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.


12 comments on “How Technology Is Killing Fiction”

  1. Matt says:

    Its odd you should pick the Sand Men as an example of a way to shed readers. I found the book to ordinary and didn’t find it strange at all, quite the opposite really. It was to ordinary to keep me interested, I did finish it but its not on my read again list. Well saying that I may delve into in the future… Its one of your books after all and they do tend to get more frequent reading than others in my collection.

    I get what you say about crime fiction and have been thinking just that while watching ‘Hard Sun’ the lead characters hurtling around solving mysteries. In the days of tech, well it all seems a bit-!

  2. admin says:

    ‘The Sand Men’ debate goes on – is it mystical, did it really happen, has she simply had a nervous breakdown? I can be a LOT weirder than that, trust me (my unsold fantasy novel is proving rather too demanding for tastes) but I have to rein it in.

  3. Denise Treadwell says:

    But , it is another story of life I have not read Sand People. We all have stories it depends how we use them!

  4. Tony Walker says:

    “An iPad is for browsing, not reading longform fiction,…” Have to disagree, here. I find my iPad invaluable when travelling, especially on long transcontinental flights. I’m cursed with being a speed reader, so previous long flights would require at least two, and usually three books to carry. Also, as pointed out by my wife, she doesn’t have to hear me turning over the pages of a book when she’s trying to sleep!

  5. Brooke says:

    To parody the gun lobby saying (my apologies to all), technology doesn’t kill reading, bad writing kills reading. And lord knows, there’s a deluge of bad writing available, which I would argue technology makes possible and is a cause of what you perceive as declining interest in reading.

    Yes, popular crime works have returned to the origins—pulp fiction with stock characters running toward a simplistic moralizing ending. But that kind of dross has always been around. Dickens had to wade his way through it–so do you, Mr. F.

    You are not the only one who sheds readers when they are creative. de Giovanni (Commissario Ricciardi mystery novels) received a reader backlash with his latest which is atmospheric, explores themes of good and evil, open ended, etc. Readers wanted the hero to get married, settle down and stop fighting fascism but keep seeing ghosts of the murdered. But the work is fabulous… I always write a positive review when I see this happening to a good writer (and politely attack the negative reviews–such fun).

    There is a mass market and then there are READERS. You may need to straddle both groups for awhile.

    Weirdness in pursuit of a creative visions pays off—Go see Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican before it closes.
    And be as weird as you need to be.

  6. Steveb says:

    Personally for reading I much prefer an eink type screen to a tablet (be it an ipad or whatever)

    Anyway technology – what about Halting State by Charles Stross?

  7. Denise Treadwell says:

    You aren’t run of the mill, that is why I like your books. I have read : Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Nora Lofts, Georges Simeon, Louise Penny, Stephen Booth, Simon Brett, Peter Lovesey, Dan Brown (Origin ), L. C. Tyler, Alan Bradley, M.C..Beaton, Elizabeth George, Caroline Graham, Colin Dexter, P. C. James, Daphne De Maurier, Edith Pargeter, Tony Hillerman, and you! You are my favourite. I know I have left some out of the list.

  8. SimonB says:

    Other than setting your books in the past, I can see how the information age/technological change presents its challenges. Over the last few years I have been going through Alistair Maclean’s thrillers (in audio) and several times found myself thinking how the story as is couldn’t work if updated. So many plots hinge on not being able to find a phone box or other form of communication device.

    I was particularly taken with what they did in the first episode of Sherlock, using texts to reporters contradicting Lestrade during his press conference for example, as a way of bringing the technology in. Not sure how well that would work in the written world though.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    SimonB, I certainly agree with you about Sherlock. If you’re going to have technology then have it all and use it to show train of thought. Why not?
    Everything I try to write gets stopped at the technology gate, so pretty quickly. I got my second phone a few months ago because the telecom company wouldn’t support my first one any longer. Now I have a phone I can’t make work so I might as well not have one.
    I am going to fire up my Ipad again because I’ve actually used it in teaching my calligraphy class – well, borrowed a student’s.
    I have a computer, but not a laptop. I have walked into lamp posts but because I was reading an actual book. I sort of understand the technology when it turns up in books but his non-happiness with it is one of the reasons I love Mr. Bryant. He knows what it can do but makes someone else learn the nuts and bolts. I wonder if he’s one of those electrical people, you know, the ones who have to glue flannel on the back of their watches so they will keep proper time. My watch isn’t digital either. It is, in fact, John Cleese as the Minister of Silly Walks. Not the easiest to read but a great discussion starter.
    Schools still have non-digital clocks and students can’t read them. You’ll have to stop referring to quarter and half hours, especially before the hour. These twerps don’t have the concept.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    I was amused, then angered, that some people cannot tell the time by an analogue clock. My nephew is four, and he can tell the time – when did this stop being taught? I enjoy the French way of telling the time, especially ‘A quarter to’: if I were to say “A quarter to nine” (as it is while I’m writing this), I would say “Neuf heure moins le quatre”, or “Nine o’ clock, less a quarter”. In my job, all timings have to be in 24 hour clock mode, which I was taught as a child, as a matter of course, and I still meet people who can’t get their heads round it. Yes, really.

  11. Charles (another one) says:

    I’m 55 years old male, and since the year turned I have read, in book form:
    The Book of Pirates by Henry Gilbert, won by my uncle as a prize for coming second in form III A in 1931–1932 (I found the two missing pages on google books);
    To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Man Booker shortlist 2014) which has been propping up my sofa for a couple of years;
    Tove Jansson’s The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree (short stories) and The World of Moomin Valley (by Philip Ardagh), following a visit to the exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery;
    Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson (short stories and recipes);
    and Philip Pullman’s short story Once Upon a Time in The North;
    and I’ve very nearly finished Ravilious and Co by Andy Friend.
    Also the Observer each Sunday (well it takes me till Thursday to ‘finish’ it) in paper form, and of course your blog, and a couple of others…

    I do use a mac (and have done since Mac II days, all be it owned by my college), but I don’t have an iPhone or iPad.

    OK, so now I’ve written that down it does look a bit weird, but it doesn’t exactly fit your profile given above!

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Ian Luck – it’s not that analog time isn’t being taught but that the time kids see is usually digital (and thanks for ‘analog’ I can never remember that word). There is a problem inherent in the seeing, too. With digital time there is no before or after, only this moment now and a digital clock only shows this moment now, there is no sense of progression. I think there are people studying time perception among different age groups.

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