30 June 2009

Is that a Walkman in your pocket...?

This BBC article by 13-year-old iPod-user Scott Campbell, in which he road-tests a Walkman, is a delight.* Scott is by turns curious, incredulous and even quietly respectful about the Jurassic technology. It also takes him three days to work out there is another side to the cassette tape - wub!

Working in YA fiction we have to be attuned to how technology can date a book. That which is so-hip-right-now might be totally over before the book is published - it might even have entered that dead-zone where something is not cool anymore and yet is not old enough to have nostalgia value.

But books set in the contemporary world have to reflect the digital lives we are living. Authors have to tread a fine line, and even be a little prescient about what might be enduring versus flash-in-the-pan. (MySpace is so 2007, but the iPod is forever?) As editors we often ask questions such as: 'Is this character using this software/social networking tool/portable music device because it reveals something about who they are - or because the author wants to evoke "yoof-of-today cool"? Is there an alternative way of evoking the "cool" that is less likely to date in the blink of an eye?'

There's also a danger in ignoring the whole issue and having characters never encounter technology (unless you're writing a Luddite fantasy set in a hell-dimension where there's no such thing as iPhones), because sometimes it's the LACK of technology that can date a book. In Margaret Mahy's glorious The Changeover, first published in 1984, Laura and her mother are hard to contact because they are not 'on the phone' . (NOT EVEN A LANDLINE!**) In most every other way, The Changeover feels eternally NOW, so this element is a bit jarring. And these days, not having a MOBILE phone in a crisis needs to be explained:
'Oh noes! We're broken down at night in the middle of nowhere and a mad-man has escaped from a nearby asylum!'
'Chillax, dude, just call the RACV.' ***
'But don't you remember, we both left our chargers at that seedy Bates Motel, and now our batteries are totally flat. Doh!'
Lucky for us, one of the glories of books is that if you wait long enough all this stops mattering again. The book transcends 'nerdily dated' and becomes 'reflective of the period'. Nobody thinks Jane Austen is out-of-touch because her characters write letters. (ebennet@netherfield.co.uk Be not alarmed, madam, on receiving this email, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments or renewal of those offers which were last night so disgusting to you.)

Nobody feels The Catcher in the Rye is less convincing because Holden Caulfield doesn't own a computer.**** (Although, IMHO, that Holden would make a brilliant blogger.)

Nobody thinks Anne of Green Gables should SMS Diana instead of using the candle-in-window-with-piece-of-cardboard method of communication. ('Marilla, can I go over to see Diana just for a minute? She has something very important to tell me.' 'How do you know she has?' 'Because she just pranked me. It was my idea, Marilla.' 'I'll warrant you it was,' said Marilla emphatically.)

So, to sum up, write enduring classics and everything will be fine. No wait, that's not quite what we meant. We'll let Scott Campbell have the last word:
'From a practical point of view, the Walkman is rather cumbersome, and it is certainly not pocket-sized, unless you have large pockets. It comes with a handy belt clip screwed on to the back, yet the weight of the unit is enough to haul down a low-slung pair of combats. When I wore it walking down the street or going into shops, I got strange looks, a mixture of surprise and curiosity, that made me a little embarrassed... My friends couldn't imagine their parents using this monstrous box, but there was interest in what the thing was and how it worked. '

* Thanks for the link, LB
** Today, plenty of peeps don't have landlines, but they are so 'on the phone'.
*** Speaking of 'chillax'. Slang can be as dating as a Walkman. Scott Westerfeld has an excellent solution to that little dilemma.
**** The New York Times has other ideas about why Holden might be unconvincing today, but their theory is resoundingly debunked by John Green. Thanks, Read Alert.


thaliak said...

Great post, Onions.

I was just giggling last week at the way Seinfeld is so 90s - they're always 'checking their messages' on answering machines and a lot of their crazy problems would have been solved if someone had just had a mobile. Still funny though.

Also - I wonder what music Scott Campbell was listening to as he road-tested the Walkman. Even though the technology's different he still might have been familiar with the music his dad had on the tape. One of the things I like about technology is how it enables access to the good 'old stuff'.

Guess I'm just saying the obvious - technology changes, but we'll always be human.

A latte beckons said...

Ha ha! I've noticed a few Luddite parents who forbid mobiles/internet access popping up in YA (may have even used them myself, ahem). It's also handy to set your book in the back of beyond with no coverage...

Is this dilemma related to the kid-lit problem of children not being allowed out in the world to actually have adventures any more?

Anonymous said...

Several LOL moments in this post. Blurry brilliant.