Recently a friend commented on a book he was reading by saying, “It feels dated because the author refers to books and writers that were popular when he wrote it back in 1986. The principles in the book hold up, they are timeless, but the reading of it made me feel old.”
This is a great reminder for every author if you are writing a contemporary novel or a non-fiction book. Of course there is no way to avoid this completely (unless you decide only to quote Shakespeare or the Puritans…which creates a new set of communication problems). However you can try to be aware of our rapidly changing culture.
A Generation is only Twenty Years Long
In Biblical studies it is generally understood that a generation is 40 years. In modern times it is 20 years or so. Google.com isn’t even 20 years old yet, but has changed a generation (it was founded on September 4, 1998).
If you are a writer, you can no longer assume that your audience will understand your cultural references. In a mere six years, today’s 18-year-olds will be adults…possibly with families and jobs and children…they will be reading your books and articles.
You will only be six years older.
The bestselling products of today will be a footnote in twenty years.
November 1997 the #1 novel in the USA was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.
The bestselling music acts of 1997 included Jewel, Toni Braxton, Puff Daddy, R. Kelly, Spice Girls, Hanson, and Third Eye Blind.
The #1 grossing film was “Titanic” follewed by “Jurassic Park: Lost World” and “Men in Black.”
And, in 1997 Steve Jobs returned as the CEO of Apple, the company he helped launch, after it merged with his company NEXT.
The Beloit College “Mindset List”
Every year Beloit College creates a “Mindset List” which reflects the culture that the incoming Freshman class have grown up experiencing. It helps their faculty know how to relate to these incoming students. Click here for the Mindset List for the graduating class of 2021. (Don’t fail to read the discussion guide that goes along with each observation. Click here.)
I read this list every year and wonder at the speed of our cultural changes.
The college graduating class of 2021 was born in 1999. Think about it …
For the class of 2021 Zappos has always meant shoes on the Internet.
For the class of 2021 eHarmony has always offered an algorithm for happiness.
For the class of 2021 Justin Timberlake has always been a solo act (he will turn 40 the year they graduate).
For the class of 2021 Bill Clinton has always been Hillary Clinton’s aging husband.
For the class of 2021 they are the first generation for whom a “phone” has been primarily a video game, direction finder, electronic telegraph, and research library.
For the class of 2021 they are the last class to be born in the 1900s, the last of the Millennials — enter next year, on cue, Generation Z!
There are 60 observations in this year’s list.
Earlier Mindset Lists illustrate things even more dramatically. For this generation of future readers:
“Star Wars” turned 40-years-old in 2017.
MTV has never featured music videos.
Czechoslovakia has never existed.
They have never used a card catalog to find a book.
Wal-Mart has always been a larger retailer than Sears.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always sat on the Supreme Court.
The Green Giant has always been Shrek, not the big guy picking vegetables.
They have grown up with bottled water.
Operation Desert Shield, aka “The Gulf War” (1990-91) happened almost a decade before they were born.
What does it mean to dial a phone? You push a few buttons on a square pattern.
Google is a verb.
They’ve only known them as a NBA team called the Washington Wizards…not the Washington Bullets.
Smoking has never been allowed on a US airplane flight.
Food packaging has always included nutritional labeling.
Also, for these incoming Freshman, 9/11 happened when they were two years old. Pause for a moment and try to remember what major world changing event occurred when you were two or three? Then ask if it really changed the way you saw the world. Of course it didn’t…you were two. The parents were effected but the student was not. This means we have a new generation of readers who were only tangentially affected by 9/11. If you refer to the “new” war on terror be aware that it is no longer “new”.
Plus if you refer to a disastrous hurricane…remember that Katrina happened in 2005. Sandy was in 2012. Ivan in 2004. Andrew in 1992. Each reference could quickly date your material if you are not careful.
Novels set in the Vietnam War era are now being classified as “historical fiction.”
So, the next time you visualize the audience to which you are writing, realize that they don’t think like you, process information like you, or see the world the same way you do.
With all this change it is comforting to know that our Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
Great post Steve, and yet another reminder that our audience MUST be at the forefront of our thinking when putting a story on the page (or the screen for the graduating class of 2021).
I write contemporary stories, and it’s imperative to filter the level of detail in them, and my phrasing, through this Mindset List. I want to paint a vivid picture of the character’s world, but it can quickly become a historical snapshot without considering the pace of change in the audience world.
As an example: I’ve just read a novel (published recently) which mentioned that taxis were the only way for the character to get home after the last bus. Readers would be wondering why he didn’t just grab an Uber ride home. That story dated before it even hit a bookshelf!
Great point. Taxi vs. Uber or Lyft.
It depends on where the book is set. In NY Uber is everywhere. But in other states they are not allowed to operate. It isn’t a national option in the U.S.
In some cities you can’t be picked up at the airport by Uber or Lyft. But in others you can.
Therefore that story may have been correct as the taxi being the only option.
A few years ago “uber” was a German word that meant “over” or “above”!!
I actually have been wrestling with this specifically in the area of social media. It’s omnipresent in our world today, but I don’t want to even mention it in my novel. The problem with social media is that it changes so rapidly that any mention will be dated as soon as you type the words. I’m trying to figure out a way to use social media in the story without it seeming cliched or dated, and so far the best method seems avoiding it altogether.
And yet if it is a contemporary story avoiding it entirely is a challenge. Maybe the setting determines the involvement.
At the very least the character is likely to have a phone on them. Whether a smart phone or not could say something about the character. (age, economic standing, comfort with tech, etc)
I’m not quite there with novels that try to show text messaging as part of the dialogue. I’ve seen the attempt, but it rarely works.
Thank you for the smiles and this important lesson, Steve. I just blogged about making choices and used the card catalog as a metaphor. I tried to add a few extra descriptions, thinking not everyone has used it before. My daughter being one…
She helps me to be aware of the changing culture. Some of the changes from my school days to hers make her laugh while I just feel old and wonder if this is how my Grandpa felt. “Fox” was a term in my day to describe someone attractive. This one confused her. “Why fox?” I had no answer. She’s informed me “sick” is the new “cool.” She does her homework on a Chrome book. I did mine on wide ruled notebook paper and kept it in a Trapper Keeper…THAT made her laugh hysterically. “Trapper Keeper?!” She thought I was making it up. I was determined to show her I wasn’t by finding one. Unfortunately we found no Trapper Keepers, only binders which is what she said they are called anyway. All of Walmart heard her rubbing it in.
Seriously, thank you for this post. I want to be mindful of my audience. How else can I reach them and keep them reading if they’re too busy rolling their eyes at my dated Trapper Keeper? 🙂
Enjoy the official history of the Trapper Keeper. In an online article posted two months ago:
Thank you, Steve! I had no idea all the work that went into making the Trapper Keeper or their popularity. A trivial pursuit game?! I can’t wait to share this with my daughter to PROVE I’m not making them up and I’m not the only one who loved them.
Oh, and she informed me this morning I was incorrect when I stated yesterday the new Trapper Keepers are called “binders.” She shook her head and said, “You still didn’t get it right, Mom. They’re called Zipper Binders.”
I can’t wait until she has children. 🙂
Barbara Ellin Fox
This is a good warning not to be historical ourselves and it totally lifted my spirits this morning. It also makes me wonder about the other changes I need to discover to continue to communicate with the young people I meet as they move into adulthood. Perception and the way we do things change, but thank God He is on the throne and His truth remains.
Damon J. Gray
Oy! And now that I feel ancient … 😉
I am thankful for God’s unchanging love and mercy. 🙂
Very important subject, Steve, and thanks for going into detail.
I’ve pretty well written off millennials as an audience. A group that thinks George W. Bush killed more people than Stain, and that the First Amendment should not cover speech that offends people is beyond my reach as a writer.
They are the unfortunate product of an educational system that has utterly failed them, and has failed this country.
They’re also being used by an economy that has found that the highest profit comes from selling illusionary achievement and a ghostly social firmament. Sailing the world on their phones, they build gossamer webs of connexion that ultimately lead nowhere, and relationships that flicker briefly in the twittersphere and then die from lack of proximity and the emotional oxygen of sacrifice.
I don’t doubt the millennials’ good hearts, but I do question their ability to function in that large part of the Old World that remains, a place informed and moved by avarice, atavistic ideology, and in which steel and not snowflakes will ultimately prevail. You’ve got to survive to do good, and survival’s not an app.
I’m careful not to lump an entire group (millennials) together.
That can be unfair to those that eschew many of the things mentioned.
Too right, Steve, and I – gratefully – stand corrected.
This reinforces the shifting sand foundation of the world, and the solid rock foundation of God and His church. I’m so thankful I can always trust and know God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Everything else can easily be changed by adopting a ‘fill in the blank’ methodology in our books. Pull out 911 and insert ‘terrorist attack.
Of course, it’s not that simple, but it almost is. In order to keep up with all these details, we would not have time to write our books.
Definitely a good reminder! It’s funny; I had my nineteen-year-old daughter read all my previous manuscripts to check for dated material and phrases, but now she’s twenty-five. She’ll be in an older generation in a few years, too.
Well, fascinating! Thank you! I’m reminded of that verse that says a new Pharaoh Rose and age of 2 didn’t know Joseph. Yes thank God Jesus Christ the same yesterday today and forever. I’m also reminded of an old article about 10 goals to bring communism into this country and I’m old enough to be seeing a lot of them fulfilled in the turmoil of families, schools, churches, Society…
The generation that knew not Joseph.
How about “the generation that never heard of Left Behind!”
or “The Purpose Driven Life”
Sorry, I’m not allowed to edit my Henry marks above. My phone loves to insert its own ideas from time to time.
My twenty year old daughter keeps me cognizant of the way her generation differs from my generation. She helps me see the current way young people think and what is important to them. Even my unfinished manuscripts written in the last three years will need to be refreshed to update them. I’m realizing there is a practical side to keeping their text evergreen in context. That’s a challenge for me because I like to document and add validation in my nonfiction writings. Thanks for the reminder of the way the world and we are changing.
My oldest daughter is dating a boy born in 1999. December 1999, but still. It’s pretty surreal to me. (She was born weeks after 9/11.)
I taught American Government for years and the last couple years before I quit (a year ago), 9/11 was something they barely remembered. They were young elementary kids. I remember the Challenger but not the gas lines or Iran hostages etc of the late 70s.
I feel old… I am getting old… Need to remember that when I write. :p Or find the fountain of youth perhaps ;).
Take heart, Carol. If you can’t remember the late 70s, you’re still young compared to me. As long as two times your age is less than the age at which record-setting old people die, I’d say you’re not even middle aged.
Steve, your post about the difficulties of writing a contemporary novel with broad appeal and extended shelf life makes me very glad I’m writing Roman Empire historical. I’ve had to do a lot of research into life at the peak of the Empire, but that’s led to a history website as my main platform. Because contemporary American society and Imperial Rome are different in many ways, I do include a historical note at the back of each novel on something in the culture that underpins the conflict. There are new archeological discoveries all the time, but at least the fundamentals remain constant.
Goodreads lets you track the ages of the people who read/review your novel, and I’ve seen that I have everything from millennials to folks who are 65+. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be the case if I were writing contemporary.
It is sad to think writing has to be geared to the
The “classics,” are as
interesting now as when
they were written, and
enjoyed by generations
Let’s make sure I’m completely understood.
I’m not saying we need to write “geared to the ‘now’ generation.” I’m saying that if we are hoping to communicate clearly we need to be aware of those things that can prevent our work from being timeless. In fact if it is written for the “now” generation is will be dated when read by the “next” generation!
In the example at the top of the post. The reader said the principles were timeless. But the way it was written made the overall work feel dated.
In the case of that particular non-fiction book, there may not have been any other way to write it at the time.
Steve, I have a suggestion for people working on the comps and audience portions of their proposals. After they identify comp titles, they can go to Goodreads and click on the names of the people who have rated, added, or indicated they plan to read the comp novel. The age, gender, and location info can give a snapshot of the audience appeal of novels similar to their own.
Great idea. There are many ways to use things like that to help gauge the right readership for your work.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Thank you so much for that information, Steve. I didn’t realize that using references like that would date a piece, but you make a superb point.
Brennan S. McPherson
As a man born in 1991, I have the same problem in reverse: my readership is largely 50-soemething conservative Christian females. Though I have a very conservative view of the Scriptures, hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, and study it very seriously, I’ve been horrified and surprised to find just how differently older generations view the Bible. It seems, by some of the response I’ve gotten from older female readers, that we easily get into patterned thinking as we age, and view our cultural beliefs as holding the same level of importance as actual prophecy. It’s dangerous to become too comfortable. Good reminder for us all to push back at that state of comfort and strive to be understanding and inclusive rather than easily offended and reclusive.
Thanks for the reminder that God doesn’t change. That’s something we can rejoice and be thankful for.
It boggles the mind to think, not only of the rapidity of change in our world now, but in the volume of information pouring into our minds, hearts and souls. This only underscores the need for good writing that helps us keep our feet on the ground and our minds on the Lord! Thanks for this post, Steve. Will be linking to it on my Facebook page. (and as an aside, my millenial gen daughter recently said, “Oh mom Facebook is so yesterday!” 😉
How do we avoid this in a memoir.