Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Christina Hendricks, middle, as Joan Holloway Harris in AMC's Mad Men. (HO)
Christina Hendricks, middle, as Joan Holloway Harris in AMC's Mad Men. (HO)

essay

Popular culture: any time but the present Add to ...

Noisy, always blathering, the information age is a stout self-promoter and its proudest boast is this: Information is all about immediacy; it flows through an instantaneous present. But everybody knows that thesis. Strangely, though, nobody’s talking about the antithesis: Fiction in the information age, especially pop fiction, tends to tilt away from the present, either back to the past or forward into some sci-fi future. What’s more, these two contrasting trends seem inexorably linked. The more the informational bombardment traps us in the here and now, the more we seek fictional escapes into the there and then. The one produces the other. Why?

First, let’s document the contrast. Obviously, technology has accelerated the news cycle ever faster, until what once was measured in days and hours is now gauged in minutes and seconds. When a shot is fired halfway around the world, or a butterfly flaps its wings, we can know instantly. Whether the shot or the flapping is worth knowing about is another and far more confusing issue, but more about that later. Instead, the crucial element is immediacy; news, valuable or not, travels fast in the present tense.

So does interpersonal news, valuable or not. Friends and lovers text each other constantly, on the hour, on the half-hour. Even when physically separated, they’re electronically connected in the same present tense, yoked together in an ongoing conversation that never shuts up.

Compare this to our prevailing taste in pop fiction. Consider the current dominant shows on cable: Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Spartacus, Downton Abbey – not a present day among them. Consider the blockbusters routinely rolled out on the summer screen: The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, the Batmans and Spider-Mans and X-Men – fantasy realms all. Consider the recent publishing phenomena, kidlit also devoured by adults: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games – more aversion to the present. Consider the Oscar winners from the past three years: The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker – all set in the past. And check out the expanded Oscar short list for that same period. Count the number of nominated films: 29. Count how many are set in the present: a mere two, Up in the Air and The Descendants. The other 27 take place either in the past or in a hyper-world beyond time. In our fiction, so unlike our fact, there’s barely a cellphone in sight.

The conclusion is clear: For creators of popular fiction, eager for a popular success, the here-and-now is anathema. Again, why? Well, some of the reasons are traditional. Movies, novels, TV series have long gestation periods and, for their writers, the present – especially a present prone to rapid technological change – is a moving target that’s hard to pin down. So an attempted look at how we live now can, by the pub or release date, slide into a sadly outmoded account of how we lived then. Better, and safer, to search history for a fixed target, with its entrenched moral codes and social classes – trumping up a conventional marriage plot is a whole lot easier in an era when marriages were conventional. Alternatively, forging into the future allows the writer to fix the target through the sheer power of imagination – to make up dystopian morals or utopian values, and operate within that codified premise.

This has always been common practice. Shakespeare never set a single play in the Elizabethan England he lived in, yet his canon doesn’t exactly lack resonance, then or now. The difference today is that another factor, beyond the writers’ practical needs, seems just as powerfully at work: the audience’s emotional needs. In short, we are getting the fiction we crave. The flood of information in the present is overwhelming, undiscriminating, and confusing; even the so-called analysis is immediate, the spotting of trends as evanescent as the trends themselves.

So we turn to the fictionalized past, or the imagined future, not just for escape but for clarity. It isn’t just the clarity that comes from simplicity, from the easy Manichean tensions of your typical superhero. At best, the clarity can also be rooted in complexity. For example, Mad Men retreats to the early sixties into a very complicated patriarchy on the cusp of dramatic change, wherein both men and women are struggling to redefine their roles. But their struggles exist within shifting parameters and altered rules that we understand, precisely because those seismic shifts led to our present predicament – which we don’t understand. Mad Men invites us to watch with a mix of pity and envy and awful foreshadowing – things were so much worse then, and so much better. Either way, in happy retrospect, they were clearer.

Sure, I’m generalizing here. Not all of our fiction avoids the present. Jonathan Franzen is just one exception, still eager to write the contemporary social novel, to be the Dickens or Updike of his era. Another is Judd Apatow, whose comedies are locked into the present. Indeed, from Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall through Bridesmaids and Girls (which Apatow executive-produces), our perspective on today is mainly through the lens of comedy. But, in every case, this isn’t the comedy of manners so much as the comedy of exaggeration, where the yuks act as just another distancing mechanism. Ostensibly in the here and now, we still get to escape – this time into the safe haven of hyperbole.

Okay, like any good Hegelian, let’s take the next step – past the thesis and the antithesis toward the synthesis, something that melds the urgent present of the information age with the past-and-future tilt of the entertainment it encourages. Well, I found it on Twitter – a fascinating site called RealTimeWWII . The Second World War was a fact that has come to serve as a popular destination of fiction, a past into which creative drama frequently retreats. But, on this site, the mythologizing of the war is reconverted back into tweeted facts, into information that, like our own, “streams” in the immediate present. Consequently, today is yesterday on RealTimeWWII. May 31, 2012, is May 31, 1940, with the harried news of the moment – the conflicting accounts of victories and defeats, the posturing of politicians and generals on all sides, the awful laments of the dying, the false hopes of the living, all the hurly-burly and dense fog of war – tweeted in hour-by-hour time.

The effect of reading this is both edifying and oddly consoling. We simultaneously experience the terrible confusion of the present while savouring the knowledge of hindsight. Eureka, the synthesis. It’s the technology to save us from technology. Here, within a fictional pretense – that the past is now, yesterday is today – the hard and terrible facts pour unceasingly forth until, at last, confusion is clarity. No wonder this Twitter “account” is popular, but it’s much more too: Finally, a leader deserving of its followers.

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular