Listen to the author read this piece: [audio: issue3/syms.mp3]
When my short story “Jenna on Twitter” was published by Joyland Magazine last year, I was pretty pleased with myself. It’s a story about a woman with a crush on a gay male singer who fantasizes while watching his YouTube videos. She uses her iPhone to impersonate another gay man on Twitter, tweeting and exchanging Direct Messages in order to connect with her rock star. Part of the text is based on my own actual Twitter conversations with a queer vocalist. To write the piece, I integrated the genre of the short story with the short form of social media—how clever and innovative!
I’m poking a bit of fun at myself in saying that. But as a frequent reviewer, I’ve noticed in the past year that many others were having similar thoughts. Though the relationship between interactive digital media and literary fiction occasionally feels contentious, blending online communication mechanisms with the short-story medium is quickly becoming a staple of modern CanLit.
It’s widely seen as de rigueur for any writer to have an “online platform,” and authors at all levels of renown are flocking to Twitter. Meanwhile, of course, the number of online literary venues, such as the highly stylized story curator LittleFiction.com, the newly emergent tablet-only Toronto Tempest and the TRB itself, only continues to grow.
Yet, even given the ongoing supremacy battles between Facebook and Google Plus, does it make sense to make either central to a short story? “Avoid over-reliance on au courant references in your writing,” my first writing teacher advised. It’s a fair point—stories that mention Hall & Oates or Atari or Usenet quickly become dated. By the time your fiction collection is published, both brands may have gone the way of the Betamax. Or VHS, for that matter.
Nevertheless, from poking and +1ing to tweeting and sexting, digital media is an inescapable aspect of how lives are lived today, and it influences who, what, where, why and how we read—and write. As a result, more and more authors are not only invoking emails and iPads and Instagram and eBay in their work, but they’re also integrating the interactive conventions of online tools into their stories.
In Rebecca Rosenblum’s recent collection The Big Dream, the linked tales about co-workers at a magazine are interspersed with the texts of their interdepartmental emails. Sometimes the emails convey information that complements the plots of individual stories. Other times they function as surreal prose poems whose language contributes to Rosenblum’s depiction of the corporate environment as claustrophobic, controlled and unnatural.
Still, as any emailer knows, just because your message is written and delivered doesn’t mean you’ll get one in return. Zoe Whittall’s story “This Just Isn’t Working Out,” published in This Magazine and posted on this.org, uses one-way email communications to chronicle a set of strained relationships. Small-town Mary’s work and domestic crises are revealed via notes she types to her Toronto friend Katie.
We never see any responses to these increasingly terse missives, though Katie does consent to reciprocate Mary’s Facebook friend request. Does Katie friending Mary back compensate for an otherwise awkward silence? Or is the elision of Katie’s voice from the narrative simply an authorial strategy intended to emphasize the isolation and despair of Mary, a character whose behaviour becomes increasingly sociopathic as the story progresses?
For many people, the curious blend of quasi-anonymity and perceived celebrity of the blog world is powerfully attractive. This pull is humorously explored in two recent stories, Greg Kearney’s “Do You Want to Burn to Death and Look Like Steak with Hair” from his collection Pretty, and Jessica Westhead’s “And Also Sharks,” the title story from her recent collection.
“And Also Sharks” takes the form of what may be the world’s longest reply to a blog post. The unnamed commenter offers online validation to the blogger behind Planet Janet, who doles out daily opinions to her audience as an antidote to personal self-esteem challenges. Kearney’s satirical “…Steak with Hair” serves up a month’s worth of blog posts from the keyboard of Helene Savant, a cancer survivor and recovering prescription-pill addict on the rebound from marriage to a pedophile. In addition to the offbeat storyline, the narrative is structured to resemble an online blog, in that entries appear in chronological order from most to least recent.
The literary use of reverse chronology is not necessarily new, having been notably deployed by writers ranging from novelists Martin Amis and Phillip K. Dick to the Roman poet Virgil. But it’s a strategy that resonates for readers immersed in the world of Tumblr and Blogger, mySpace and Pinterest – a realm of experience in which the most recent events are the most accessible, and those seeking deeper context must dig back in time for clues like modern digital archaeologists.
In 2010, celebrated author and critic Zadie Smith announced her rejection of Facebook in the New York Review of Books. She accused the service of encouraging superficiality in human exchanges, and also differentiated her own use of text messaging—“heavily punctuated, fully expressive, standard English sentences”—from a perceived norm. Despite making some snobbish assumptions, Smith raises questions regarding the impact of digital communication on our exchanges of emotions and ideas. Yet similar concerns were raised about the emergence of the analog telephone system in decades past as well. Sociologist Peter Berger, for instance, argued that the medium’s inherent “impersonality” would “almost certainly” affect other realms of interpersonal engagement as well, not unlike Smith’s dubious suggestion that Facebook may render other forms of human interaction “slickly disingenuous.”
Digital communication and online social engagement are part of the world of many literary writers today—and these forms inevitably influence our work. But new short fiction that experiments with the integration of online form and content is as much about continuity as it is about change. While tweets and emails as part of a literary narrative may seem fresh and exciting to some us for, they are simply part of a historical continuum. For instance, Zoe Whittall’s “This Just Isn’t Working Out” tells a unique story in an original way, but its epistolary mode is part of a longstanding tradition that includes Fyodor Dostoevsky and Bram Stoker.
The recent work of writer Megan Stielstra is an emblematic example of the hybridity that characterizes new short work infused with online elements. Although Stielstra is based in the U.S. her debut book, Everyone Remain Calm, was published by an alliance between two Canadian entities, Joyland and ECW Books. The book is only available electronically, which lends visibility and a means of distribution that flout international borders. In the collection’s captivating short story “I Am the Keymaster,” Stielstra’s protagonist uses a distinctly digital mechanism—Craigslist—to approach a thoroughly corporeal problem—a need to secure affordable birth-control pills.
Many literary authors today actively traverse the boundaries between static creative writing and fluid literary discourse, while publishers too are helping expand choices between the turn of the printed page and the online realm of interactive colloquy. In addition to Joyland’s digital-only imprint, more and more Canadian literary presses—from Coach House Books and Cormorant to House of Anansi and ECW—are making electronic books. What’s more, Canadian authors, such as YA writer Nichole McGill, are reserving electronic-publishing rights to their own manuscripts and releasing and distributing their own eBooks.
Virtually every writer mentioned in this essay is highly active on Twitter, Facebook, or both, promoting their work but also engaging in conversations with the world at large. As a medium, Twitter is also being increasingly used to publish serialized short fiction and micropoetry—witness the #TuesdaySerial hashtag and emergence of variant poetic forms like #twiku, and 140-character literary journals such as @escarp for poetry or @nanoism for flash fiction. So while for now we watch as tweets and texts infiltrate Canadian short stories, the future promises an even greater fusion of online communication methods with traditional storytelling.
Discussed in this essay:
Pretty by Greg Kearney. Exile Editions, 2011
“Generation Why?” by Zadie Smith. New York Review of Books, Nov 24, 2010
“Jenna on Twitter” by Shawn Syms. Joyland Magazine, Jan 4, 2011