In college, my professor asked us why Shakespeare’s plays can be put into any time period and location and still work. I said, “Because we already know the story and that it’s been performed as intended a thousand times?”
No, he insisted. “It’s because Shakespeare’s plays have no set.”
Which is true. The actors never interact with objects outside of a few swords and braziers. But what they lack in worldly interaction they make up for in stating loudly things like, “Here we are in the forest of Athens,” and having very timely topics like archaic pressures of marrying off a thirteen-year-old before she’s an old maid.
While changing Shakespeare’s set pieces for more unique visuals is commonplace (A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Texas. Twelfth Night in the 1920’s. Macbeth in space), it’s because of the audience’s willing disbelief, accepting the artsyness that happens when a show has been done way too many times. It’s also that the important aspect of Shakespeare’s writing isn’t timely, that despite the character’s concerns and conflicts are outdated and no longer make sense in our time, the characters themselves still resemble people we know and we can relate to hard decisions we can care about, making the stories still effective even when there is a random jester running about modern-day New York.
Drastically changing the time and place of other scripts don’t work as well, however, partially because there is less of a convention, but also the more contemporary a play is, the more likely it is to deal with everyday objects, having a specific and non-changeable time and date due to the types of technology referenced and used as major plot points.
Rarely do we see things like Death of a Salesman or The Odd Couple going out of their way to try and modernize the production (until they make the movie). Many times the costumes fit the date the play was made, even in cases the characters don’t specifically mention dateable concepts. Shakespeare is so long in the past, plus contains poetry and a stylistic, formal prose that was standard at the time of writing, that all of it is noticeably different than how we talk today and is not inhibited by “fad” and therefore dateable vernacular simply because we can’t tell the difference. In many plays, especially the ones after 1900’s, there are tones, attitudes, references, and plots that don’t fit in 2015. And it gets worse the closer we get to today. A play from 2006, the time is more obvious than one from the 1950’s.
A lot of times, books and plays refrain from mentioning anything that specifies when and where it is. Back in the fifties this wasn’t so hard because the main daily technologies were cars and phones—both of which we have today. Sure, there are certain colloquialisms and social rules that can make a work seem dated, but when it comes to actual objects, up until the eighties it was relatively easy to leave out specifics without question.
But now not only is technology moving fast, it’s infiltrating our daily lives more thoroughly. It’s not that we have more options, but we have more daily necessities, and the specifics of those necessities are timely. Computers will probably be in our lives for the next few generations, but will they look the same? When will they stop being called “computers” and just become microchips? The iPad is certainly taking precedent more so today versus five years ago. Sure, cellphones will exist, and considering the flop of the glasses and watch, it’ll will probably be an object you carry around, but there might be a huge design change, like the one from the flip to the touch screen.
For many writers, it takes years to make a book. I’ve been editing a manuscript for three, and if I submitted to an agent immediately and it got picked up now, it would still probably be another few years until it actually hit bookstores. In the case of most of my works, it’s science-fiction or fantasy and another world, so they tend to be less dateable and it’s not as relevant.
But now, I’m working on a piece that I started for National Novel Writing Month, and it is very different than anything I’ve done before. It is the first time I’ve ever really taken from my own life and wrote so indiscreetly about the sorts of things I’m going through. I’m writing about modern day America, places I know, and while I haven’t outlined many times in the past, I usually have at least a mental structure going on. In this case, I don’t. Mostly, I’m talking about writing a lot and just spewing words on paper. It’s been illuminating, mostly how much the writing industry is changing… and how much I expect it to keep changing.
Amazon reviews seem to be most writers’ big concern. Understandably so. When I go to purchase a book, if it doesn’t have a lot of reviews, I’m skeptical that it’s not just another one that someone just slapped up on the internet. It doesn’t deter me from buying it, necessarily, but it can often be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Problem is, while Amazon reviews are the topic of conversation now, I don’t see them having a long duration. They aren’t trustworthy, they tend to cause more controversy than use, and the rating system is completely inflated and flawed. Most books have a four-star rating, and the only ones that have less than a three average tend to have issues outside of quality; they were plagiarized, they were written by an unsavory celebrity, they seem to promote a dangerous mentality, etc.
The reviews tend to be petty and personal. I see more comments about swear words and how fat the author is than actual discussion of what happens in the book. They also will go into long diatribes giving “constructive criticism” over actually reviewing, telling the author how to write instead of other readers if they should buy the book. They are whiny and pedantic at times. (“Anyways is not a word!”)
And even when the reviews are well written and thought out, I still don’t usually agree with them. Out of all the bad reviews I’ve read, only two books ended up being for me exactly how they were described in the one-stars—and it should be noted both of them were popular hits among other people, the fives far outweighing those negatives.
Amazon is a huge business that is causing long term problems for the market. They are the reason that monopolies are illegal. Though they aren’t the only option for the buyer, they are the only option the buyers are choosing, making them have a great deal of power over the suppliers.
Combining that with the ineffectiveness of their reviews, the bullying (perceived and actual) that people have to face, and the inevitable same backlash that other sites like Yelp have to contend with, I see Amazon and Goodreads being a flash in the pan that will at least evolve if not disappear in the next five years.
But they’re so important now, and there’s always the fact that my prediction could be wrong. How can I possibly write about a character attempting to sell her book and get her name out there without referencing online reviews?
Then there’s other aspects like Facebook and Twitter. It’s possible that mentioning them by name will, in two years, sound the same as if you were to talk about posting on MySpace in a book published in 2015. Or reading a book that was published in 2003 in 2015 and being jarred out of the story to think, “MySpace? When was this written?”
And submitting to traditional publishers has completely changed over the last decade. When I last actively tried to publish a book in 2009, no one wanted e-submissions. Now that’s all they’re asking for. I predict a huge shift in the way you submit to the Big Five in the next few years. My opinion is that you will have to self-publish first, sell a lot of books, and then get picked up.
But who knows?
As I’m writing this book, I’m attempting to avoid using specifics of technology—it’s not really what the story is about anyway. Instead of saying “Social Media,” or even “Blogging,” I say she posts on her website. I’m dealing with her trying to peddle a self-published book across America, and I don’t feel like most of that will change. Predominantly, I am able to be somewhat vague about what I’m saying and still maintain my point. If this book is anything like the others, it won’t see the light of day for a while. Plus, it’s just a fun side-project that will be on the back burner for my other works.
So what do I do about reviews?
I have no idea where they’re going to go, how they’re going to be replaced, or how long Amazon is going to last for. Asking for reviews is a common part of pitching for today’s author. How can I realistically avoid talking about something simply because I think the specifics will become moot in the next few years? When something is so imperative to your sales now, it can’t just be glossed over because it might not be in the future.
What happened to the good old days where the biggest worry a writer had was not having a faddy hairstyle?