This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Roman Polanski’s renowned psychological horror film “Rosemary’s Baby”. I saw it within a few years of its release; to celebrate the fifty year milestone I watched it again at a local “classic films” club.
The movie stands up to the test of time pretty well. It still evokes a stifling sense of inescapable evil, set against incongruous but brilliant humor. Mia Farrow’s terror and resolve remain palpable and convincing, even if her submissiveness to her handsome, gregarious husband seems old-fashioned.
I couldn’t help notice, however, some critical ways in which the plot depends on the time period. In one point fairly late in the film, the heroine slips from the clutches of the coven who wants her baby and rushes to find a phone booth. (The coven is listening in on her home telephone.) Sure she’s being pursued, she waits nervously for the current occupant of the booth to conclude his call, before barricading herself inside. She calls a seemingly sympathetic doctor, only to find he is with a patient. Sweating with fear, she pretends to be on the line to discourage other people who want to use the facility, until the doctor returns her call.
As I watched this scene, I found myself thinking “Why doesn’t she just use her cell phone?” But of course that’s nonsense. Those of us who watched this in 1968 could not have imagined how mobile devices would transform our daily lives. If Mia had a mobile, she might have escaped.
Technology has changed radically, and changed our habits and assumptions along with it. We can expect that this trend will continue, and very likely accelerate. However society looks today, we can be certain it will be different next year, and maybe unrecognizable in five years.
What does this mean for writers? Well—my first novel Raw Silk was originally published in 1999, almost twenty years ago. At that time, it would have been labeled as contemporary. Since my heroine Kate is a software developer, the book includes exchanges of email messages (which was part of my life even then), but there’s no Web and no cell phones. Bangkok (where the novel is set) has no public transit aside from buses and taxis. (On my latest visit, I discovered there are three subway lines in operation, with another four or five under construction.) In Raw Silk, people actually write one another physical letters, on paper, in order to communicate.
I’ve revised and republished this book three times. Each time it seemed a bit more dated. I wrestled with the question of whether I should try to bring it into the twenty first century. Finally, I decided to deliberately anchor it in a particular period, a year or two after the time it was written. I peppered the text with a historical, cultural and technology references that make it clear this is not a contemporary erotic romance.
A similar problem arose with my erotic thriller Exposure, first released in 2009. For my latest revamp (2014), I chose to update it to the present (more or less). I inserted appropriate technology where necessary to be convincing. I was helped by the fact that my main character Stella is working class with little disposable income. In any case, she’s not the type to go gaga about gadgets.
I have to wonder, though, how readers five or ten years in the future will react to the books we are writing now. (This assumes, of course, that people will still be reading in a decade.) Will our plots seem contrived? Will our conflicts be incomprehensible? For instance (let’s be optimistic), suppose that the current movement toward acceptance of varying forms of sexual orientation continues. Many gay romance stories revolve around the need for the characters to keep their relationships hidden from society. Readers who come of age in a world where same-sex attraction is viewed as normal and commonplace will not be able to appreciate the angst that propels these stories today. The tales will lose their meaning, or at very least, will seem like quaint period pieces.
Or consider another, more pessimistic scenario. In ten years, surveillance by states or by corporations may become so pervasive that privacy will cease to exist. A story about an illicit affair will seem unbelievable to someone who has grown up in a world where it is literally impossible to do anything in secret.
I became sexually active after the invention of the Pill and before AIDS. At that time, popular culture was not nearly as saturated with sexual content as it is today. I know I have a different attitude toward sex than a millennial. For me, sex has always been special, a unique and thrilling adventure. At the same time being sexually active was far less risky for me than for my mother or my daughter (if I had one).
So, could I write erotica that my hypothetical daughter could appreciate? Or are my attitudes and assumptions likely to seem strange and foreign? (When I recently posted a flasher in Storytime that referred to the sixties film icon James Dean, who embodies, for me, a certain bad boy sexual vibe, some members of the list didn’t recognize the allusion.)
We still read books from previous centuries of course (or at least I do), some of which we label as classics. I wonder what makes them “classic”. Perhaps there is some sort of universality in these works that somehow bridges the cultural gap between the author’s time and our own. Do emotions remain fundamentally the same even as society changes? Is that why we can still identify with characters like Emma Woodhouse, Sydney Carton, or Jane Eyre? One has to wonder, though, about how our experience in reading these tales compares with reactions of readers for whom they were contemporary. Perhaps we’re grasping only a small part of what the author intended.
In any case, I don’t delude myself that my own oeuvre incorporates much in the way of fundamental truths or themes that transcend time. Nevertheless, I’m in this for the long haul (nineteen years and counting), so I’d like to write stories that will be appreciated not only today but in the future as well. I wish I knew the trick to this. Right now, as in so many other things, I’m just acting on instinct.