The absence of technology in literary fiction

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of my complaints about literary magazines—both the small lit mags of university English departments and the literary lions like New Yorker, Tin House, and so forth—is the peculiar absence of up-to-date technology in their fiction. Characters don’t send much email. People rarely text each other. Voicemail is about the most modern of the Information Age conveniences in contemporary literature, and even then, it’s usually summarized by the narrator rather than “heard” by the reader. Why?

It’s no longer cyberpunk for your characters to have instant access to cyberspace in their coat pocket. It’s not science fiction for your character to read the morning news on a handheld view screen. Literary fiction often preens itself as being “realistic” compared to genre fiction, but how realistic is it today for a mother of two in Long Island not to have a 4G touch tablet in her purse or a FitBit on her wrist reminding her she’s not burned enough calories today?

Unless it’s set in the past or some truly remote locale, you forfeit your right to call your story a work of realism if your characters don’t have access to the Internet and they’re not using it fairly regularly. Digital access is simply that pervasive, worldwide. Yes, there are exceptions. I’m certain some writers think their characters or their settings are those exceptions. Probably not, though.

One reason for technology’s absence in literary fiction, I suspect, is that modern tech screws with storytelling. As greater minds than me have pointed out, we live in a age bereft of bar bets. The Guinness Book of World Records was originally conceived to settle, once and for all, pub arguments over sports records, but it was Wikipedia that ultimately fulfilled that burning need. Any question we have about the world or history, the answer can be located in an instant.

It carries into personal relationships as well. People no longer craft letters and post them in a box, then anxiously await a reply over the next days or weeks. When I was young, a friend might say he would call at eight—and so I would have to wait by the phone in the kitchen at eight o’clock, telling everyone else in the house not to make a call because I was waiting for one. My parents would wake my brother and I up in the middle of the night to say hello to our Midwestern relatives because the long-distance rates dropped after 11pm. (Remember paying a premium for long distance calls?) For years, many of my extended family members were nothing more than a tinny voice at the other end of a phone line and a yellowing Kodachrome print in my mother’s photo albums.

For all the nostalgia value of these tales, I’m happy to no longer be bound by such ancient analog technology. The key word of modern communications is instant. Unfortunately, such friction-free gratification often runs counter to a lot of storytelling precepts, things like tension (which involves time) and desire (which involves immediacy).

But mostly I suspect the writers of contemporary literature simply don’t like modern tech. Receiving a pop-up on your phone for an email explaining a long-forgotten lover’s death lacks a certain airy elegance that a hand-penned note on hospital letterhead offers. The terseness of SMS and instant messaging grates against the literary author’s desires for eloquence and nuance.

More broadly, there’s a general disdain for popular American culture in our contemporary literature. SUVs and dining at Olive Garden are often literary code words for boorish, crass people. Sympathetic characters tend to read the New York Times on Sunday mornings, walk to work, raise a vegetable garden, and run into friends at farmers’ markets.

This is one reason why I don’t buy the assertion that contemporary American literature is realistic. Too often it presents a world the writer (and their readers) would like to live in. That’s not hard realism. And this restrictive view of proper living feeds back on itself: literary magazines print these stories, developing writers read these stories and think they represent “correct” fiction, and so they write and submit likewise.

Give your characters the technology they deserve. If you’re writing about the past, that’s one thing, but if your story is set in modern times, don’t shortchange your characters’ resources.

Instead of viewing commonplace technology as a liability to storytelling, consider how vital the technology has become for us. Watch this magic trick, from Penn & Teller’s Fool Us:

The audience feels the risks the emcee is taking when instructed to place his own phone in an envelope. The surprise when the mallet is brought out, the tension it raises. Look at the audience’s visceral reaction when the mobile phones are hammered up. Even though Penn & Teller see through the act, there’s a kind of narrative structure to the magician’s “story.” At each step of the act, the stakes are raised.

Do this: The next time you’re out with a group (people you know and people you’ve just been introduced to), pull up a photo or a message on your smart phone, and then hand your phone to someone else. (Or, if someone offers you their phone, take it, twiddle with it, and hand it to another person.) Rare is the person comfortable with this. We don’t like these little things leaving our grasp.

That means, as writers, these devices are a goldmine.

We are wed to our new conveniences in way we never were with “old” modern technology like microwaves, refrigerators, or even automobiles. Americans may love their cars, but they are married to their smart phones. Our mobile devices are lock-boxes of email and text messages, safe deposit boxes of our secrets and our genuine desires (versus the ones we signal to our friends and followers). Gossipy emails, intimate address books, bank accounts, baby pictures, lovers and lusts—our lives are secreted inside modern technology. This is rich soil for a writer to churn up, this confluence of personal power and emotional vulnerability.

Why dismiss or ignore this? Why not take advantage of it in your next story?

Quote

Philip K. Dick on realism, consistency, and fiction

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other ConversationsI recently dove into the so-far-superb Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (from Melville House, publisher of the increasingly-intriguing Last Interviews collection) and am enjoying every page. I’ve written before about my semi-tortuous negotiations with PKD’s novels, and am finding (some) justification for my issues in these interviews with him.

With PKD I remain hamstrung: he’s more of a speculative fiction (and philosophical) writer than the run-of-the-mill hard sci-fi writer, which is right up my alley; I absolutely love his questions of existence, identity, and freewill that lay the foundations of his novels; and he’s a Bay Area writer to boot. And yet I find him to be a flawed writer, one who was so-very-close to writing perfect novels but had trouble overcoming basic hurdles, such as the cardboard characters and sci-fi’s obsession with “ideas” over story.

(For the record, my list of great PKD novels, in no order, remain A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. I’m sure PKD’s fans find that list ridiculously short and astoundingly obvious. I still pick up his work now and then, so who knows, maybe I’ll find another one to add. PKD was more than prolific.)

In The Last Interview, PKD mentions to interviewer Arthur Byron Cover his early affinity for A. E. van Vogt. (I recall being fascinated with van Vogt’s Slan in junior high school, a book built from much the same brick as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.) PKD observes:

Dick: There was in van Vogt’s writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.

Cover: What about Damon Knight’s famous article criticizing van Vogt?

Dick: Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor.

It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s the questions after my emphasis that make the book’s back cover (“How frightened are you of chaos? How happy are you with order?”), and for good reason: they seem to strike near to the questions asked in all of PKD’s work.

But I’m interested in the line about the building inspector. Damon’s review of Null-A is dismissively brief (but I suspect what’s being referred to here is Knight’s essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder”), and I’ve not read Null-A, but in principle I line up behind PKD on this one. Reality is not as sane and orderly as many writers would have us believe. If I’m critical of contemporary literature’s fascination with “hard realism”—obsession, really—it’s because I think PKD has put his finger on a kind of shared truth: reality is fragile, but what a thorough facade it provides. It’s one thing for the average person to think they have total understanding of things they have no access to—the heart of a politician, the mind of a celebrity, the duplicity of a boss or coworker—but it’s truly tragic when a writer writes as though they have this reality thing all sewn up.

In contemporary literature, there are many moments where the narrator (either first-person or third-) will have some moment of clarity into another person’s life. Often this moment is the epiphany, although it’s barely epiphanic. (See Charles Baxter’s “Against Epiphanies” for a better argument on this point than I’m capable of producing.) These moments are the obverse of contemporary lit’s obsession with quiet realism, its cult of poignancy. But there’s chaos in our world, and it produces strangeness and unexpectedness that is neither poignant nor tied to fussy notions of realism. These fictional moments of clarity usually reveal what the writer fantasizes the world to be—a charge usually leveled at genre fiction.

My only quibble with PKD’s observation is that I don’t see chaos as an external dark force in the universe tumbling individuals and civilizations about in its hands. We are the chaos. We produce it. I’m less concerned about the wobble in Mercury’s orbit than the ability for just about anybody to murder given the right circumstances. (See the 2015 film Circle for an exploration of just that.)

The human psyche is like a computer performing billions of calculations a second. Most of the results are wrong, some off by orders of magnitude. But the computer smooths out the errors (in its own calculations and others’) to walk a thin line of existence and consistency. And the computer tells itself that its footing is steady and sure, when in fact it’s walking on the foam of statistical noise. The number of calculations it gets right are the rounding error.

Update: Shortly after posting this I discovered Damon Knight partially backtracked on his criticism of A. E. van Vogt:

Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period [while writing Null-A] he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.

Reading closely, Damon isn’t exactly agreeing with PKD’s comments (or mine, for that matter), but he does concede some flexibility on the supposed rigid strictures of fiction writing.