake, yet that sort of thing is at the heart of the consumer world and drives this writing problem.  So I will have to work harder.