Novelists seem to have an uncanny knack for telling the future in the present tense. While reading bestselling novels of the 1990s, I’ve been struck by how often writers of that decade mention ideas and activities that are only now becoming strong enough to attract public attention.
Future foretold in the present tense.
Here are a few observations from the 1990s that I scribbled in my notebook.
Comparing the early 1990s with the Cold War years, in his 1993 novel The Scorpio Illusion Robert Ludlum writes, “We’re no longer dealing with people who think anything like the way we used to think. We’re dealing with hate, not power of geopolitical influence, but pure, raw hatred. The whipped of the world are turning, their age-old frustrations exploding, blind vengeance paramount.”
Michael Crichton in his 1994 novel Disclosure says, “We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”
In the political novel Primary Colors, the famous author Anonymous has a 1996 presidential candidate leveling with low-income voters about their futures: “Muscle jobs are gonna go where muscle labor is cheap—and that’s not here. So if you all want to compete and do better, you’re gonna have to exercises a different set of muscles, the ones between your ears.”
In Executive Orders, another 1996 novel about the presidency, Tom Clancy reflects that “admitting error was more hateful to [Washington leaders] than any form of personal misconduct.”
A question for novel-reading English teachers
Here’s a question for your readers of this blog who are English teachers, your book clubs, and perhaps your students:
What themes in today’s fiction do you predict will be featured every news cycle 25 years from now?
If you believe the 20th century novels, there was a time at least one student in each high school and college English class aspired to produce the great American novel.
Today we’re hard pressed to find one student in each high school and college English class who’s even interested in reading a great American novel.
Introduce today’s students to fiction
When we “introduce a novel” or “introduce long fiction” to today’s students, we need to forsake the language of Literature with a capital L and speak to the students who speak the language of bits and bytes and augmented reality.
Unlike technical documents, good literary fiction is rarely obvious. In fact, part of the attraction of literary fiction is identifying and interpreting the clues to what the story means.
Many of today’s students are familiar with analyzing computer code to see how it delivers its message. We need to seduce them into learning to analyze linguistic codes to see how a work of fiction delivers its message. With luck, some with learn to enjoy the process.
Instead of lecturing, I like to give students verbal puzzles embedded in informal writing prompts to get their little grey cells moving.
Informal prompts about fiction
Here’s the sort of thing I’d use in introducing fiction reading to literature-phobic students. I begin with a quotation, which gives students a tiny bit of close reading. I chose a quote from Stephen King because he’s a living author—so much more relevant to students than old, dead guys—and because even students who hate to read are likely to know his name from the film versions of his books.
In “The Body,” one of the novellas in his book Different Seasons, Stephen King writes about why people write fiction. He says this:
The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that’s why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings…even the ones that sell millions of paper backs.
Informal writing prompt #1. What does Stephen King mean by “-ed endings”? In your answer, give two or three examples of the sort of verbs King means. Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.
This informal prompt can be answered just with grammar knowledge. Students don’t need to know anything about fiction to get it right.
Informal writing prompt #2. Why do you think King ignores the present when he talks about the purpose of writing fiction? Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.
Prompt #2 requires an understanding of different ways of defining the word present. Here, again, no knowledge of fiction is required.
Informal writing prompt #3. Why does King say “get ready for some future mortality” instead of just saying “get ready for the future?” Please keep your response to no more than three sentences. You have 1 minute to write.
Prompt #3 is the tricky one. King uses the term “future mortality” because there’s nothing certain in the future other than death. It’s the only event that’s likely to happen to everyone. Even the most irreligious typically want their deaths to be mourned by the people whose opinions they valued. By extension, then, the purpose of fiction is to give guidance in how to live.
I don’t expect students to figure this prompt #3 out in an hour, let alone a minute. I just want them to try to figure it out on their own before presenting them with fiction to read.
Other informal prompt options
You needn’t use my informal writing prompts. You could look up quotes on fiction at GoodReads.com or some similar site, or pull some out of your own reading to get students thinking about the value of fiction.
What’s important is that you include both prompts to which students can readily respond with a correct answer and some that present a puzzle with no obvious correct answer. Easily answered prompts encourage techie-type students to experience success in something to do with fiction. Puzzling prompts gives them a mental itch to find out the answer.
Reading vintage fiction is a hobby and a compulsion for me. I not only enjoy old books, but also find looking at contemporary life through the lens of another era makes patterns easier to spot.
This week I reread A. M. E. Hutchinson’s If Winter Comes. First published in August 1921, it became a bestseller, going through 34 reprints by April 1923. If you aren’t fortunate enough to pick a copy for a quarter at a library book sale, as I did, you can read a digital version from Project Gutenberg.
The story is about Mark Sabre, a young man who was called “Puzzlehead” at school because of his extraordinary habit of being able to see anything from the other guy’s side. Mark has principles that he believes are absolutely true, but he doesn’t always find it easy to know how to apply those principles. Mark’s world is complicated, full of subtleties.
Mark’s ability to see how things might appear to someone else is in singular contrast to folks around him. From his wife to his boss, they are what Marks calls people of Conviction, with a capital C.
People of Conviction have rods and cones, but their brains perceive only black and white. They absolutely believe that their beliefs are true, and they cannot imagine that any other belief could be held by anyone who isn’t at best a moron, at worst an immoral moron.
People of Conviction are righteous bullies.
Looking at contemporary life with Hutchinson’s novel fresh in my mind, appears that people of Conviction still hold the whip hand. Puzzleheads are scarce, even in arenas where puzzleheaded people are most needed: politics and education.
Getting rid of the people of Conviction is impossible. Shooting them’s not legal, and, as Mark says, they mean well and they are often right.
Converting them may be impossible, too. They do not listen to anything with which they know they don’t agree.
Perhaps the only solution is to give them novels that let them a look at life through a different lens.