Last night I went to see a play which first saw the light of... day? lighting rig?... back in the 1960s. Not that I saw it then, you understand. Of course not. I was too busy not being born/playing with dolls/studying for exams at high school (delete as you feel appropriate.)
Anyway, my point is, that play has now become a period piece; the set was littered with ‘60s icons like colourful beanbags, early Bond movie posters, a chirrupy phone and one of those uncomfortable leather couches with a button-back. And the equally iconic pre-curtain and scene-link music... suffice to say I almost became that woman who knows all the words and sings along.
The train of thought it set in motion was, in fiction terms, where does contemporary end and historical begin?
It depends who you ask. At a weekend workshop I attended several aeons ago, someone suggested history was anything earlier than midnight last night. I had a problem with that even then. According to the Ellis Peters Award, the UK’s leading historical mystery prize, it’s thirty-five years before that year’s closing date, which, if my arithmetic gene is working, comes out at the late 1970s at the moment. That makes more sense.
When I was publishing, I steered clear of anything post-1960s and pre-whatever year we were in. This was partly because I have a problem with calling my own lifetime history, but mainly for marketing reasons. Ask any bookseller where they shelve a book set in 1998.
In fact, when we were starting out and ran an X-Factor-style contest to find our launch titles (do you have X-Factor in the US?) one of the finalists was rejected purely on that basis: it was one of the best of the bunch: well-written, tightly plotted, with great characters and... you get the picture; but it was set in the 1990s, for reasons which made it impossible to rework into the 2000s.
But I’m now beginning to wonder if, as a marketing strategy, this is becoming outdated. The speed of progress seems to be increasing exponentially; my three-year-old laptop is practically an antique. And the publishing world has changed out of all recognition, even in the two years or so since I moved on. In my last year at the helm of a small indie, eBooks accounted for such a tiny proportion of the big companies’ sales that little guys like me could afford to ignore them. Today, the UK’s last remaining bookshop chain has reported an operating loss of many millions; add that to the way indie bookshops continue to tumble like dominoes and look for a cause, and the answer has to be... eBooks.
And the assault of technology on the book trade must have had an effect on the average age of readers. The reading demographic used to be something of a mantra. How did it go? Eighty per cent of books are bought by women between the ages of forty-five and seventy; and eighty per cent of library members are over sixty. I don’t know how accurate that was, but someone must have gone to the trouble of studying the marketplace, so surely there was some truth in it.
But now that so much reading is done not from a thick chunk of paper you keep in your backpack, but from a gadget you carry in your pocket, are those numbers changing? I know a lot of 60-plus people who have an aversion to gadgets, but I can’t think of a single acquaintance under 40 who doesn’t carry a mobile phone. To be fair, a lot of those over-60s do too, and some of them even own e-readers; but the level of resistance to technology does seem to rise in proportion with age.
I’m sure I’ll get lots of protests along the lines of ‘My 90-year-old mother is part of an online poker syndicate, and Skypes me every day from her iPad’; I’m equally sure that mother exists, and more power to her. All I’m saying is she’s not in the majority among her age group. My point is that the marriage of reading and technology has given reading a new spin, indeed a new buzz, which possibly makes it more appealing to younger generations.
Which, in turn, means that history can begin more recently than thirty-five years ago. To me, a play set in the 1960s doesn’t quite qualify as period drama. To someone born in the 1990s, 1980 is a whole different world.