Thursday, March 3, 2011

Updating Your Fiction

Really, I don’t remember this being such a problem before. That is, how swiftly things become anachronistic now. I was working on putting together a collection of stories, most of which were written over the past five years. Wait. Did I say “written”? I mean, published. They actually took their sweet time getting published, so that means I wrote some of them much before that five-year period. And that’s the problem: when you’re writing a story, let alone a novel, by the time you finish and, if you’re so lucky, get it published, characters no longer use pay phones, much less call collect when long-distance is included on their cell phones. They no longer do IMing (“Instant messaging is so old,” writes one former user); they might not even be writing blogs, according to a recent news article that stated it’s all about tweets, Skype, and speedier and broader social networking tools now.

So what’s a writer to do? Do you go back and replace all those clunky landlines with cell phones? Somehow put that smartphone in the hands of the character who’s searching in the torrential rain for a pay phone to save his life (marriage, etc.), a frantic quest that you thought gave the scene so much expediency? Why doesn’t he just whip out the ubiquitous cell phone (or borrow one) and text his recipient?

I wish I could say the answer is as simple as ignoring the whole problem. But when I was reading over my stories, any obsolete or dated technology pulled me up short. It’s one thing if the work has already been published and the copyright dates it, but it’s another if enough time has passed to make readers wonder why the story is supposed to be set in the “present,” but markers keep popping up that identify it as the past.

This is not a new question obviously. The writer has always had to take into account such changes. If you started writing a novel before September 11, 2001 and have the World Trade Center in your story, and intend the narrative to be current, then you’re going to bump most of your readers out of the narrative. If you mention a TV show or movie, and that show or movie is long gone, do you worry about it dating the work? Not necessarily, especially if the mention has thematic significance. Or maybe they’re watching cable. Readers often will provide their own explanation for the outdated. If the usage is arbitrary, however, then why not find a more current replacement, just to keep ahead of the game. Does your character, originally conceived pre-hurricane, really need to be named Katrina?

Though fiction has to reflect that it’s “of its time,” the challenge is how long that time lasts exactly. Writers, unless they’re composing a work set in a definite period (or you’ve decided to date or arrange your work in order of publication, say, for a volume of collected stories), usually want an unspecified time period to suggest the “timeless present.” The writer, oblivious to the future, conceives of it not as a retrospective work but as a contemporaneous one with the urgency of the now. It’s when one goes back and rereads the manuscript from the beginning a couple years later that you realize some of that urgency of the intended time period—the unresolved issues of the day; the pressing cultural, social, scientific questions—has gone slack and no longer imbues the fiction with the same immediacy. The question then becomes how much you can—or should—do about it.

One has to consider that in the course of writing the story, certain decisions were made that aligned with the narrative as a whole, not just for its time period. And tinkering too much too update the work can make it self-conscious in a way that sacrifices wholeness for relevance. The greater good may be served by just accepting the story in its entirety as a product of the original forces that conceived it.

On the other hand, if no harm will be done, nothing is wrong with being flexible and performing some due diligence and going through the manuscript to revise with an eye for keeping it as current as possible. If you have teenage characters (or anyone under twenty-five), it’s more than likely they won’t exclusively be having conversations on the phone; they’ll be texting. If you have a character repeatedly asking directions, you’ll really have to wonder if they’ve heard of MapQuest or have activated that GPS app on their phone or why they’re not using an iPad-plutonium, since now, in the year 2020, when you finally get the book published after working on it for ten years, laptops have gone the way of the IBM Selectric. Of course, you can go overboard, as I said, to the point it just sounds as if all the updating is contrived, like bad product placements. You can only retrofit so much into the context of a work that just isn’t meant to accommodate the newfangled. And in that case, it’s best left alone, letting the reader just accept the work as written, proudly (or defiantly) standing up for itself in its own time.

I’m sure others have their own experiences with this issue (poets?), so comments are welcomed.