Contemporaries that aren’t very contemporary

I’m having a nasty, weather induced headache, not to mention that I’m pretty pissed off at having to drive eighteen kilometers (one way) this afternoon to a meeting that didn’t take place.

So here is Laura Miller about how many writers have problems dealing with the mass media, whether it’s television or the internet, in their novels. Miller mainly talks about literary fiction, where the problem is particularly pronounced, but it applies just as well to contemporary romance (which often doesn’t seem any more contemporary than approx. 1970). Though I find it odd that she views writing historical fiction mainly as a way of escaping from the modern mass culture, while I’d view it as an aesthetic choice.

As for why many literary writers eschew television and the internet, part of the reason is probably as Laura Miller states that television and the internet are viewed as the epitomes of shallowness. But a bigger part may also be that particularly older literary writers rarely watch TV or use the internet, so it is of no relevance to them. If you spend enough time in universities (and not just there either, but among university faculty such people are particularly common), you will find that there is a considerable segment of highly educated and very smart people, usually over fifty, who live completely distant from modern pop culture. People who have never watched Star Wars and don’t know what Twilight is* – which can pose a problem to scholars specializing in pop culture, because you have to write every paper or thesis in such a way that the “totally divorced from pop culture” segment will understand you without boring the pop culture savvy segment out of their skulls. The reaction, by the way, is often polite puzzlement.

The pop culture resistant segment among university faculty is usually computer and internet savvy, because they have to be, but not everyone is. And since I suspect that literary novelists of the type Laura Miller is referring to in that article often belong to the highly educated, very smart and totally ignorant of pop culture demographic, it’s not surprising that references to TV or the internet are rare. Though it must also be remembered that the postmodernists – and I would include David Foster Wallace under that umbrella – often did and do embrace pop culture and the mass media and include references to both in their work.

The question why contemporary romances so rarely feel contemporary, however, seems more connected to publisher and perceived reader preferences. It is believed that references to current pop culture, the internet, cellphones, Twitter, etc… will date the work and put off readers in the future, so we get alleged contemporaries set in curiously timeless American small towns, where heroes always wear jeans and plain white t-shirts, everybody listens to classic rock and everybody’s favourite film is always Casablanca and no one ever seems to embrace any sort of pop cultural artifact dating from after approx. 1970. At least, they sometimes use computers and e-mail in newer works, though no one ever blogs or twitters or texts on his mobile.

Not that there’s anything wrong with characters who love Casablanca and listen only to classic rock. But it’s usually a certain kind of person who loves old movies (and why is it always Casablanca and never some other vintage Hollywood masterpiece?) or never listens to music made after 1980 and I never get that sense from the Casablanca fans of contemporary romance. A secondary character in “the novel” is a vintage movie buff and it makes sense for who he is. And no, his favourite movie is not Casablanca but another vintage Humphrey Bogart gem, Angels with Dirty Faces.

Even worse, if a contemporary romance is reissued after 10 or 15 or 20 years, some pop culture references are updated, while other references dating the book just as much are left untouched. This always drives me mad. For example, one of the reissues of Janet Evanovich’s old category romances has changed the motif on the heroine’s t-shirt into Sponge Bob, which makes no sense whatsoever for a book first published in 1989. Whatever the original reference was, it can’t have been worse than Sponge Bob which catapulted me right out of the book, because I knew that Sponge Bob hadn’t existed back in 1989, so why was it there? I ended up putting down to book to google when Sponge Bob had been created. That’s not what you want.

Never mind that dated references aren’t a problem at all, if the book is well enough written. Quite the contrary, they can be a valuable resource for social historians. Northanger Abbey is chock full of obsolete pop culture references to obscure gothic novels and yet it doesn’t make Jane Austen any less of a great writer and her novels any less timeless.

If I write something contemporary set, my characters use pop cultural references, if they’re the sort of people who would do so. They also use the internet, cellphones, etc… if it makes sense for the plot. Never mind that pop cultural preferences can be a great characterisation tool. A proneness to quoting obscure 19th century poets says something about a person. So does hanging on to the Optimus Prime you got for your tenth birthday and owning every episode of the old Transformers cartoon on DVD. I’d say that fiction should have room for both.

* Oddly enough, quite a few of them are soccer fans, though some of them will apologize for indulging in such low-brow interests.

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3 Responses to Contemporaries that aren’t very contemporary

  1. Estara says:

    *nod nod* And if it’s done well it feels like reading time travel. Sharon Lee had these two chapbook novellas I mentioned before, Barnburner and Gunshy (the ebook version is still available at Fictionwise), set in 80s small town Maine and the existence of the bulletin board system is a large part of the plot. And they read just fine because the people are interesting and the story. The fact that the internet works different now is just an interesting sideline to note.

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