When is something out of date? by Elizabeth Kay

Times change far more quickly than they did in the past. Honest. It’s not just my age, although it does seem as though only yesterday that we had mobile phones the size of bricks. If you’re writing children’s fiction, the vocabulary mutates with an alarming rapidity, and the technology does too. Unless you’ve opted for the safe haven of fantasy or historical fiction, yesterday’s electronic device is as extinct as a plesiosaurus. This applies to adult fiction as well, of course. What self-respecting criminal wouldn’t use a drone, or a burner phone? What detective would ignore social media or digital photography? What police force wouldn’t employ the cast of Silent Witness? Oh, hang on, that’s fiction. Real forensic science is ahead of that, and it’s as well to keep some of it secret. Terrorists are well aware that you need double pairs of gloves these days, and murderers know you need to keep your DNA about your person rather than scattered around the crime scene.
           I was having a clear-out, and glancing through a lot of old short stories, some published, some unpublished. And what struck me about all of them was how dated they seemed. What is the cut-off point, when something stops being yesterday’s news and becomes social history? I have had elderly students in the past, nearly always men, who were perfectly competent writers but were seemingly unaware that an absence of mobile phones in a story set in the present needs to be explained. Morals have changed, too, and not just those connected with the LGBT community. Common politeness is a surprise when you encounter it, honesty on CVs outright foolishness. Go back a few decades (but don’t forget to flag this up), and we accept that this isn’t real life any more, and needs to be taken in context. For female writers, it seems to be more a question of body image and lifestyle. Sixty years ago magazines told you how to put on eye-liner and starch your petticoats, but cosmetic surgery and the latest diet were minority interests. But sixty years ago is history now, and there’s a certain curiosity about a world where people wrote letters, made calls from phone boxes and used maps.
            I think something feels dated when it appears to be set in the present (especially if it’s written in the present tense) but feels wrong. Current preoccupations are not those of thirty years ago. Everything has become more extreme, led by what we watch on television, what we play on the computer, and what we see on social media. There is a lot more violence. And I mean a lot. Thirty years ago we were all agonising about how much sex we should see, and whether gay scenes were quite the thing. No one bats an eyelid these days – and sex seems to be a declining interest. It just can’t compete with social media, which requires far less physical effort. Violence, on the other hand, has become far more inventive and cruel and frequently very graphic. I tend to switch off.
            I like to set things in the near future, predicting what might come to pass. But beware. Books like that date very quickly. I set my novel, Missing Link, twenty-five years in the future when I wrote it. It’s about an imaginary TV show which features two guests who have never met before. A ‘heaven or hell’ link between them is revealed – either something wonderful, such as a windfall or a long-lost relative, or something appalling, like a false identity or a scandal. The presenter decides he’s had enough of dumbed-down TV, and decides to make a programme so shocking that it will be taken off the air and the series scrapped. Reality TV and Jeremy Kyle weren’t around. But the book was rejected over and over again with comments such as: This would never happen, it’s too awful. And: Unrealistic. Television is more responsible than this. It was eventually published ten years ago, as soon as crucifying people in front of the cameras became mainstream. It’s old hat now. My other little venture into the future was to do with modern art, once again in a story I wrote twenty years earlier. It was called Retrospective, and was a winner of The London Writing Competition in 1998; it was published in a book called Does the Sun Rise over Dagenham? As usual, I was trying to go that bit further than real life – but blow me, the same year Chris Ofili won the Turner Prize with his pictures executed in elephant dung…

The narrator in my story works for an art dealer.

…We humans deal with investments here. Buying and selling really modern works of art, and making a tidy profit in the process. We’ve got quite a few of the big names – Tadeusz Twardowski, who paints with body fluids; Roland Spickett, the one who uses microscopes and bacteria, and Donald Barnes. Donald Barnes was the really big money-spinner with his series on toenail clippings, and the fact that he’d died of a heart attack the previous week had made him worth considerably more. Cranford Smith (my employer) always held back plenty of pieces in the warehouse so that he could make a killing after a death. Sound economic sense, really…
I loaded up Toenail Clipping number 43 with London Clay to see what it looked like. It was a remarkably faithful portrayal, with the little twist at the end of the clipping smeared with grey. The Third World ones have sold the best, with the one encrusted with oil-soaked sand fetching a quarter of a million. ‘This tragic reconstruction of human debris is a powerful comment on the sharp practice employed by the shoe industry in under-developed countries’, was what one leading newspaper had said, and although a rival paper had come back with‘Donald ducks the issue’, the first observation stuck. Donald became known as an extremely serious exponent of the New Organic School of painting, and his prices rocketed.
I never quite knew how seriously Cranford viewed his work, however. Sincerity wasn’t Cranford’s strongest suit, although he was very well regarded by the critics and regularly appeared on Spot The Forgery. He had all the right phrases on the tip of his tongue and that’s half the battle, isn’t it, whatever field you’re in.

And that’s the problem. The right phrases won’t be the right phrases any more in twenty years’ time. And the technology will be the stuff of science fiction!


Ann Turnbull said…
Thanks for this interesting post. In 1996 I was commissioned to write a little series novel for 10-12 year olds. I wrote a very tense drama, much of which hinges on the main character having to find a telephone and use it. The book has been through several editions since, the latest one being self-published - since when it has had a surge in popularity in schools. Teachers and children love it and no one has EVER mentioned the fact that it's out of date or wondered why Jon didn't use his mobile, or how the whole situation could have been so prolonged. Maybe readers simply accept stories on their own terms? However, nowadays I tend to write stories set in the distant past where I don't need to know how modern life works - just as well, as I haven't a clue!
I too have had comments on my stories such as "this would never happen", only for the same thing to happen in a slightly different way (or, more chillingly, in exactly the same way) just a few years later... that's the curse of the fantasy/sf author! Loved this post, thank you.
Umberto Tosi said…
Your post is fascinating and precise. I can relate. I'm out of breath running just to stay current. I've encountered related problems in writing a novel set in the releatively recent past - e.g., remembering to subtract telltale cues, and carefully researching my assumptions about what to add and what to leave out. I find that many things commonly associated with a period - or even that I remember being so - actually are not of it (popular songs or news events my characters my hear on the radio for example.)

Popular posts

The Bloodcurdling Antics of Two Soulless Egomaniacs--by Reb MacRath

Wasted Journeys to Westminster? Julia Jones

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

My New Bloody-Good Good-Blooded Book -- Reb MacRath

What a Difference Two Years and a Month Make…