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Technology and literary fiction

Last week The Millions ran an interesting piece by Allison K. Gibson on technology's place in literary fiction.

I wonder about works of fiction that take place in a world identical to that which you and I inhabit, except for one thing: technology is all but ignored. I’m not referring to Luddite authors here — to Jonathan Franzen’s rejection of e-books and Twitter. I’m talking about whether a character in a literary novel set in the year 2012 need even be aware of Twitter, or at the very least, email.

This got me thinking about my current project, the story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. (Admittedly, its status wavers daily between "in progress" and "about to be abandoned." I hope it's still the former, but I can't say for sure.) Without diving into the manuscript for reference, it occurs to me that the technology in the stories (which occur in roughly the 2003-08 timeframe) probably isn't any more advanced than cable TV and compact discs. I'm not sure there's even a cellphone or pager anywhere. The lack of modern technology was not at all intentional - in fact, I wasn't even aware of it before reading Gibson's essay - and I'm not sure the presence of smartphones and social media would change the stories very much. And in fact, most of my characters are older people (sixties and up) who are not likely to embrace technology.

But just off the top of my head I can also think of three or four younger characters (teens and twenty-somethings) for whom walking around with their noses buried in their iPhones, or regularly updating their Facebook status, would be perfectly normal (and even expected) behavior. As I revisit the manuscript (or if I revisit), I'll be on the lookout for logical points where technology could subtly be added. I'm not sure it will change the plot at all, but at least it can make the narrative more true to life.

August 13, 2012 in Books, Fiction, Marshland | Permalink


This puts me in mind of those fabulous scifi movies of the 1950s when atomic radiation could do anything to a body and it became the go-to plot device for creating a story. Of course the technology was misunderstood, but the use of it was so outright that it was out of place. (I can remember a detective story from around 1900 in which the fancy new technology of the telephone played a key role.)

My point is that today we don't bother paying much attention in our stories to our characters driving automobiles or receiving a fax. That's everyday stuff. It's hardly worth attention. So, I suppose, it ought to be with whatever emerging technology is current. Cell phone? Facebook? Blogging? Ho-hum. If we call attention to it for itself, we're dating our story and our outlook. It should be no more significant in a modern character's life than an alarm clock or a microwave (or a window or clean drinking water).

Of course, my story "Velvet Elvis" does play a bit with this.

Posted by: Paul Lamb at Aug 14, 2012 5:43:29 AM

Agreed, Paul. I'm certainly not going to bog down my narrative with a lot of tech jargon. But a few judicious references here and there wouldn't hurt.

Posted by: Pete at Aug 14, 2012 8:53:42 AM