Stories and smartphones dont mix

Compare the following props that might appear in a story:

  • a pearl-handled straight razor
  • an Egyptian broachrazor
  • a 1964 six-shooter pistol
  • a bag of marijuana
  • a faded polaroid photo of twin, pre-teen, strawberry blonde girls at a fishing trip cut in two with scissors, separating the twins

I was recently trying to come up with an idea for a story set in a realistic “here and now” context: with ordinary people, but without the use of any narrative device to make the setting surreal, dystopian, or magical as I like to use. And I realized any such realistic story would have to include people texting, using smartphones, using tablets or other new gadgetry. This is a problem.

Not because I’m a technophobe or Luddite. I own a smartphone. Tech gadgets could not be left out of a contemporary book because in the last 10 years tech gadgetry has become so ubiquitous that to leave them out would be a glaring omission; it would compromise the attempted realism, like leaving horses out of a western.

But to me, these props are so utterly clumsy and banal and fadish that they would be unusable in a serious writing effort. Of course, it’s all so new that there are not many books to refer to with people texting and looking stuff up on their new tablet. But if they did, I cannot imagine it being anything but clammy to the reader and cumbersome to the experience of reading the story.

Unless you’re Bridgetwriting the next Bridget Jones’s Diary. Then maybe. Or a satire conducted entirely in text messages. But I’m not talking about that kind of writing. Also remember, I’m not bashing gadgets. I’m only saying I do not believe they will work in good, serious fiction.

So what’s wrong with new tech? My hypothesis is that new tech has no story-ness about it, no sex appeal, no history, no cultural cachet. Also, the current national narrative about social media and hot new electronic gadgetry is that it is killing relationships, stifling conversations, turning kids into transfixed, sedentary addicted lumps. Much of the commentary about Facebook is that it substitutes real communication, authentic feelings and true community for an ersatz, pithy, sloganeering, avatar-ized, bogus circle of unheard, mostly unseen “friends.”

In my opinion, the appearance of the newest Samsung tablet with HD whatever is not merely hopelessly unliterary, but damning, an instant bomb. From my perspective, new tech in fiction is unwritable. I’m sure some writers attempt it—books to read on the beach, YA fiction, chic lit (although YA usually happens in an imaginary place where the absence of tech is not a problem: Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight).

And maybe some people like that story-set-in-MY-world feel. I don’t. There needs to be some distance, some escape from my boring world. I cannot imagine Cormac McCarthy doing it. Who wants to read a book about their own life and setting? You get that every day!

4 Comments

  1. Very interesting thoughts — I can definitely relate, as every time I mention new technology in my writing, it sounds clunky. I’m reminded of Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, which I loove, but which includes a few passages of email / text communication. It comes across as awkward and clunky, not to mention the fact that he does very poorly at disguising how much he detests (or doesn’t know how to use?) these kinds of communication.

    However, I think as these things become less new and just the way things are, serious writers are going to HAVE to use them. So don’t you think it’s our responsibility to discover ways to gracefully incorporate them into our writing?

  2. Hey Rebecca, thank you for the benefit of your thoughts! They are always good.

    I wouldn’t say I feel a responsibility to technology or literature on this front. However, as I thought about this issue, it did occur to me that technology frequently appears absurd when it first hits the scene. I seem to recall people like GK Chesterton objecting to the absurdity of the telephone. The same might have been true when automobiles started to usurp the horse. So I expect things will settle out on their own, and writing about gadgets will become representative of this time in years to come.

  3. Reblogged this on Iced spiced chai and commented:
    My own thoughts aren’t completely formed on this issue yet, but my uncle Jeffrey Mays has a great piece over at Literary Signpost on the incorporation of new technology into literature. Check it out & leave a comment!

  4. Interesting that you mention this. I was reading a book a few weeks ago that didn’t mention computers or cell phones or anything (it did mention a land line telephone and television). I knew the book had been published in the early 2000s, but I was never really sure what time period the story was supposed to have taken place (there were political events in the story that might have given me some context, but it was set in Africa, and I know very little about their political history). Because the people seemed modern accept for the lack of more modern technology, I assumed that the story took place somewhere between the 1970s and 1990s.

    Here’s a funny link about how texting affects dating: http://teamcoco.com/video/aziz-ansari-texting-dating

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