Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The cell phone problem

"I don't know how to write a novel in which characters have cell phones."

Novelist Ann Patchett made that rather surprising comment the other night at the opening of the annual Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. It turns out, she was serious. In every novel she writes, she said, she must find a way to separate her characters from their cell phones. Things like drama, mystery, tension and suspense often require isolation, and how can a person with a working cell phone be truly isolated?

Patchett said she visited remote parts of the Amazon to research her most recent novel, State of Wonder. She was horrified to discover that even in one of the most isolated areas of the world, there was still good  phone reception.

Two other authors at the conference, Dennis Lehane and Andre Dubus III, echoed her feelings about cell phones.

Might cell phones help explain the growth in popularity of historical fiction? Are many of our most gifted writers setting their stories in earlier times expressly to avoid having to deal with cell phones?

As we read contemporary fiction, it might be interesting to watch for references to cell phones. How do writers make use of them and how often do they invent ways to neutralize them (sort of in the way the bad guys in stories used to cut telephone lines)?

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