How Technology Is Killing Fiction
I love modern technology. I’m an early adopter so connected that it requires a masters’ degree in electronics to run my life and even Apple geniuses give a low whistle when I have to explain my set-up. But there’s no question that it’s damaging fiction. That’s the thesis for today.
First and most obviously, it’s damaging for readers. An iPad is for browsing, not reading longform fiction, and it has all but destroyed interest in books among males of a working age. Online activities have overtaken TV for the first time ever. 55% of our leisure time is spent on them.
Second, it’s limiting for the reader. As technology becomes more deeply embedded in our lives and connects us to second-by-second breaking news it’s very hard now to write a crime novel. Courts are using video footage in the witness stand. Doctors are Skyping patients. Shopping is becoming a passive activity. As we lose the reasons to go outside (never much fun in winter, admittedly) we become – from the writer’s point of view – dramatically inert.
Our crime novels are filled with characters hurtling around solving mysteries, or reporters racing to save lives, and it’s as ridiculous now as a John Wayne western. But who wants to watch a hero typing?
Nor is it very appealing g to imagine your main character foreswearing technology to do it alone the old way, because he would be an idiot to do so. Books about online crimes are not popular. It’s an activity we can all do, so we don’t enjoy reading about it.
Which leaves fiction with history, fantasy, geography (stories set in far-off lands) and humanity – the warmth of characters, who never change across the centuries.
The first whole parody play in English is by Francis Beaumont. Mad Frankie was 24 when he wrote ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’, performed in Blackfriars in 1609. It’s the first play to make its heroes working class, and to break the fourth wall. Those were rebellious, licentious, appalling times, and the young playwright reflected this. It’s also the story of a boy set loose in London for the first time, and conveys the timeless thrill of arriving in the city. At the end he says as he dies;
‘Farewell, all you good boys in merry London!
Ne’er shall we more on Shrove Tuesday meet,
And pluck down houses of iniquity,
I shall never more hold open, while another pumps, both legs.
I die. Fly, fly my soul to Grocers’ Hall.’
Yes, it’s rude and shameless – and people don’t change.
Cut to 250 years later, when Dickens was very angry with London. He was angry that it corrupted the rich and abandoned the poor. Dickens became London’s greatest writer despite the fact that his father was in jail and he worked in a boot-blacking factory, because he understood city folk and could sketch them in lightly but with pinpoint accuracy, in a way that had never been done so well before. He did this because he knew them all, from the poorest to the richest.
But who is now poor or rich? The rich seem unhappy, the poorest have more technology in their pockets than was used to guide the first man to the moon. What would Beaumont and Dickens make of a world in which over half of our lives is passed in front of a screen? A world in which city dwellers ignore each other and live their lives alone in self-gratifying pursuits? How do you find drama in mundanity?
Mark Rothko said there is more power in telling little than in telling all. But we live in a world where almost everything is told. Fiction has to reinvent itself, to become tricky, playful, troublesome, shocking. You know this is the point where I’m going to say there’s a problem.
The problem, is that it’s not just writers who need re-education but readers. When I write something strange and more slippery than crime fiction, like ‘The Sand Men’, I shed readers by the ton. It’s less comfortable fiction, harder to pin down, and means that readers have to work much harder. Whenever I write a book like that I lose a part of my readership. The kind of people who refuse to see world cinema because they don’t want to read at the pictures avoid new paths in fiction.
How do we embrace our new technologically-driven lifestyles and make exciting stories? That’s the challenge writers face today.