Status Updates: Short Fiction in the Age of Facebook

Status Updates – Short Fiction in the Age of Facebook

By Anne O’Neill

Of all the literary forms I believe the short story to be one of the jewels in the crown. Storytelling in one form or other is hardwired into our human discourse. It is a way for us to shape the telling of our personal histories and to imagine possibilities ‘that would enchant, terrify, enthral, admonish, titillate’ and entertain. The informal oral tradition of storytelling only became one of the great 20th century art forms when the advent of inexpensive publishing technology was coupled with the rise of middle-class literacy in the 19th century. This gave rise to mass market general interest magazines and periodicals which serviced the new reading public’s desires and preferences. This new medium provided a forum for a piece of short fiction in the five to fifty page range and writers like Hawthorne, Poe and Turgenev rose to this challenge and began to write classic and timeless short stories for this market. The novel still held sway in mid 19th century Britain even after the influential story ‘The Two Drovers’ was published by Walter Scott in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827; a literary text that inspired George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in Britain, Balzac in France, Pushkin and Turgenev in Russia and Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne in America. In fact the true beginnings of the short story, has been laid at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s door with his publication of Twice-Told Tales in 1837. When Edgar Allen Poe read Hawthorne he made the first real analysis of the form with his simple definition of the short story as a narrative that “can be read in one sitting.” He also encapsulates the ability of short fiction to become more resonant and memorable than its length might dictate. A short story written “with care and skill” is like “a picture painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”

It is generally agreed by literary critics that Anton Chekov (1860-1904) is the greatest short story writer ever. William Boyd in his essay A Short History Of The Short Story states that the simple reason for this is that Chekhov, in his mature stories of the 1890’s “revolutionised the short story by revolutionising narrative.” Chekhov’s stories introduced a fictional style that corresponded with the random, inexplicable and sometimes agonising lives we all lead. He abandoned the old authorial manipulation of a story for one not striving for a climax and with characters who spoke for themselves without censure or praise. His cool, unflinching, dispassionate attitude to the human condition resounds in writers as diverse as William Trevor and Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, Muriel Spark and Alice Munroe.

As research for my dissertation I began to explore how literary forms, especially that of the short story, have been fashioned at times by technological advances and consequently have seen their popularity ebb and flow with the vagaries of evolving media. In the 1920’s, magazines like The Saturday Evening Post provided outlets for stories by writers like F.Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton. In one instance Fitzgerald was paid 4000 dollars for a story and the writer John Updike in the 1950’s made the declaration that a writer could support his family through selling four or five stories a year to the New Yorker. There was a steep decline in the 1960’s of magazine and periodical sales as consumers switched to television for entertainment and news interest and short stories became consigned to the more rarefied pages of literary journals whose publication was more seasonal. It appeared that Guy Debord’s philosophical analysis in 1968 in his work The Society of The Spectacle was prescient and that the first generation of screens had hypnotised the world and led to a decline in reading and writing. In Debord’s words: “When the real world changes into simple images, simple images become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behavior. The spectacle as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs.”

The rise of new media over the last two decades has been facilitated by the extraordinary rise of the internet. I am interested in the effect that social media has on us as human beings; on our ability to market ourselves through our status updates on Facebook; in the notion that this new aid to sociability is in fact a tool for further modern alienation. Mark Dery describes this well when he talks about how the subcultural practices of the “incurably informed, to borrow the cyberpunk novelist Pat Cadigan’s coinage, offer a precognitive glimpse of mainstream culture in the near future, when many of us will be part-time residents in virtual communities.” The advent of the second wave of screens most notably the home computer and tablet reading devices has actually launched an epidemic of writing that has continued to swell. “The amount of time people spend reading has tripled since 1980; by 2008 more than a trillion pages were added to the World Wide Web, and this grows by several billion a day.” The growth in blogs and personal websites has made authors of us all. Perhaps Roland Barthes declaration that the author is dead has some resonance, as the author is now ubiquitous and is now an everyman. Today our lives are illuminated by some five billion digital screens and words have migrated from woodpulp to pixels on computers, phones, laptops, e-readers and tablets. Technology gave rise to the flowering of the short story, then to its decline and now, in my opinion, with the new reading devices, is again solving the problem of connecting readers with stories.

Web connected devices like the iPhone and the iPad are the ideal vehicles for mobile consumption of short fiction- in a time poor environment the human need to read stories can be satisfied in a bank queue, train journey, even on a treadmill. In the last two years there has been a growing number of apps for mobile devices where short stories can be downloaded and read on the go. “Ether Books was launched as a dedicated mobile phone short story-only publisher in April 2010. The indie launched with a rather starry list—including Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell and Lionel Shriver—publishing initially for the iPhone but with plans this year to start supporting both BlackBerry and Android handset.”

Literature and digital media seem to be unlikely bedfellows and I am extremely interested in their evolving relationship. I am also a keen observer of man as a social animal, in the changes wrought on the individual and on society by our interaction with new media and technology. Nancy K. Bahm’s book Personal Connections in the Digital Age struck a chord with me as she explores in depth the seismic effects that new media are having in our interpersonal and societal relationships. She remarks in the closing chapter that when she looks at “how quickly and effectively people took over networks of digital signals that were never meant for sociability in the service of our need to connect” it makes her “optimistic that we will navigate our way through innovation without losing hold of one another.” . I have always enjoyed authors who were chroniclers of their age and time and who have the ability to capture this truth on the page. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories and novels drew heavily on personal experiences and reverberate with an elegiac sense of lost opportunities, regret and disintegration most notably in Tender is the Night. His writing tends to orbit around a constellation of ideas about social stratification and class relations and about power relations between the sexes. He chronicles the ebullient optimism of the jazz age, most notably in The Great Gatsby, and together with his wife Zelda was one of its decadent devotees. As a young couple they cut a legendary swathe through New York City: their beauty, style and glamour combined with their drunken antics made them instant celebrities. He once advised a young Radcliffe Student on becoming a writer to “sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique, which it takes to learn. When in short, you have only your emotions to sell.”

I think that Fitzgerald’s ability to be the voice of his generation and chronicle the world around him as he saw it with all its flaws and imperfections has made his writing endure and remain relevant. Kevin Barry is a new voice in Irish Fiction who writes dark, blackly hilarious and realistic narratives. His short story ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ won the Sunday Time’s award last year and having seen him give a very animated reading at a literary festival I began to read his work most notably the short story collections Dark Lies the Island and There are Little Kingdoms. Barry is able to breathe life into characters and make them engaging to the reader; amateur ale enthusiasts on a beer trip to Wales when portrayed by Barry become “sweet, funny and unexpectedly moving.”

All the characters in my piece, Status Updates are part-time residents of the virtual world and all are users of the social networking site Facebook. I wanted to give all my characters an actual Facebook account and this involved creating an email address for all of them and subsequently creating a Facebook profile complete with a carefully selected profile picture. This was instrumental in helping me to visualise the characters as I had to select a pictorial representation for each one of them from a stockpile of photos. This helped me to imagine their physical attributes as well as sartorial style and aided me in creating characters that are believable and textured. This existence of my characters on the social network Facebook as well as on the page added a post-modern twist to my creation. Some are new users, like Nora Rooney, struggling to engage with the new medium, others like Michael Moloney and Una Barry use Facebook to the point of obsession. When I was contemplating some aspect of modern life and of our times to write about for the dissertation, I realised the advent of social media and the use of status updates on Facebook would provide the ideal fodder for fiction. I had read a book by Daniel Miller Tales from Facebook where the author as an anthropologist had explored the impact of social networking sites upon the lives of their users. He writes about his native Trinidadians and the true tales reveal how Facebook can become the means by which people find and cultivate relationships but can also be instrumental in breaking up marriages.

This second person narrative as described by Andrew Seal gives the sense that “the author is wiser than his or her protagonist, but only by a bit, only enough for a limited evaluation of their actions and emotions. This often-vanishing margin of omniscience is, of course, captivating, taking you close enough to the characters to feel with them, to allow you to project your feelings onto them, but far enough away that you don’t need to feel their sentiments projected onto you.” Bret Easton Ellis also employed this technique in his seminal eighties tome Bright Lights, Big City. When I read this novel at the time I felt almost hypnotised by the voice and felt that I was also on this cocaine and alcohol fuelled tour through the late night drinking denizens of New York City. When I reread it armed with a critical eye I realised that this intimacy with the anti-hero and his odyssey into hedonism is achieved by Ellis’s use of the second-person point of view. It was almost like the use of You instead of He, She or I helps to fuse the reader’s identity with that of the protagonist and enhances the reader’s experience. “You have travelled from the course of the night from the meticulous to the slime. The girl with the shaved head has a scar tatooed on her scalp.” It is a point of view that is ideally suited to describe a character like Michael Maloney, who is on the threshold of psychosis, contemplating suicide in an early house in Dublin. “You slink back to your seat, navigating your way carefully past the shamanic student whose arms and legs are flailing in all directions…” In this manner there is an intertextual relationship between Ellis’s character in Bright Lights Big City with the character Michael Maloney in Status Updates. In fact I had just finished re-reading Bright Lights Big City before I wrote the story of Michael Maloney and obviously Ellis’s protagonist and point of view became a major influence on its development. James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the most celebrated and influential example of intertextuality in modern literature, the use of the Odyssey as a structural device gave the travails of the modern world the gravitas of the ancient one. According to David Lodge “there are many ways by which one text can refer to another: parody, pastiche, echo, allusion, direct quotation, structural parallelism. Some theorists believe that intertextuality is the very condition of literature, that all texts are woven from the tissues of other texts, whether their authors know it or not.” I found it interesting to emulate another writer’s style and that echoes of other works resonate through all fiction.

We all inhabit this brave new world of technology and it has become part of the fabric of our modern lives. I have written about characters who engage with this technology, I have used Facebook to write fiction. The recent launch of apps featuring the poetry and plays of Shakespeare, an app dedicated to The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot as well as a string of new apps featuring short fiction, shows that technology and literature can prosper in unison. “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

Footnotes
1 William Boyd, ‘A short history of the short story’, Prospect, July (2006) <http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/william-boyd-short-history-of-the-short-story/> [28th August 2012]
2 Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Twice Told Tales – A Review’, Graham’s Magazine, April, (1842) <http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/nhpoea.html > [15th August 2012]
3 Ibid
4 William Boyd, ‘A short history of the short story’, Prospect, July (2006) <http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/william-boyd-short-history-of-the-short-story/> [28th August 2012]
5 Debord, Guy ‘Society Of The Spectacle’ (England: Soul Bay Press Ltd, 2009) pg. 18
6 Lister, Martin; Dovey, Jon; Giddings, Seth; Grant, Iain; Kelly, Kieran, ‘New Media – A Critical Introduction’ 2nd Edition (UK: Routledge, 2009)
7Kelly, Kevin, ‘Reading in a Whole New Way’ July – August (2010) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/40th-anniversary/Reading-in-a-Whole-New-Way.html (6th September 2012)
8 Wood Felicity, ‘Digital focus: short and sweet’, The Bookseller, February, (2011) <http://www.thebookseller.com/feature/digital-focus-short-and-sweet.html > (6th September 2012)
9 Baym, Nancy K., ‘Personal Connections in the Digital Age – Digital Media and Society Series’ (USA: Poilty Press, 2011) p. 155
10 Bernays, Anne and Paineter, Pamela ‘What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers’, 2ndEdition (USA: Pearson Longman, 2004) p.39
11Andrew Seal, ‘Bright Lights Big City’, Blographia Literaria, March (2008) < http://www.blographia-literaria.com/2008/03/bright-lights-big-city-by-jay-mcinerney.html> (8th September 2012)
12 McInerney, Jay. Vintage Books: Bright Lights Big City [Kindle] Retrieved from Amazon.com
13 Lodge, David, ‘The Art of Fiction’ (England: Penguin Books, 1992) p.98 – 99
14 Mandy Stovicek, ‘English writing and literature for the future’ (2012) (15th September 2012)

For the bibliography, please click here

Anne O’Neill / The Short Story / 30th September 2015

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