Whither the Blog: Technology in Fiction

by Patrick on November 27, 2009

I’m reading Cory Doctorow’s newest novel Makers right now, and one of the interesting things about the book is that it uses the verbs blog and tweet quite casually.  In other words, the novel takes place in a world where those words are perfectly normal and require no special elaboration.  Makers is a speculative novel, taking place in the near future, but it got me thinking — why is it that we don’t see more novels that let their characters use the technology of the times?

I’m in a creative writing class, and when we discuss each other’s work there’s always the issue of technology.  Doesn’t this character have a cell phone, we ask.   They’d be able to trace the credit card sales! we say.  Technology has caused fiction writers a lot of grief.  In the old days — the early 90s, say — a character could pretty much disappear from sight.  Messages were lost, people raced against time.  Now, they have a device that connects them to the world in their pocket at all times.  Anybody writing a thriller or mystery has had to reckon with that for a few years now, but literary fiction seems content to ignore the times, or at least the technology of them.  Doctorow’s book, while maybe not strictly literary fiction, is the first novel I’ve read that even mentions Twitter.  Only a handful that I’ve read mention blogs.  And yet these things, along with Facebook and the rest of the net, are parts of our daily lives.  Shouldn’t our fiction represent that?  Why doesn’t it?

The most obvious reason is timeliness.  It takes a few years to write a novel, so the fiction coming out now is actually a few years old, in terms of when it was conceived.  Twitter and Facebook have only just broken into the common consciousness.  Blogs are a bit older, but they have slightly higher profile in fiction than the new “social media.”  In two or three years, don’t be surprised to find characters tweeting and facebooking all over the place.

Another reason, and one I find somewhat less defensible, is that of dating the material.  Novelists — some novelists, at least — are weary of referencing too many specific pop culture items because it can date the book to a specific time and place.  To be sure, it’s important to guard against too many references, as it’s difficult (maybe impossible) to know what will survive.  God knows I felt like a fool for writing that book about the Beanie Baby-crazed gangsta rapper who maintained a geocities site about the Clinton-Lewinski scandal.  That book is going nowhere.  But seriously, though, some pop culture references are fine (Look at Ulysses, one of the greatest books ever written.  It’s loaded with all kinds of arcane references to turn of the century Irish pop culture and politics).  The way I see it, Twitter and Blogs and social media are a part of how we communicate, so writing a book where none of the characters ever use them is pretty strange.

What do you think?  Will we see more characters using social media and the web?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Teresa 11.27.09 at 2:11 pm

I think there’s a big difference in keeping up with the times and namedropping pop culture references or technological advances for the sake of it. Despite the pervasiveness of all this technology, it’s not like it’s something everyone sits around talking about. For example, in my group of friends (people between the ages of 25 and 32), it seems as though I’m the one who’s the most “into” social media. So, in any given conversation, I’ll be the most likely to say “Oh, someone posted on my Twitter that…” But my friends, even the ones on Twitter, don’t. It’s not as big a part of their lives. So, if someone were to write a novel from my point of view, Twitter would be all over the place. If someone were writing it from the point of view of one of my friends, it would barely have a place, if at all. Just because this new technology exists, doesn’t mean everyone uses it, or that it’s important to everyone. I think the media, as well as the marketing departments of companies like Apple, or Twitter, or whatever, are trying to make it seem like all this stuff is more pervasive and important than it actually is. Novels are written from a point of view of what’s actually important to individual people – I think technology has little to do with what people actually care about.

Brandon 11.27.09 at 2:12 pm

I’m starting to see the inclusion of social media in literature more and more. In Jess Walter’s latest, The Financial Lives of the Poets, Facebook in particular (but also text messaging) plays a hugely important role, and Walter writes about it in the way you describe Doctorow writing about Twitter: as though it requires no explanation. It simply is.

In college, a friend of mine studied with a famous literary novelist whose work has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to writing about technology in modern life. This friend interviewed said novelist for the school’s lit quarterly and, stupidly, accused him of dating his fiction by the inclusion. Things became heated, to say the least, and the novelist told my buddy, an aspiring writer, “You’ll never publish a novel. Ever.” It haunts him still.

Danica 12.02.09 at 10:33 am

Look! Not only do people read stuff on Fridays, they’ll go BACK through the blog to see what they missed! Doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

I’m not sure if this is entirely true, but rumor is that MySpace is dead. I’m sure there is a fear that these other tools of communication will inevitability die out and become difficult for future generations to put in context; but I also wonder, how much unique communication actually happens via these medias? We know that information reaches people in a different ways and people are accessing each other more often, from greater distances, and becoming less private– but how much has really changed in human drama and nature because of social media? I am just as curious and just as satisfied in hearing the details about a friends’ break-up when it comes from eavesdropping OR Facebook.

What COULD be interesting is if these mediums (and experiences therein) were the topic of a piece. Otherwise, I think it’s just another mode of passing on information; and it’s an effect of the Internet (which I DO think we’ll see in more literature), not an independent technology.

I heard science fiction defined by Harlan Ellison as “the effect of technology on the human condition.” (or vice versa) I think the question of what ramifications social media has on literature has to do less with what it highlights about human nature and more with how it aids the plot. So despite have not read any Doctorow I think over all the inclusion is unnecessary and might even imprison the story it context.

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