Technology and literature have always experienced a bit of a fractious relationship. It’s almost as if the two entities belong to completely different worlds – the written word existing in the dimension of the slow, thoughtful and tangible past and technical gadgetry existing in the dimension of the fleeting, reactionary and immaterial future.
Right now, we’re experiencing a really interesting dichotomy between technology and literature because of changes in the way we read. Gadgets like the Kindle and its competitors have flipped the publishing industry on its head and more and more people are digesting fiction in the form of e-books.
For some, the switch to e-books has been a revelation, enabling them to read as much great literature as they can get through with a degree of convenience never before realised. For others, it’s been a more difficult transition. Loyal to physical books and aware of the plight of the high street bookseller, but tempted by the opportunity to save money, turning to e-readers has involved a real struggle of values. Still others categorically refuse to go digital when it comes to their reading habits.
However, it’s not just about how we digest fiction. There’s something even more delicate to consider: the role of modern technology in the actual content of contemporary literature.
The contemporary commonplace
I’ve just finished reading a novel in which the internet, smartphones, YouTube and other very modern aspects of life feature strongly and I have to own up to finding the technological backdrop irksome. More than irksome, in fact: objectionable.
Why should that be the case? It’s absolutely unquestionable that Google, texting, GPS and so on are indelible features of contemporary culture – so much so that they have become quotidian, prosaic, uninteresting; just as going to the library, writing letters and studying physical maps were quotidian, prosaic and uninteresting activities in times gone by.
But were those activities really uninteresting in the same way? Perhaps this is what lies at the heart of the problem – and surely there is a problem since so many literary successes in recent years have taken the shape of historical novels and stories set outside the digital age.
What is it about modern technology that threatens to undermine the very things that make a novel interesting and affecting? I want to focus on three things: action, mystery and romance.
There’s little doubt that modern technology speeds things up. That’s precisely the thing we love about it. In terms of convenience, mobile phones, the internet, and all the rest, are fabulous tools that enable us to learn new things in a matter of seconds, communicate instantly over vast distances, find our way in unfamiliar surroundings and entertain ourselves on the move.
These are all brilliant things in real life, but what do they do to the action in a novel? In many cases, they completely remove it. There’s no getting lost in modern novels because Google Maps is always on hand. There’s no suspenseful anticipation of the arrival important letters and no confusion at missed appointments – a quick call or a text resolves all that. There’s no amateur detective work that five minutes on a search engine in an internet café won’t take care of.
In short, time is collapsed by technology and in fiction this can be disastrous. If pace and poise are important in literature then the sheer convenience of today’s gadgetry becomes a powerfully destructive force.
Novelists somehow have to engineer ways to slow things down – they have to have their protagonists lose their phones or live without the internet, which leads to contrived plot lines that smack of trying too hard. Either that or they have to fit this level of convenience into their stories and run the risk of damaging the other two principles put forward earlier: mystery and romance.
Mystery is surely an essential part of fiction. Mystery isn’t a device limited to detective novels and horror stories – it’s something used in literary fiction of all kinds, even relationship dramas, social realism, travel writing, philosophy and comedy. Mystery sometimes comes the in the form of a communication breakdown, sometimes in the form of missing information, sometimes in the form of cultural confusion and so on.
The trouble with modern technology is that it all-too-often presents a ready resolution to all of this mystery. If a protagonist has been chased by a stranger in a foreign city and needs to meet someone, we’re liable to say, “Hasn’t he got a Blackberry in his pocket? Why doesn’t he just Google the nearest café and call his mate to meet him there instead?”
Most fiction fans will be familiar with the term ‘suspension of disbelief’. Unfortunately, the gadgetry we carry round with us these days means writers have to be more outlandish and more inventive to find situations that aren’t so easily resolved and that don’t leave us lamenting the lack of realism in the text.
Drama surely relies on the fact that not everything can be resolved and many forms want particularly to dwell on the small complications that make life interesting.
Does the use of modern technology in contemporary fiction mean that novelists have to surrender a certain sense of romance in their work? The romance of receiving letters, for instance? The romance of being lost and uncontactable? The romance of taking time to travel between places and the romance of losing touch with people? The romance of chance encounters and the romance of slow and measured plot development?
It definitely feels as though romance is undermined and even when novelists are imaginative enough to retain romance in some form, it tends to be in a slightly dilute or unrealistic fashion.
Obviously it’s impossible to talk about technology in fiction without looking at the SF genre. However, even in great science fiction technology tends to be more outlandish than prosaic and its use is an event in itself. It’s not the mundane technology we are used to but something grander and more exotic – like futuristic transportation devices, weaponry and dystopian surveillance techniques.
Escaping the contemporary
So for many writers the practice of preserving action, mystery and romance means escaping close depictions of contemporary life. That’s one of the ways they manage to keep things interesting.
Others have a limited amount of success in simply ignoring much of the modern technology out there, but that involves a tacit pact with readers who simply don’t like all those boring, modern technological references. Readers like yours truly.
Of course, there is a sense that readers too want to escape real life when they read fiction, but they don’t necessarily want to escape into a world of the distant past or future, a world that doesn’t resemble their own in any shape or form – they simply want to escape into a world rich in action, mystery and romance.
Life imitating art?
That raises an interesting question: is life imitating art here? Has the digital age made our own lives a little bit less interesting? Do ordinary people have to work harder to make life interesting for themselves in the same way writers have to work harder to devise interesting stories? Has today’s fast-paced world given us too much time to play with – empty time that isn’t full of action, mystery and romance?
It’s food for thought anyway. The other side of the coin would suggest that at the very least, the internet, mobile technology and the rest have given us the means to seek out more interesting diversions and to make more of our time. It’s simply up to us to rise to the challenge.