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?