Essays

He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction

By posted at 6:00 am on August 8, 2012 50

1.
cover“Can the hoary trope of mistaken identity still play in the age of Google images?” asks Alex Witchel in the New York Times Book Review. Witchel is talking about the premise of Michael Frayn’s new novel Skios and soon answers herself: “Well, no,” she says, “but since the author is Michael Frayn…it’s tempting to cut him some slack.”

Is it? Maybe — it’s fiction, after all, and that being the case Frayn can do whatever he wants — but as a reader, and a writer, I wonder about that slack. More generally, I wonder about works of fiction that take place in a world identical to that which you and I inhabit, except for one thing: technology is all but ignored. I’m not referring to Luddite authors here — to Jonathan Franzen’s rejection of e-books and Twitter. I’m talking about whether a character in a literary novel set in the year 2012 need even be aware of Twitter, or at the very least, email.

It isn’t hard to make a case against including technology in fiction.

First, technology can be awkward to write about. Also, to read about. The jargon is clumsy: download, reboot, global positioning device. It’s embarrassing, really. So I understand an author’s impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak. For this reason, authors often forgo current technologies when they want their characters to communicate with one another, or to reveal important, plot-forwarding information. I get it. What could be less romantic than a text message?

Fiction allows for a certain level of restraint, after all, where the author need not include a protagonist’s every bathroom break or end each scene with the characters saying goodbye. Why then, if it’s common practice to avoid including other unglamorous functions of characters’ daily lives — like said bathroom break — is it necessary to show them texting and refreshing their inboxes?

Think of it this way: in most cases, a bowel movement will not move the plot forward; an email will.

coverDespite all the trouble technology might cause, when it’s absent from contemporary novels, a big white elephant appears on the page and starts ambling around. (Perhaps searching for an unprotected Wi-Fi network?) Usually these are good books, full of beautiful language and arresting characters that teach me what it means to be human. But, as was the case with Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, the obvious absence of things like search engines and smart phones makes me pause and think, “Couldn’t she have at least Googled her father’s name before she set off to the Arctic in search of him?”

coverIn “A Kind of Vast Fiction” — an essay in the form of an email thread published in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (edited by Jeff Martin and The MillionsC. Max Magee) — David Gates and Jonathan Lethem discuss strategies for including, and avoiding, technology in fiction. Midway through the conversation, after Gates admits to being wary of certain social networking sites, Lethem asks, “So you’re Googling and YouTubing, if not Twizzling or Fnorgling, fair enough. But are your characters doing the same? Do you find it as difficult as I do to get this un-Brave, no-longer-that-New World onto the page in any credible way?”  Gates’s response is packed with insight:

I have no idea how to handle this new mode of living (I guess “living” is the word) in fiction. I probably spend more time emailing and reading online than I do having non-virtual human contact — and I bet I’m not that unusual. If my characters were like that, would their lives be eventful enough to write about? On the other hand, if I write about people for whom the internet is — as far as the reader can see — peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction? In the last story I finished, I used the expedient of sending my main character on a vacation where she’s sworn to limit her internet and cell phone use. And how do you deal with the problem of writing something that may be dated by the time the book comes out? My novel Preston Falls, which appeared in 1998, has a now-hilarious account of an email exchange — “He hit Send,” and so forth. And I just received a piece of student fiction which mentions Facebook and Skype in adjacent paragraphs; my instinct is that this is showing off, but maybe it’s no different from Jane Austen mentioning a fortepiano and a huswife on the same page.

I’m interested in novels that render what Gates calls “this new mode of living” — those that successfully incorporate technology into their characters’ experiences. The following came to mind when I began to think about what recent works of fiction had either pulled this off or at least tried.

2.
coverConsider Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding:

The fact that they didn’t communicate by cell phone, didn’t chat or text, could reasonably be chalked up to the fact that they didn’t need to, they lived fifty yards apart and saw each other five days a week, but then again the students did little but chat and text, text messages were their surest form of intimacy, and to never have texted or been texted by Owen, not to know Owen’s number even for emergency purposes, not that this was an emergency, seemed suddenly to expose a great gulf between them.

The above appears almost 300-pages into this 512-page novel. Though The Art of Fielding takes place on a college campus, this is one of the first mentions of texting in the book. And I can recall no mention of social networking in the first few hundred pages. This struck me as odd, perhaps because I recently spent two years on a university campus as a graduate student; I’m all too aware of how fiercely attached students are to technology. (I saw more bicycle accidents than I can count at USC because cyclists tend to keep both their hands and their eyes glued to iPhone screens while they ride.) So when these basic technologies are finally acknowledged in the book, the moment feels inevitable, as if the white elephant has at last grown impatient and begun to scuff his great foot, threatening to charge.

But the above excerpt is more than a cursory reference to text messages. This paragraph-long neurotic meditation, written from the point of view of sixty-year-old Westish College president Guert Affenlight (who has fallen in love with a student), provides the book’s most profound thoughts on modern relationships. College student or otherwise, who hasn’t known the specific despair of being unable to get a hold of a lover? These days, to get a hold of means to text or to Skype or to email with an all caps subject line. Chad Harbach knows this. He might have fought it at first, but with this passage he illustrates that there is no way around mentioning technology — that if your characters aren’t going to use it they still need to acknowledge it. Because either way, it’s going to affect them: they are alive and in love in the Twenty-First Century.

coverNow here are a few sections from early on in Jennifer Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep. In it, Danny has traveled from New York to stay at his cousin’s remote castle-cum-New-Age-resort, somewhere in Austria, Germany or the Czech Republic (he isn’t sure), where there is no internet or cell connection:

Danny tried to get away after breakfast to set up his satellite dish. The need to be back in touch was getting uncomfortable, distracting, like a headache or a sore toe or some other low-grade physical thing that after a while starts to blot out everything else.

And when he finally does get his satellite dish hooked up (is there any less elegant sounding piece of equipment than a satellite dish?), it soon falls into a mucky, black swimming pool and he in turn chucks his phone into the forest:

Eventually Danny calmed down enough to start looking for his phone. The longer he groped in the cypress, pulling threads in his jacket and sending fat little birds squawking out into the air, the more precious that clunky plastic thing started to get in his head. Like a relic. Just to have it. And there it was, finally, caught between two branches. Danny felt like sobbing. He couldn’t resist holding the phone up to his ear one more time.

Maybe that’s all a tad melodramatic, but isn’t it accurate that even in 2006 a person who’d been separated from his cell phone would be brought to some level of hysteria? It isn’t for nothing that there are two ways of being haunted by a missing cell phone: the phantom weight of it in your jeans pocket, and the phantom vibration of a call you couldn’t possibly have received. You miss the object — the gadget — and you miss what it represents. Egan’s use of technology in this book is successful because it speaks to both gadget lust and a longing to be in touch in a way that only technology can deliver.

coverA quarter of the way into his 2009 novel Await Your Reply Dan Chaon plugs in a concise, seemingly arbitrary chapter written in the second-person. After briefly painting a portrait of “you” as an unknowing target of identity theft and victim of suburban malaise, the narrator says:

You don’t feel particularly vulnerable, with your firewall and constantly updating virus protection, and most of the predators are almost laughably clumsy. At work you receive an email that is so patently ridiculous that you forward it to a few of your friends. Miss Emmanuela Kunta, Await Your Reply, it says in the subject line, and there is something almost adorable about its awkwardness.

“Dear One,” the email begins.

What follows is perhaps my all-time favorite fictionalized email, if not my favorite page of published writing of the last decade: a spam email claiming to have been sent by a nineteen-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast. The fact that the passage nearly brings me to tears each time I read it has to be proof that what we tag as technology (email and the like) is surely more human than machine. Or maybe it’s proof that Dan Chaon is a master of the art of fiction. I’d argue both.

Technology propels the plot throughout Await Your Reply, a book about shedding and remaking identities. Chaon is smart enough to capitalize on the many ways that the internet and gadgets make this work more possible now than ever before. Where he excels is in knowing just how and where to aim his lens at these tools. Rather than blur the human element of the narrative, technology helps bring into focus an honest story about our modern life: computer viruses and stolen identities and missed connections:

“Who falls for this?” you would like to know…But for some reason, driving home, you find yourself thinking of…Miss Emmanuela Kunta in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, the orphan daughter of a wealthy gold agent…and she walks along a market street…and she turns and her brown eyes are heavy with sorrow. Await your reply.

If an email can demonstrate this kind of vulnerability and hope, then email it will be. Technology it will be.

3.
It turns out that each of these instances of technology in fiction has to do with the way that technology connects characters. And what are characters if not people like us — people for whom the stuff of connecting with others is messy and hard and all we ever really want?

Maybe, then, if this is the truth about technology, there shouldn’t be any slack given to those authors who forgo including it in their books. You might even say it’s foolish to miss the opportunity to show that technology is not a series of tubes, or a high-pitched beeping sound, or an awkward element to work around, but rather a vital part of the modern human experience.

 

Image via Nate_Steiner/Flickr





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50 Responses to “He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction”

  1. Rick
    at 9:59 am on August 8, 2012

    A few thoughts:

    1) Alex Witchel is a woman; she’s married to the political commentator (and former theater critic) Frank Rich.

    2) I enjoyed your piece — you certainly make good points about how much everyday technology has gone missing in contemporary fiction. (I read *The Art of Fielding* and don’t recall stopping to wonder why no one was doing any texting; but then again, when I was in college — before the flood — no one was doing it, either, so it was easier for me to imagine. I was more incredulous about how the gay student, Owen, who seemed at best mildly interested in baseball, could be batting third in his team’s lineup.) But I think it’s fair to say that any novelist who introduces real-life pedestrian communications technologies into a novel runs the risk of having it compete with the characters for our attention… and the novel somehow becoming, willy nilly, science fiction. (Am I the only one who senses with a certain bewilderment that we now live in the future?)

    3) I’m surprised you didn’t mention Jennifer Egan’s last novel, *A Visit From the Goon Squad*, since it features some dystopic speculation about the troubling evolution of social media and marketing. I haven’t read *The Keep*, but it would appear that Egan is deeply interested in the way technologies, for better and worse, are shaping our lives. (And she did, after all, recently serialize a short story as a series of Tweets.)

  2. C. Max Magee
    at 10:24 am on August 8, 2012

    Rick: Thanks for the correction. We’ve fixed.

  3. Graham
    at 10:27 am on August 8, 2012

    This was a very interesting and satisfying piece. I’m sure you will get a rockslide of comments offering other books with their own take on technology, and this is my boulder: The Sluts, by Dennis Cooper, which is certainly the greatest “novel-as-technology” (in this case, an online forum) that I have read (and a fantastic book in general).

  4. Sonya
    at 10:29 am on August 8, 2012

    David Bajo’s Panopticon is an example of technology imposing itself on us in very unsettling and (lyrically beautiful) ways. In the novel, digital images and constant surveillance become a searchable database. Hard to describe briefly, but it’s an important and under-read work.

  5. Jessica A. Kent
    at 11:43 am on August 8, 2012

    This is great. I’m finding that I’m including characters texting in the novel I’m writing because it’s a suburban modern day family, and, frankly, the suburban modern day families I know text with one another! I could also point out the YA novels that are solely based around online/internet life. But I think the key is not to let the inclusion and novelty of the technology overshadow the plot and characters. But yes, I agree, don’t not include technology to the point where the reader notices it as well.

  6. Harold Augenbraum
    at 11:51 am on August 8, 2012

    Take a look at Proust’s introduction of communications technology (the telephone) in “The Guermantes Way.”

  7. Philip Graham
    at 12:54 pm on August 8, 2012

    A fine article, and what a bottomless topic!
    I thought I’d add a couple suggestions to the inevitable reference pileup:
    The title story in Robin Hemley’s new story collection, Reply All, offers a concise and hilarious tale of technology gone awry. And Adaobi Tricia Nwaunbani has written a fine novel about Nigerian email spammers, I Do Not Come to You by Chance.

  8. dejiridoo
    at 1:08 pm on August 8, 2012

    This is a great piece–and something I’ve wondered about for some time. Peppered with humor and insight. My favorite line was:
    “So I understand an author’s impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak.”
    Awesome.
    I’m especially interested in the way technology affects hard-boiled detective fiction. My sense is that the nefarious characters will be off-the-grid, that or writers will need to learn more about the hacker community. It’s interesting, given that detective fiction details nicely with science fiction.

  9. Prob
    at 1:42 pm on August 8, 2012

    Is there any irony in “the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak” being a bit of a lyrical sentence?

  10. Niall
    at 2:31 pm on August 8, 2012

    Well, if writers are going to confront reality, they have to include the technology that is embedded in real life. It’s like not mentioning telephones or radios back in the day – it would have seemed bizarre.

    The author of the article casts her net a bit too narrowly, I think. Genre fiction has no trouble whatsoever integrating technology into narrative – whether we’re talking about William Gibson or Tom Clancy. If literary fiction is lagging behind, perhaps that tells us something about why genre fiction is so much more popular and successsful. If we limit “literature” to self conscious narratives about adultery in the suburbs, or Whole Foods melodrama, or a tale of six generations of an eccentric southern family , etc., then, yeah, maybe technology isn’t that well integrated. But that’s such a small part of the literary pie these days it hardly matters.

    Lastly, I think the article doesn’t delve deeply enough into the true impact of modern technology on narrative. It makes it harder and harder for characters to be isolated or lost. I was watching a murder mystery movie from the 80s the other night with some friends, and we all burst out laughing when the intended victims realized to their horror that the phone line had been cut. Oh noes! Of course, that wouldn’t really fly today as a narrative strategy. Likewise, the ability of characters to disappear, go off the grid, become undetectable, becomes trickier with today’s technology. Our technology is requiring new constructs of narrative plausibility, and a reformulation of many of the cliches that writers have relied on for decades.

    Again, this is where genre literature is miles ahead.

  11. Allison K. Gibson
    at 3:13 pm on August 8, 2012

    @Niall,

    I totally agree about genre. I had included a section similar to what you just wrote in my essay, but I decided to focus on literary fiction in the end because–as you point out–it seems to be the genre that is still having this conversation.

    You make great points about the loss of isolation (which I think our characters really need), and which I was glad to see David Gates address in that excerpt I shared: “In the last story I finished, I used the expedient of sending my main character on a vacation where she’s sworn to limit her internet and cell phone use.” It feels like this is the only work-around, for better or worse.

    @ everybody else,

    Thanks for all the recommendations of other books–old and new–that handle technology well!

  12. Niall
    at 3:33 pm on August 8, 2012

    @Allison:

    I think genre fiction does well in this area because its foci tend to be on the questions “where?” and “how?”. Since technology offers so many new possiblities here, it is eagerly integrated. That’s because, with some significant exceptions, genre literature tends to be about plot over character. So new giving new technology to them is like giving new tools to a mechanic.

    Literary fiction, on the other hand, tends to fetishize character at the expense of plot devices. Which means writers of literary fiction have to integrate technology into their understanding of how people think, feel, understand, and respond to others. This is a bit trickier. But if you avoid the issue, you’ll never conquer it.

    Of course, Japan is far ahead of us. There the cell phone novel is a reality, and quite popular.

    Cheers.

  13. Rick
    at 3:34 pm on August 8, 2012

    “Likewise, the ability of characters to disappear, go off the grid, become undetectable, becomes trickier with today’s technology.”

    I’ve often thought that there’s a Chandleresque novel waiting to be written about a PI who’s looking for someone “off the grid” and having no luck. It would necessarily be tech heavy but eventually gain some of the feel of Antonioni’s missing-rich-girl film *L’avventura*, in which one eventually starts to feel a kind of existential bewilderment about how (and why) someone could or would disappear so completely … without a trace.

    Or maybe (since I don’t read science fiction) some SF author’s already done it.

  14. → He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction | The Millions | Tim Bauer
    at 8:33 pm on August 8, 2012

    [...] He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction [...]

  15. Laer Carroll
    at 10:01 pm on August 8, 2012

    It’s how tech is presented, not it being presented, which can be awkward. A good writer has no problems make the use of technology graceful – as in the examples you cited.

    As a working fiction writer I deal with this all the time. One (of many) tactics is not to be overly specific. Say “She emailed him but there was no answer. He ALWAYS answered!” Hysteria ensues.

    Tech HAS been included in tales of Regency periods. Georgette Heyer does it herself at one point, mentioning a character sending a telegram. Just that. No details.

  16. Dawn.
    at 12:05 am on August 9, 2012

    Awesome piece, Allison. Plenty of great points made. I wholeheartedly agree that we shouldn’t cut contemporary writers slack for avoiding technology in realist work.

    Personally, I think it’s easy to include MOST aspects of modern technology in a realist story, but social networking is where it gets difficult for me. There are so many social sites and they rise and fall in popularity so rapidly. I just hate the idea of referencing any of them by name and have no idea how to reference them otherwise. “She signed into her online profile…” UGH SO AWFUL haha.

  17. L.
    at 12:07 am on August 9, 2012

    This is an interesting essay and a subject I’ve thought a lot about.

    I must say I find Niall’s post to be quite silly. Aren’t most genre fans arguing that genre can’t be all lumped together and that literary fiction is a genre itself? Of course, it wouldn’t be an internet book discussion without someone trying to get pissy and start a genre war fight.

    Science fiction, as a genre that revolves around technology to a certain extent, is probably at the forefront of “integrating technology into narrative.” (Shocking!)

    But other genres? I’m not sure I’ve read much fantasy work that has dealt with these kinds of things. Fantasy might be the hardest genre to integrate social media technology into. Imagine Harry Potter casting spells to retweet Voldemort’s drunken tweets.

    I’d say most genres have a pretty tough time with this stuff.

    Even Science Fiction has problems. Niall may be right with his/her tautological “point” that science fiction has lots of fictional science, but the question here is not, I don’t think, about “technology” writ large (literary fiction never had a problem working steamboats or cars or light bulbs into narrative.)

    The social media, cell phone, and internet connectivity–the virtual life–is hard in any genre for a bunch of reasons I think. One is the jargon (I’d add that the jargon tends to be very corporate. We have to talk about corporate brands like Twitter or Facebook instead of general terms like cars or lamps). Another is that as a virtual interaction, there is no physicality. There is no present threat to the body. I think it de-charges any scene.

    But the essay is correct that for any novel set in the present, it is something you can’t ignore.

  18. L.
    at 12:09 am on August 9, 2012

    (novels set in the future probably can’t ignore it either, although plenty of contemporary science fiction tries.)

  19. Robert Cottrell
    at 4:39 am on August 9, 2012

    One problem with tech jargon is that it dates so quickly. Throw is a tech reference, even one that seems pretty timeless to you, and future readers will be able to date your novel to within a period of one to five years

  20. Helen DeWitt
    at 6:48 am on August 9, 2012

    Presumably there is always a point at which technology is taken for granted (we don’t think of ourselves as bringing technology in when someone turns on a light or fills a kettle at the sink or makes a phone call, though electricity and running water and telephones were once innovations, often procured at great expense and inconvenience). If we look back at the history of the English novel, though, consciousness of the effect of new developments (esp. speed of travel, dissemination of information) on what is probable seems to be a recurring theme exploited for the purposes of fiction. (Apologies for a couple of rather long quotations; I was charmed.)

    Although these events followed each other so closely that the sagacity of the editor of a modern newspaper would have presaged the two last even while he announced the first, yet they came upon Sir Everard gradually, and drop by drop, as it were, distilled through the cool and procrastinating alembic of Dyer’s ‘Weekly Letter.’ For it may be observed in passing, that instead of those mail-coaches, by means of which every mechanic at his six-penny club, may nightly learn from twenty contradictory channels the yesterday’s news of the capital, a weekly post brought, in those days, to Waverley-Honour, a Weekly Intelligencer, which, after it had gratified Sir Everard’s curiosity, his sister’s, and that of his aged butler, was regularly transferred from the Hall to the Rectory, from the Rectory to Squire Stubbs’s at the Grange,, from the Squire to the Baronet’s steward at his neat white house on the heath, from the steward to the bailiff, and from him through a huge circle of honest dames and gaffers, by whose hard and horny hands it was generally worn to pieces in about a month after its arrival.

    This slow succession of intelligence was of some advantage to Richard Waverley in the case before us; for, had the sum total of his enormities reached the ears of Sir Everard at once, there can be no doubt that the new commissioner would have had little reason to pique himself on the success of his politics. … (Scott, Waverley, 1814)

    “If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to– Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English: that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” (Austen, Northanger Abbey, 1818)

  21. Nasim Marie Jafry
    at 7:23 am on August 9, 2012

    I really enjoyed this article and I think Helen de Witt makes a very good point:

    ‘Presumably there is always a point at which technology is taken for granted (we don’t think of ourselves as bringing technology in when someone turns on a light or fills a kettle at the sink or makes a phone call, though electricity and running water and telephones were once innovations, often procured at great expense and inconvenience).’

    We do tend to take it for granted that modern characters are texting/emailing/tweeting, even if we don’t see them doing so. (And if they are not, then that is actually something of a relief.)

    And if the ability to google a long lost relative is ignored for reasons of plot, it *does* stretch credibility but if the writing is good enough, does it really matter?

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I think contemporary fiction probably should acknowledge technology, but if it isover-referenced it can become irritating and clunky.

    It struck me after reading this article that my own novel (set in 80s/90s) has many letters, which would now certainly/necessarily be emails. And though my main character is never seen emailing, towards the end of the book she expresses a wish for a bondi blue iMac: technology sneaks up on the characters almost without your knowing.

  22. 38. READ. LOOK. THINK. | Jessica Stanley.
    at 10:11 am on August 9, 2012

    [...] to be okay.” | Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 214, Alan Hollinghurst |  The awkward but necessary role of technology in [...]

  23. Dave
    at 10:57 am on August 9, 2012

    “So I understand an author’s impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak.”

    I would say the novel Circuits of the Wind by Michael Stutz is just that: very lyrical prose about the Internet Age.

  24. elizabeth
    at 11:23 am on August 9, 2012

    In the new Bret Easton Ellis (Imperial Bedrooms), everyone is always texting or talking on a cell phone. It will sound quite dated in a few years. In older books, he doesn’t describe technology much (well MTV). I agree however that technology is almost alarmingly absent in contemporary literature, and as I think of it now I have to wonder if this means our novelists don’t fully understand this intrinsic part of our world so well. And if that is the case, what does it mean? Aren’t we supposed to turn to fiction to tell us what we are about?

  25. Niall
    at 11:38 am on August 9, 2012

    L. -

    It’s not tautological to say science fiction is good at integrating science. Most science fiction is not about technology, but about people. Look at Ray Bradbury, Asimove, Sturgeon, James Tiptree Jr., etc. Science fiction more often assumes technology than tries to explain it or make it meaningful – look at every iteration of Star Trek.

    There is of course a subgenre that fetishized technology, but for that very reason it becomes more of a challenge for a writer to integrate all that tech into a narrative others want to read. This is why William Gibson and Vernor Vinge are so good – they meet that challenge.

    Moreover, my point was about genre literature, not just science fiction. That’s why I also gave the example of Tom Clancy. Or Ludlum. Etc.

  26. b.
    at 11:49 am on August 9, 2012

    Great piece!
    Look at this chronology of technology in fiction. It stops with the Seventies, but still useful:

    http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/SF/chrono.html

  27. Niall
    at 12:18 pm on August 9, 2012

    @b. –

    That’s a great list. I’d also mention Lawrence Sander’s popular novel of 1970, “The Anderson Tapes”, which is one of the earliest novels I’m aware of to exploit the possibilities of emerging surveillance technologies on human life. It’s machines surveilling surveillance machines plot adds a nice touch of meta to the whole thing. It was turned into an equally interesting movie of the same title, with Michael Caine.

    Yet another example of popular literature being miles ahead of “literary” fiction in this area.

  28. Shelley
    at 12:41 pm on August 9, 2012

    Interesting piece.

    But in contemporary literature, the elephant in the room–the major player that keeps going unnamed and unnoticed–is the power of corporations.

    They are the man behind the curtain.

  29. L.
    at 1:16 pm on August 9, 2012

    Niall,

    Your previous reductive iteration was that genre fiction fetishizes plot over character while literary fiction does the opposite. but now genre fiction is all about “people”?

    This is a bit irrelevant though, because as someone who reads as much genre fiction as literary fiction, I’d still maintain that genre fiction has just as much of a problem with the issues that contemporary social media and digital technology brings up. Fantasy, romance, detective, etc. few authors of these genres have figured out how to work in twitter and sexting and so on in an exciting way.

    Nor has most science fiction. Most science fiction authors posit futures totally devoid of that stuff. They just avoid it. The ones who really try to center novels around it tend to come up with the clunkiest work (ditto for films of any genre that try to center on this technology, almost all of which are awful.)

    Personally I would say the authors who’ve most successfully integrated this technology in are the really young authors who spent more of their lives with it, such as Tao Lin and his related crew. That’s not to say anything about the quality of their work beyond that, but the use of G-chat and twitter and so on does not stand out as awkward in their work.

  30. L.
    at 1:20 pm on August 9, 2012

    Robert:

    “One problem with tech jargon is that it dates so quickly. Throw is a tech reference, even one that seems pretty timeless to you, and future readers will be able to date your novel to within a period of one to five years”

    Yes, this is another aspect of it. I think it relates to what I said earlier about the terminology. Although Twitter might be technically a “micro-blogging social networking service”, no one would ever use that term. We talk about Twitter, or Facebook, or LinkedIn, or whatever. But since the technology changes so quickly, and new services constantly take over, if you are writing a novel set in the real world you are instantly dating it.

    (If you set a novel in a skewed parody world or in a futuristic world you could get around this problem).

    Most of us here are probably old enough to have been on Friendster and then Myspace and then Orkut and then Facebook. Facebook will fall at some point, and a novel talking about Facebook will soon sound as dated as one talking about Friendster.

  31. Jennifer G.
    at 1:22 pm on August 9, 2012

    Great read. I’ve been noticing texting more and more in the novels I’ve read recently (or, perhaps, it’s just popping out at me more). I’ll offer two books up for comparison: one is Christos Tsiolkas’ “The Slap” (2008) and the other is Paul Murray’s “Skippy Dies” (2011).

    Though “The Slap” has a few mentions of emails (between the adult character Aisha and Art), texting, perhaps the most invasive and addictive new form of communication, doesn’t appear until the last chapter of the book, which is written from the point of view of Richie, a 17-year-old boy. Richie texts his friend Connie a string of partially spelled, abbreviated words. Vowels disappear in the word “moment,” nothing is capitalized as it should. When Richie is mentioned in all earlier instances of the book (which are narrated by other characters), he appears smart, artistic, meaningful. His texting, though, takes him two steps back.

    “Skippy Dies” follows a group of Irish teens at boarding school. There’s tons of texting. The texting appears in some chapters as almost a steam of consciousness, fully integrated into the characters thoughts as it is their lives. They spell words the way they speak. “What” become “wot;” “Because” = “coz.” Sometimes the texts between two students crushing on each other were hard to differentiate between data communication and verbal. Things were so blurred.

    There’s a three year gap between the publication of these two novels, but I think the leap Murray takes with texting is important to notice. He is a young writer, familiar to all the beats and nuances of texting; the impact a single word (and here is where Harbach’s “intimacy” quotation rings true) sent from a phone can have on a character.

    It’s part of us. It isn’t going away. I’m excited to see which authors choose to tackle it, and how they do so.

  32. Niall
    at 3:08 pm on August 9, 2012

    @L -

    All fiction is ultimately about character. The question is how central that is to the genre in question. People generally buy and read science fiction because of the ideas and plots contained therein. That some science fiction writers also have a gift for creating characters people care about is to be expected. But even in these cases they make us care about people in the context of technological developments that challenge them.

    Literary fiction, on the other hand, really is all about character. At least US literary fiction. It is almost never the case that technology or science are at the heart of piece of literary fiction. Gravity’s Rainbow is the only real exception to this that I can think of.

    “Most science fiction authors posit futures totally devoid of that stuff. They just avoid it.”

    This is really quite false. Social media was anticipated by Alfred Bester way back in the 50s. Vernor Vinge’s far-future civilizations rely on texting to communicate. Same is true of things like video conferencing, networking, computer printing, etc. This is just an odd remark on your part.

    And science fiction doesn’t just take place in the future. It often deals with the present. Science fiction has often anticipated social and technological developments decades before they appeared in reality. A good example of this is the flash mob, which was anticipated by Larry Niven 30 years ago.

  33. L.
    at 4:29 pm on August 9, 2012

    I don’t think your characterization of literary fiction is remotely accurate, either historically or just of the US.

    I think what separates literary fiction from genre, if we really want to create some distinction, is a focus on the prose and in pushing the boundaries of text on the page. There is much more of a concern with distinct style, with new structures, with careful sentences, etc. And yes, this is often at the expense of plot in a way that doesn’t appeal to everyone.

    Plenty of genre writers write mostly about characters (eg. the currently wildly popular George R. R. Martin), but few seem to care as much about the prose (eg, Martin again). There are some exceptions such as Raymond Chandler, JG Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, etc., but those are exactly the genre writers who get lauded by the literary establishment and whose books are shelved in literary fiction sections of book stores or given library of america editions.

    But all about character? No. Kafka’s parables are not about characters, nor Lydia Davis’s quiet meditations, nor Barthelme’s post-modern collages, nor most post-modernist and related work, for that matter, nor Thomas Bernhard’s vitriolic monologues, etc. etc. etc.

    “It is almost never the case that technology or science are at the heart of piece of literary fiction. Gravity’s Rainbow is the only real exception to this that I can think of.”

    Eh. You are closer to making an accurate point here, but more because of the way people classify things. If science is at the center of a story, people want to call it science fiction even if all other aspects of the story are more “literary” (or “fantasy” or anything else). However, certainly Infinite Jest, Never Let Me Go, and many other very famous works of recent literary fiction have technology in their center.

  34. L.
    at 4:36 pm on August 9, 2012

    “All fiction is ultimately about character.”

    This, to me, is nonsense (as shown above). Character is no more central to “all fiction” than any other element.

    “People generally buy and read science fiction because of the ideas and plots contained therein.”

    You are making the mistake in your posts of conflating “genre” with “science fiction.” Science fiction is A genre, but it isn’t all genres. Science fiction does, I would agree, tend to focus more on ideas than other genres–”literary” included.

    The rest of your post does not follow though. Many genres are quite focused on character and less on ideas.

  35. Poetry + Technology = ? | Robert Arthur Reeves & Sari Krosinsky
    at 8:31 pm on August 9, 2012

    [...] + Technology = ? August 10, 2012By sarikrosinskyThis article on technology in fiction led me to start thinking about the use or lack of technology in my poetry. The gist of the article [...]

  36. Technology in Fiction | So Superior
    at 9:45 am on August 10, 2012

    [...] Allison K Gibson quotes David Gates, in a The Millions essay. [...]

  37. Links for Friday « Writing and Rambling
    at 10:16 am on August 10, 2012

    [...] He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction – How tech has changed some of the biggest tropes in fiction, and more. Share this:TwitterFacebookLinkedInEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

  38. Jennifer Kramer
    at 6:00 pm on August 10, 2012

    Isn’t the challenge for writers to decide how much of a mental jarring their novel will give to its reader once they decide to make technological references?

    As Helen DeWitt notes, at some point, a new technology becomes a part of the milieu. It reaches an adoptional peak. What confounds us about this unobjectionable observation is that the pace of reaching these peaks, for technologies that our characters use in their daily lives, is altogether too rapid for our writing comfort.

    To casually embed a description of cell phone usage into a novel written in 1989 would’ve been too soon, but for one written in 1999, it would’ve been to late. Likewise for email, texting, Facebook, and so on (all with slightly differing windows of time, of course.)

  39. Saturday Summation – 11 August 2012 | It'll All Work Out
    at 11:41 am on August 11, 2012

    [...] Allison Gibbons talks of including technology in fiction, meaning, is it logical to pretend that characters wouldn’t text each other vs. call? Should authors pretend that Facebook doesn’t exist? Does inserting it interrupt the fabric of the story? On the whole, no. Technology has an important role in how we communicate, so it has a place in our writing. [...]

  40. Article: On Using Technology in Fiction | The Authors Red Room
    at 7:02 am on August 13, 2012

    [...] The Millions has an excellent article up, entitled ‘He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction’. [...]

  41. Geek Media Round-Up: August 13, 2012 – Grasping for the Wind
    at 11:33 am on August 13, 2012

    [...] On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction [...]

  42. Writing advice, reviewing advice, and a new pic of Emily Dickinson | Nico Mara-McKay
    at 9:27 am on August 17, 2012

    [...] fiction – though much of this could apply to contemporary fiction as well. Also check out  Allison K Gibson’s article in The Millions, from which Wanenchak’s piece takes [...]

  43. Things I Read: Writers on Writing « Jordan Wyn
    at 11:23 pm on August 26, 2012

    [...] He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction at The Millions. [...]

  44. Things I Read: Writers on Writing « Jordan Wyn
    at 11:23 pm on August 26, 2012

    [...] He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction at The Millions. [...]

  45. Mixtape I : Faculty of Information and Media Studies Students' Council
    at 1:10 pm on August 30, 2012
  46. Sunday Scraps 72 | rosiesaysblog
    at 5:08 pm on September 2, 2012

    [...] texting, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, FourSquare, Skype and the like in new fiction? The Millions addresses the “awkward but necessary role of technology in [...]

  47. Digital Deficit Disorder
    at 5:39 pm on September 11, 2012

    [...] post on The Millions gives a more up to date approach to the issue: how does “this new mode of [...]

  48. [The Millions] He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction « Allison K. Gibson
    at 2:53 pm on October 9, 2012

    [...] by The Millions on August 8, 2012. Read the full article here. Technology can be awkward to write about. Also, to read about. The jargon is clumsy: download, [...]

  49. The Millions: He Hit Send: On the Awkward but Necessary Role of Technology in Fiction « Allison K. Gibson
    at 3:03 pm on October 9, 2012

    [...] Published by The Millions on August 8, 2012. Read the full article. [...]

  50. NW - Zadie Smith | The Center for Gospel Culture
    at 10:28 am on October 18, 2012

    [...] The other great success is a more understated one, but so difficult to pull off (as evidenced in this great article from The Millions). The characters in NW use technology. This shouldn't be so unusual in a novel, [...]

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