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?
Here’s the core of a formal writing prompt that uses a quotation from Pearl S. Buck to get students thinking about literary characterization.
Author Pearl S. Buck, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was regularly asked by readers whether characters in her novels “were real people.” Here’s how she responded:
Of course they are real people, created from the dust of memory and breathed upon by love. Yet not one of the lived outside my books exactly as they do within them.*
Here’s your writing assignment:
Explain how the way you define “real people” affects how you personally understand and appreciate a novel.
Here are some issues to consider:
1. Think about what Buck means when she says her characters are real people. Do you think her definition of “real people” is the same as her readers’ definition?
2. Identify an example of a novel in which the characters are “real people” as Buck defined the term, but not “real people” as her readers defined the term.
3. Do you tend to define “real people” as Buck does or as her readers’ did?
It might be interesting to have students respond to this prompt once near the beginning of a year and again near the end, using different novels as their examples, to see if their study of literature changes the way they view works of literature.
*the quotation is from Buck’s autobiographical work My Several Worlds: A Personal Record., New York: John Day, 1954, p. 250.