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How can I write when everything’s changing so fast?

We live in interesting times. In society, the environment, technology, economics, politics, language – in just about all human meta-spheres – things are changing, faster than they ever have before.

As a writer, it’s natural to want to record what’s happening right now, but also to want to set all your work in a nice, known, already-completed period of history because CRIKEY, how are you supposed to actually catch hold of anything before it changes again?

Plus, if you’re publishing traditionally, isn’t anything you write now going to be horribly dated by the time it gets to readers?

I completely understand writer nervousness about “dating”. All those fast-changing things appear in This Paradise, my short story collection, and the reviews have all picked up on its relevance for “these uncertain times” – so who knows how it’s going to read in a few years’ time. In 2011 I began notes for a book (which I hope will become my second after This Paradise) all about new media, personal data, corporate (ir)responsibility and identity, and when I started, Facebook completely dominated the new media world. I finished the book last year, by which time Facebook was basically over, especially for younger users – they’re on Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, etc etc. And it’ll be different again in two, three, five years.

Same with the political landscape. Same with climate change and its particular urgencies.

So. Unless you want to stick with historical fiction – and good luck to you if so – how can you include such “now” elements when the timescales of publishing are in multiples of years?

It’s a risk I keep taking (I can’t help it), and I comfort myself by thinking about it from a reader point of view.

I’m a reader more than I am a writer, and when I read fiction from the 80s, 90s or 00s, which incorporate the technology of the time (carphones, fax machines, pagers, email, dial-up world wide web), I might, at worst, semi-consciously note that things have changed. But I accept that’s how it was then – fine! No problem. On with the story.

And look at classic films. You don’t switch off Kramer vs Kramer because of Dustin Hoffman’s brown flares, and you don’t dismiss E.T. because the little extra-terrestrial wants to use a Speak & Spell to phone home.

Anyway, couldn’t “dated” be interesting in itself? Look at E M Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909). (Really, if you haven’t read it, do; there’s a pdf here.) Its foresight is stunning – and what it “gets wrong” about how we live now is interesting, too, because it tells us about Forster’s vision of the future as a reflection of his present. That is, it dates the story, in the true sense. It sets it in the context of its time, and from there, a reader can identify interesting points about the mores of the time, separating them like egg white from the yolk of what we might consider the story’s more universal themes.

In that way, a “dated” story might make us ask, later: okay, well what changed in our society that meant things didn’t turn out that way? (Why, readers ask in 2049, did we start legally rationing internet access for under-18s? Why did pubs disappear completely? Why did we stop using mobile phones and get nanochip comms implants in our jawbones instead?)

So relax. Write about super-contemporary elements. Include today’s new big thing.

I mean, I’m worried generally, because this fairground ride is spinning fast, and we’re on our own in an unknown land. But someone has to explore these cultural changes. Maybe, actually, this is a unique moment in human history, in which writers and other artists have an enormous amount of truly new stuff to play with. New content for narratives, new forms which are untested and thrillingly frightening, even new emotions for which we haven’t yet got names. Who cares about “dating”? We haven’t got time to worry.

Ruby Cowling was born in West Yorkshire and now lives in London writing short and long fiction. Her short stories have won awards including The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and have been widely published in magazines, anthologies and online. Ruby is also Editor of Short Fiction magazine.

This Paradise was published in April 2019 by Boiler House Press. Its 11 stories feature characters fleeing towards places or situations they hope might be better – often trying to outrun their nature, or deny the undeniable. Described by the TLS as “admirably ambitious”, by The Spectator as “beautiful and highly original” and by Mslexia magazine as “truly phenomenal”, in these stories you’ll find twins, mothers, heroines and rebels playing out their lives under the strange grips of technology, governments, corporations and, not least, this capricious and beleaguered planet.

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