Something weird is happening.
My own life is ridiculously hectic at the moment. I have one life where I am a son, a father and husband. I am John’s Dad and Mr Hilary.
And I will always be my Mum’s little boy, even though at the age of 50 I am neither little nor a boy.
There is another life where I am an independent consultant. I wear a suit and write technical reports. My speciality is translating engineer jargon and bureaucrat goobledegook into plain English that Joe or Josephine Public can understand. I am a babel fish.
There is a big part of my life where I am a reader. A consumer of media. I watch films, read newspapers, listen to music, read books. I hang around on Goodreads. I help my son with his English literature school work.
And there’s a part of me that is a writer. So far I have published two novels, one short story and one chess book. This blog, of course. And I hang around on writing websites, especially Absolute Write.
Not to mention being a chess player. And let’s not talk about the non-working sports car in the garage that I had planned to restore. One day, one day.
Apart from the sports car, all of these lives seem to be changing. And for all I know, the car is changing too. The tyres are probably rotting, the brakes are seizing up and the fuel and oil are turning into marmalade.
But there are two parts of my life that seem to be heading in different directions. Reading and writing seem to be diverging from each other. One is going West and the other is pointing East.
We need some examples here.
The other day I saw someone talking on Goodreads about Stephen King. They said that they were thinking about reading some of his books. But they were put off because he didn’t write many books in series, and all they liked to read were series of books.
Wow. I didn’t see that one coming.
Then there was a discussion on Absolute Write. Someone wanted advice on whether they should write their book in the first person or the third person. And whether they should write in the present tense or the past tense.
For anyone who hasn’t come across those terms before – first person is when the narrator of the book tells the story: “I did this and I did that.” Third person is when the story is told from a distance: “Fred did this and Bill did that.”
When I was a boy, there were few books written in the first person. And fewer still written in the present tense. Both were considered daring and experimental.
The responses to this question were intriguing. Several people said “use the past tense because it is more marketable”. But quite a few said that young readers are more comfortable with the present tense. Some even said that younger readers prefer the present tense, or that they would only read books in the present tense.
It was a similar story with first person versus third person. The younger readers seemed to gravitate more towards first person.
One person summed it up well – “there seems to be a strong generational divide on this issue.”
What happens when old fogeys like me die out and these younger readers are my age? Does that mean that the literature of, say, thirty years’ time will be mostly written in first person and present tense? And that all the books will be written in series?
I have a similar experience when I try to share a movie with my 13 year old son. He was born in 2000, so he has no physical experience of any date with a 19 in it. That is as old fashioned to him as black and white television was to my generation.
The movies he wants to see are relentless action. They bounce from one special effect to another. Everything hurtles along at the pace of the television series “24”. You don’t get time to draw breath. Plausibility seems to suffer, but that doesn’t bother him. It’s a roller coaster ride.
He yawns when I try to introduce him to films from my generation. Even the summer blockbusters that ought to be comparable with his summer blockbusters are much too slow.
Another example. New and established writers often talk about writing “rules”. You must never do A, B and C. You must always do X, Y and Z.
And it’s usually very good advice. Except …
There’s often someone who will chime in to say that the older classics don’t follow some rule or other. Dickens wrote long sentences that you couldn’t get away with today. Tolkien used too many adjectives. Shakespeare made too many bottom jokes. Surely the rules are wrong because these wonderful books don’t follow them?
Ah yes, the rules people will say. But that was then and this is now. Modern writing follows these rules. The rules are up to date. The classics were of their time.
Then we will get another type of objection. Some people – usually younger people – will argue that the rules themselves are out of date. They are developing their own way of reading and writing which needs different rules. First person present tense. Books written in series. Relentless action.
It has got to the point where you can make a reasonable judgement about how old someone is on the internet by looking at the arguments they use about things like writing. For some people – usually the oldest – first person present tense is an absolute no-no.
For others, it is a possible option.
For the youngest, it may be all that they want to read or write.
Generational divides are nothing new. From the 1950s onwards, each generation of youth has wanted to be different from its parents. But it seems that the gap between the generations is widening.
Another example. When my son started to appreciate music, I bought him some CDs to start his collection. I knew he would want his own music, so I opted for bands that I knew he liked, like Coldplay and Owl City. I made sure that the CDs included tracks that he enjoyed.
I don’t think he has played those CDs once.
He explained to me that he doesn’t want a music collection. If he wants to listen to something, he will google it and listen on youtube. For him, music is something that you access as and when you want. It is not something that you collect.
Not only does he have different musical tastes to me, but the way that he accesses music is different.
Why does this matter? I could shrug my old-fogey shoulders and muttergrumble (technical term) about the yoof of today.
The problem for me is that a writer has to be able to write for his or her audience, as well as for themselves. The old advice of “write what you like to read” needs to be caveated if a large part of your audience has very different tastes to you.
And that is why I feel that different parts of my life are pulling in opposite directions. My writing has to explore styles and ideas that seem alien to me. And my relationship with my son has to take account of our differing tastes.
As a Dad, you often dream about sharing things with your son. You can introduce him to the books, films and music that you liked when you were his age. It hurts a little when he shows little interest in most of them.
He is too busy having an adventure that doesn’t necessarily include me. And I know I have to let him.
Because the adventure might not be so exciting if Dad is tagging along all the time.