Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Two Cent Tuesday: The Good Ol' Days

BOX OFFICE BLITZ NOTE:  It turns out the rich get richer as when the actuals came in Thor 2 dropped from $38M all the way to $36.6M, which means Rusty was closer than David and thus won the round and got the 300 bonus points.  That means the magic number for Rusty to clinch the win is 601.

Last month I finished Canada by Richard Ford.  The book takes place in 1960, which got me thinking and then commenting in my review that really a book that takes place in 1960 can't be considered "contemporary" fiction anymore.  Instead we really ought to consider it "historical fiction" which covers everything from the cavemen on through the mid-20th Century.  Because really when you do the math for anyone to have been alive in 1960 they have to be 53 years old.  To actually have a memory of 1960 they would have to be at least 55.  So basically only people who qualify to join AARP could consider that a contemporary period.

This phenomenon isn't entirely new.  I remember in The Simpsons where Homer's friend Carl asks, "Why aren't there any new oldies?"  And we of course chuckle because it seems ridiculous to have NEW oldies.  But in actuality there are NEW oldies.  I mean when I was growing up "oldies" were pretty much 50s-60s music:  Elvis, the Beatles, Beach Boys, etc.  Nowadays when I'm in the chair at the dentist (the only time I'd ever listen to an oldies channel) you'll routinely hear stuff from the 70s-80s.  I get depressed to hear acts like U2 and Prince on the "oldies" channel.  Another decade and all the bands I grew up with in high school like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Counting Crows will probably be relegated to "oldies."

This becomes a problem in books because let's face it when you're writing about 1960 and you're not courting a large social issue like The Help or something like that, then your demographic is definitely going to skew old.  Which might be a good idea because I'd wager old people buy more books.  But then you face that problem of old musicians like most of those from the 50s and 60s in that your audience keeps getting older and starts to shrink because they are literally dying off.  Before you know it, your editor has to sit down with you and give you the pink slip.

And the thing with a book like Canada is the 1960 setting really has no purpose.  My theory is the author only used it because that's the decade familiar to him as a teenager like the narrator in his book and thus it's the easiest for him to write about.  The book could easily have taken place at any time between 1960 and now because again he wasn't courting any big societal changes.  There was nothing about civil rights or really anything political or controversial in there.  So it really just strikes me as lazy on the author's part.  Ford isn't the only one guilty of this.  I thought pretty much the same with John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River and Jeffery Eugenides's The Marriage Plot.  There are probably a lot of others that would qualify as well.

This would be akin to if I set every story I wrote in the 1980s-1990s (mostly the 1990s) because that's when I grew up.  I've never really done that, largely because my sci-fi stories are set in the future and by the time I got to writing more general fiction it was the 2000s and they were set in present day for the most part.  In Where You Belong I didn't start it in 1977 when I was born; I started it in 1973-ish, or at least that was when Frost Devereaux was born.  Why?  Mostly I wanted Frost to be in college in the early 90s when there was still rampant paranoia and panic about HIV/AIDS.  I don't think, though, it's really important for me to capture my nostalgia for days gone by in my fiction.  I think most of the nostalgia in that book was through Frost's college roommate Pete who was into Star Wars and Transformers and stuff like that, but then Pete meets a bad end so subconsciously I guess I killed the nostalgia.

Anyway, I guess the point is that especially when you get older, you should be cognizant that just because you're familiar with a time period doesn't mean everyone else will be or that they'll have the same affection for it.  And it might do you some good to get out of your oldies comfort zone and into something more modern.  But especially with older writers who have been around a while I suppose that can be difficult to realize the decade you remember as your golden age is now golden oldies to most everyone else.

As I've said though, if you're going to use an old-timey setting then at least make it have some relevance.  Just because that's when you grew up is lazy writing and really goes against the idea that you shouldn't write autobiographical fiction.  That's something Mr. Irving preaches and yet seems to violate with regularity.

I'd make an exception for actual autobiographies.  For instance many of the Chubby Chatterbox's stories wouldn't be the same if they were set in modern day.  Since they are autobiographical I don't mind that at all.

Maybe when my generation all gets to be old-timers I'll feel differently.


  1. I think any story set in a specific time is historical. My never-to-be-published science fiction novel was set firmly in 2005. A major rewrite happened because I wanted it to be 'contemporary' so I threw a bunch of stuff with iPhones and YouTube. Then the US shuttle program ended and now I'm f#€%ed and I'm thinking of resetting it in 2005 and calling it alt history or something.

  2. Doh! Stupid Thor!
    Yes, I hate listening to the oldies and realising that I must now be old...

  3. I think any non-present setting needs to have a purpose to it.
    I also think a good story will work in whatever time period you want to put it in.

  4. You make an interesting point. The memoir I'm working on takes place in the sixties and seventies so I guess it isn't contemporary fiction either.

  5. Yeah, I think we can draw a line and call anything set 40 years ago historical. I will refuse to call the 80s historical till I die

    1. The 80s are historical! It the '90s that will never be historical...



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