“And I just don’t know how to write a novel in which the characters can get in touch with all the other characters at any moment. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.”
Ann Patchett on one of the chief problems of novel-writing today. The internet has disrupted lots of things, and one of those is dramatic information asymmetry.
In literary fiction, the more popular solution seems to be relying on settings close to the present, but far enough back to avoid such inconvenience. Granted, the popularity of the 1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s as settings also owes plenty to generational shifts in literary production as people write about formative periods and the years they remember. But it also avoids any number of narrative problems and allows writers to go on telling stories in the way they are used to, rather than incorporating the present in ways that are difficult and disruptive. When I recently wondered on Twitter — one of those very disruptions — if we’ve reached the point of needing a term for this kind of setting, author Jared Yates Sexton suggested “the nostalgic present.” And while it’s easy enough to incorporate mention of that into this essay, where might a tweet fit into a novel? As dialogue, formatted like any other character’s utterance? Or embedded with timestamp and retweet count and all? What happens when our characters spend half their novel on Twitter, as so many of us spend our workdays? It’s a hard question, but not one that gets answered when writers aspire to be more like Andras Schiff than Lukas Kmit.
Himmer goes on to urge more writers to embrace the technology of today and incorporate it into their fiction, and I'm with him. It strikes me as lazy screenwriting when they incorporate one of those old school answering machines just so the audience can hear what message is being left. I haven't seen one of those in ages. If it's meant to be a message missed, show us the person as they leave the message so we can hear it. If we're meant to see the recipient read as they hear the voicemail, give us the audio as the person listens to the voice message.
Younger fiction writers, in particular, have a great opportunity here. Embrace the massive role that all this technology plays in our lives and teach readers about how it is affecting us and how we might cope. Novels are supposed to, among other things, illuminate the human condition. No one using all this technology should feel any less human, but the absence of technology in art leaves an odd temporal void in which we can only travel to the past or the future or, as Sexton suggests in the passage above, the nostalgic present.