Ian McMillan: Why contemporary novels shouldn’t be afraid of reflecting modern life

Refernces to texting, Brexit and Facebook should crop up in novels.
Refernces to texting, Brexit and Facebook should crop up in novels.
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I like reading novels and I’ve always got at least one on the go, but to be honest I’m always more interested in the setting than the plot; I read fiction because it can often tell me more about how the world is, and how it was, than factual books can.

When I read Oliver Twist I’m plunged into the noisy, almost anarchic world of 19th Century London and when I read A Kestrel For A Knave I’m walking the streets of Barnsley with Billy Casper. I can picture the clothes the people are wearing, I can hear the way they talk, and I can tell, if the writing is good enough, how their minds work.

I was thinking about this the other day when I almost walked into somebody on a crowded street; he was texting and gazing down at his phone and I certainly wasn’t going to move out the way (I’m a Yorkshireman, after all) when some kind of cyber-radar kicked in and he swerved aside. I looked around: he wasn’t the only one doing it and the cityscape was full of people staring at their phones and almost, but not quite, bumping into each other.

A man was using the navigation device on his phone to find his way to a coffee-shop where I could see that job interviews were taking place. An Uber taxi pulled up and a man got in. A Deliveroo driver cycled by with a pannier full of pasta. In the coffee shop someone paid by swiping their watch over a terminal. I turned suddenly and almost crashed into a lamp-post and I had a sudden, if vague, moment of inspiration to do with sensors fitted to lampposts that warned approaching texters. Then I thought about the imminent arrival of The Internet of Things and the idea that in the future all lampposts would be smart and there would be no more bruised bonces, ever. Around me, Real Life was happening in a continuous stream of, to use a clumsy word, Nowness, and as a chap in late middle age I found it exhilarating and a bit frightening at the same time. After all, I’m so old I still have to look at my phone when I’m texting.

The point of all this is that these are the kinds of things fiction writers should be putting into their tales. If I want novels and short stories to tell me as much about 21st Century life as, say Don Quixote told me about the fairly distant past, then characters in books should be tweeting and texting and unfriending people on Facebook. They should be using words like Brexit and saying ‘absolutely!’ when they mean ‘yes’ and they should get their fruit and veg delivered by a man in a van.

I hope that this is happening now, in new writing, and I’m looking forward to reading just what 2016 was like in a novel published in, say 2019, when all this present will feel like so much past. That’s the writer’s job, to show us just how things are and were. Oh, and throw in a bit of plot, too. If you must!