the timely and the timeless

Laura Stanfill sent me this link from the New York Times (“Writing Bytes“). She knew I’d be interested, since I quite enjoy modern technology (in fact, I’m writing this on a newly-acquired Android laptop – bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing!), but on the other hand I never write about it. The stories I tell take place in a world with no Internet, no computers, no cell phones, and minimal landline phones.

It’s an interesting article (I didn’t read the whole thing, I confess – tl;skimmed 🙂 ), with a lot of different opinions, but my avoidance of modern tech is not because I think it’s changed storytelling in some fundamental way (a point of view that seems preposterous to me), it’s simply because I think people tapping on keyboards or touch screens is inherently tedious to watch, and why give yourself that obstacle to overcome? Face-to-face conversations can include body language, facial expressions, and the possibility that one character will pop the other in the snoot. Much better for storytelling purposes.

Also, and this part is accidental, my stories have ended up being pretty timeless. After all, I started A Sane Woman in 1990, and everything I’ve written since then has built on that foundation. How  would I deal with the changes in technology over those 23 years? As it turns out, by ignoring them 🙂

I do think it’s hilarious that some of the writers think all the technology has taken some sort of mystery out of life. Gee, I don’t know – are there still unsolved mysteries (of a criminal kind)? I expect there are. Are there still big unanswered questions in science? Yup. If you’re a character in a YA novel who is trying to decide between two suitors, is there a device which will give you the right answer? Nope.

The Internet brings an unbelievable amount of information to people (those people who have access, at least), and some portion of that information is even true, but I haven’t noticed that this has eliminated mystery, doubt, confusion, or disagreement.

 
“The trouble with technology is that it eradicates a character’s ability to be lost, and it’s the state of being in the dark and the journey toward understanding that has given rise to the greatest stories ever written. Marlow’s voyage up the uncharted Congo in Heart of Darkness, the shocking truth of Rochester’s past in Jane Eyre, the mysterious gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie — none of these tales could take place today because access to a smartphone would reveal mysterious whereabouts, mad first wives and marital status in seconds without the hero ever needing to leave his living room couch.”

Well, if this instant access to information is so magical, how come so many people currently believe that the president is a Muslim, or not a citizen, or a space alien? No technology yet discovered has been able to triumph over people’s desire to believe whatever they feel like believing (especially since one thing the Internet does really well is immediately supply supporting information for anything you choose to think – no matter how objectively ludicrous).

 
“There’s nothing worse for plots than cellphones.”

Chris Carter, the creator of the X-Files would disagree. He’s said that the only thing that made those stories possible was cell phones, so that Scully and Murder could talk while investigating separately. Going back now and watching the first season episodes (before the cell phones), you can feel the writers struggling to solve that story problem. Which technology solved for them.

 
“I think the Internet has eroded 19th- and 20th-century notions of a person’s life being ‘a story,’ or the notion that one’s life needs to be ‘a narrative.’ Instead we increasingly seem to be seeing ourselves as just one more unit among seven billion other units. For the West this collective denarration is sort of a comedown, but for a majority of people on earth, to be included at the global dinner table is a big step up.”

This could possibly be a very interesting idea if he offered any evidence, or even any real clear idea of what he’s talking about. 🙂

Also, and this is a pet peeve of mine, the 19th and 20th centuries are a brief blip in the history of human storytelling. What about all those earlier centuries?

 
“Birds Eye Peas: a rule taught to me by a writing teacher who said not to use brand names or products so specific they could quickly render your stories out of date. Technology is a Birds Eye pea.”

Yup. The Millennium books illustrate this perfectly. The technology Larsson reported in such obsessive detail was all out of date by the time I read the books. The first one was probably out of date by the time the third one was published. I always avoid specifics like this (well, as much as I can — there’s at least one Star Trek reference in my novel U-town 🙂 ), and for this exact reason. I think it can take the reader out of the story.

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