This morning between phone calls with clients and preparing amended tax returns, I was thinking about things that distract you when you are reading a novel. They don't necessarily have anything to do with the novel, but they catch your attention and bother you, preventing you from suspending your disbelief.
I'm not an expert on early childhood education, but I'm pretty sure there is nothing exceptional about an eight-year-old that knows the alphabet. In fact, if that is all the eight-year-old knows it is time for some special reading instruction. I couldn't care less how smart the kid in the story was or wasn't, but the fact that the author made such a show of stating that the boy was very smart, her evidence being that he knew something most kids learn in kindergarten, just drove me crazy. In fact, it's been five or ten years since I read it, and not only is that the only thing I remember about the novel, but it still annoys me.
A major thing that can be distracting in novels now is the presence of modern technology or lack thereof. This is a real challenge because technology changes so quickly whereas publishing takes an eternity and books can stay on the shelves for a while.
When I went away to college I spoke all sorts of local slang that I had picked up in high school. I toned it down to fit in with my college crowd, and when I returned home and talked with an old school friend I could barely understand her. It wasn't merely that my vocabulary had changed, but that hers had dramatically changed. This all occurred over a span of less than a year.
Technology takes the rapid changes in teen culture and makes it even more obvious. For example, who uses myspace? (Yes, I know musicians still use it. I'm talking about regular people.) If a character hangs out on myspace because a book was written in 2007, it is completely out of date by 2009, about the time it might hit the shelves. A teenager sees that the author thinks myspace is the place to be and tosses the book down in disgust.
It's tempting to set books back a few decades to when technology was more stable. New innovations like microwaves, computers, and cordless phones didn't necessarily change the way people interacted on a daily basis. With the Internet, cell phones, and now smart phones we have made a broad shift in our social interactions.
In fact, Sherlock does a great job incorporating modern technology into the storyline. It's great fun now while it's still fresh, but I imagine five years down the road people will watch it and laugh the same way we do when Richard Gere in Pretty Woman pulls out a cell phone the size of a brick.
What do you think? Are there any things in novels that have distracted you from enjoying the story? Do you think that authors should back-date their novels or make them strangely timeless to avoid technology shifts from distracting readers?