Only Connect: Social (Media) Anxiety

Like a lot of the people I know these days who grew up wanting to be writers, I learned how to write by reading the Internet. I graduated from college with a degree in capital-L Literature, but by the time I was 23, my major sources of inspiration were blogs and online fiction magazines. I found my voice (or at least a voice) by imitating bloggers no one had ever heard of, and publishing on websites few people would ever read. This suited me -- I liked the isolated weirdness of writing into the infinite void of the web. It didn’t matter to me that no one answered back. Some time between then and now, businesses with real money caught on to writing on the Internet, discovered it could be made scaleable, and everything changed. For many of my writer friends, this change was a net positive. Suddenly there was money in writing; in some cases, lots of it. The possibility of a “piece” going viral also meant the possibility of a job for pay at a real publication, or a book deal, or a mention in The New York Times, or any number of other writerly blessings. At the same time, wanting to make a career in letters and not being on Twitter and Facebook -- that is, not wanting to share your work constantly with the strangers you met on airplanes and in restaurants and people you hadn’t seen since seventh grade -- became the equivalent of not actually wanting to be a writer at all. For extroverts and writers with surplus self-assurance this didn't pose a problem. For those of us drawn to writing because it was the one job that wouldn’t require us to talk to people regularly, it was a nightmare. “Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life,” wrote Leon Wieseltier last month in his call to arms against the threat technology poses to humanism. “Among the Disrupted” sparked a heated debate among its readers, or at least, as heated as can reasonably be expected in the letters section of the New York Times Book Review. As one critic pointed out, there are plenty of more urgent issues for all of us to ponder, child poverty and the pay gap among them. What struck me, though, wasn’t the essay’s hyperbole, but the inaccuracy of its target. The problem facing writers now isn’t the growing prominence of tech, but the question of how deeply the two fields are intertwined, and what that relationship means. Most of the notable works of fiction published in recent years (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven spring immediately to mind) present thoughtful considerations of the evolving relationship between the self and technology, and a lot of the people who read these books probably read them on the Kindle app. The same people who subscribe to Harpers read work published by the Atavist and curated by Longform. I’m writing right now in the notepad app on my iPhone, and you’re reading on your computer or your iPad or your own phone. How many writers do you know at this point who don’t have their own websites, Tumblrs, or blogs? For that matter, how many do you know who aren’t on Twitter? Still, it’s true that while the Internet augmented journalism, creating jobs for newcomers and inventing new forms for them to occupy, it didn’t do the same for fiction. Atavist Books confirmed last fall that it would no longer be taking new submissions, and Byliner was folded into Vook last September. Amazon’s e-books are popular, but more innovative forms of digital literature don’t seem to be. Meanwhile, more and more often, walking into library near the office building where I work in Los Angeles feels like walking into a museum. Untouched contemporary novels line the shelves, positions unchanged. The few people in the reading room are, to a person, on laptops or on their phones. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End. We’ve taken his directive and run with it, to the point where we talk about disconnecting -- going off Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, whatever -- in the same wistful tones we once used to talk about going on vacation. Social media, like literary fiction, allows us briefly, to inhabit a consciousness outside our own: on Facebook, we experience the highs and lows of strangers in real time through the same lens of authenticity that marks work by writers like Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti. If these platforms give every one of us both an audience and a show on demand, at any given moment, and for free, then what is there left for fiction to do? Curious about how all of this was affecting those most likely to suffer from its consequences, I reached out to novelists in my Twitter timeline to find out what they thought about the role of social media -- specifically Twitter -- in their own writing lives. I expected all three of them to share my own anxieties -- my view of the world has more in common with Wieseltier’s than I am, perhaps, ready to accept -- and I was surprised when not one of them did. Roxane Gay contributes reviews and cultural criticism to high-profile outlets regularly, edits multiple literary journals, and works as a professor at Purdue. She tweets prolifically to her 54,000 and counting followers, and engages with many of them directly. Last year, her essay collection, Bad Feminist, and her novel, An Untamed State, both dropped at the same time, to widespread acclaim. “Many of my essays begin as conversations on Twitter, where I am thinking through something that’s happening in our culture,” Gay wrote me, adding that she uses Twitter “to be alone while feeling less lonely.” “Ninety percent of the time,” Gay wrote, “I'm having delightful conversations and interactions on Twitter. There's little to dislike.” Amelia Gray, author of Threats and the forthcoming Gutshot, responded that Twitter “has been more beneficial to my creativity than most theory,” adding, “It’s a little corner of the world that is a pure ball-pit.” She went on, “My tweets and my fiction ideally share the same precision. They share a sense of character too, though rarely the same character. I use different social media towards different ends, and in that way I have different Internet personas and also a real persona which is different here and there.” Porochista Khakpour is an essayist and fiction writer and the author of, most recently, The Last Illusion. Last year one of her tweets caught the attention of Slate, landing her timeline a mention in The New York Times Book Review. She often writes, more or less jokingly (I think?), about being enslaved to Twitter, but when I wrote to ask her about the relationship between the site and her work, she wrote back, “I think I am beneficial and destructive to my own creativity and ability to be productive. I am the problem!” She described her relationship to Twitter as, “Love/hate, but tbh mostly love. And we all know love hurts, love bleeds, love kills, love is a battlefield, etc.” A blogger friend of mine once called social media a loneliness eliminator and I have to admit that definition makes me uneasy. What about those of us who like being lonely? What if loneliness is, in some ways, necessary? It’s true though, that, soon enough, this conversation will likely be irrelevant. Twitter and Facebook will dissolve into the digital slurry, only to be replaced by some other technology as incomprehensible to us as texting once was to our grandparents. Consider Vine, currently churning out new waves of celebrities that no one over 27 has ever heard of. Maybe six-second videos will become the new Twitter, which is the new Facebook, which was the new books. Or maybe, by this time next year, we’ll be having this same conversation about yet another new technology we can never remember how we lived without. Meanwhile, as these writers make clear, fiction writers will continue to adapt, and books, while they may be still hanging on by a thread, will hang on nonetheless. Something I’m starting to suspect is that it’s everything I worry will make books obsolete -- their slowness, the investment of time they require, and their inability to do anything other than the singular purpose for which they’ve been created -- that has allowed them to survive for this long. Social media lends itself best to chronicling discrete instances: bursts of anger, flashes of surprise. Built on the notion, even on a micro scale, of constant disruption, our feeds and streams can’t cohere for long enough to bleed seamlessly into one another the way actual sentences do. Twitter and Facebook are great for quick blasts of dopamine or adrenaline, but not for creating sustained waves of happiness or fear or maintaining the kind of cumulative tension upon which good stories rely. “Only connect!” Forster wrote, but he also wrote, “Live in fragments no longer.” Human experience is like a Georges Seurat in that it only comes into focus the further away you get from it. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram regurgitate the present back to us in easily manageable pieces that delight, spark envy, disdain, boredom, revulsion, or inspiration. What they can’t do, however, is take a wider scope. Its novels we depend on to reorganize those scattered fragments into something whole. Image Credit: Pixabay.

Unhappy Trails: Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution

When she was seventeen, Deb Olin Unferth trailed her boyfriend into Central America to join a revolution. Any revolution. They ran out of money, and so they came home. “I was eighteen. That’s the whole story,” Unferth tells us. This is not the whole story, and we know this because we are only two pages into a 224-page book. The revolution winds up serving as the backdrop for a different kind of war, the one between the author and George, the philosophy major she fell for as a freshman at a “large state school in a large state. “ George is mysterious, magnetic, incapable of genuine human interaction. Unferth convinces herself that he is a genius and affixes herself to him with a love that borders on veneration. It’s this infatuation, and not concern for the fate of Latin America’s children that compels her to leave school to take a volunteer job at an orphanage caught in the middle of warring El Salvadorian military forces. After Unferth gets them banished from the orphanage because she won’t wear a bra, they hitchhike through a series of ravaged countries, running out of money and falling out of love and not wanting to admit to either one. With Revolution: the Year I Fell In Love and Went to Join the War, Unferth accomplishes what a lot of writers wish they could, completing a book that establishes her as a literary light and also serves as a settling of scores after a relationship that veered madly off course. The whole score-settling aspect of things is more complicated than I’m giving it credit for here, but the fact remains that there are a lot of reasons to write a memoir and one of them is to give yourself the chance to live history again, this time with all the events that matter solidly under your control. Revisiting her early twenties gives Unferth the agency she didn’t have back then, and it’s this tension between the Unferth of now—two well-received works of fiction, a professorship at the Wesleyan University, a star on the Believer walk of fame—and the Unferth of 1987—knobbly, insecure, the type of person who will follow her boyfriend into war-torn territory because it doesn’t occur to her not to—that becomes the axis around which Revolution spins. This conceit is risky, and it wouldn’t work at all if Unferth weren’t so likeable. But she is, so it does, so much so that by the end of the book, the reader replaces her as the stricken lover, willing to follow her anywhere she wants us to go. Unferth and George lead us through Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador and Nicaragua, interviewing priests, politicians and civilians and recording the interviews on tape. They never listen to the tapes and later, when she begins to understand the level of carnage at work at the time, Unferth gets a “sick feeling of knowledge.” A parade of massacres was happening before their eyes, and, she confesses to us, she had no clue. As she recalls her earnest, bewildered march across Central America, she takes jabs at herself and the other expatriates on extended vacations in countries they have no business in.  In Managua, she meets a troop of traveling Canadian jugglers traipsing their way through Nicaragua. “Imagine. We were walking across their war, juggling. We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats….The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet.” Moments like this one save Revolution from the narcissism that could so easily disable this particular species of memoir.  The current version of Unferth, the one narrating the story, reads about her younger self along with us, judging her pratfalls and mistakes before we can. We’re free to watch as Unferth wrestles her early twenties into novelistic elements: exposition, climax, epiphany, logical conclusion. Of course, reality isn’t shaped like that, and this is something the author knows, and seems bent on making sure we know, too. She circles her narrative back in on itself, calling into question her own account of the truth.  What she’s going for here isn’t accuracy so much as faith. Alongside her remembered version of the story, she offers her mother’s comments and notes from her journal, always allowing for the idea that things didn’t happen the way she’s telling us now, that maybe some of it never happened at all. This reordering of history results in a formidable deconstruction of the genre, a subtle but effective response to state-of-the-form manifestos like Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir and David Shields’ Reality Hunger. The writing here is visceral. We feel it when a horde of tiny flesh eating bugs takes residence under the author’s skin, or when the sun threatens to smother her while she sleeps in a metal-roofed hostel. Her description of the unforgiving landscape mirrors her evolution as a writer, as she finds herself playing out a fate she didn’t plan. She doesn’t, she discovers too late, particularly want to be part of the revolution but she trucks gamely along, long after she’s admitted to herself that can’t explain why she’s there.  Later, she does the same thing as a fiction writer, teaching composition at too many universities while the rejection slips pile up and her parents wonder what they did wrong. Of course, it all works out in the end but here, Unferth shares with us that point in her life when nothing is working out, when she has no inkling that it ever will. Her candor is what keeps us with her as she returns, many years later, to Central America by herself, trying and failing to recapture something she can’t name. “Why would this trip mean so much that I’d have to keep going back to find it?” she asks. What compels us to rewrite the past? To turn life into something meaningful instead of absurd? Near the end of the book, Unferth attempts to find George, whom she hasn’t spoken to in decades. For the sake of the story, of course, she hires a private detective to search him out, and what she discovers first disappoints and then delights her. While her trips back to El Salvador and Nicaragua fail to bring the back the past the way she wants them to, in George she discovers that the thready, magnificent days of her youth are still alive. George’s fate offers her the same revelation we experience as we make our way through her careful memories: it is possible to trammel our histories. The past is right there, waiting for someone to come along and put it into words.