Where are you reading this? What are you reading this on? How many times do you anticipate you’ll break from reading this to connect with someone via email, text, Facebook, Twitter, or to upload a new-and-improved image of your lunch to Instagram?
Does any of the experience of where you’re reading, on what, and how you engage this text feel abnormal? Par for the course?
Writer and journalist Shawn Syms is the editor of Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesfromlivingonline (Enfield & Wizenty, 2013), a collection of fictions that point to how commonplace technology and social media have become in our lives, no longer something that needs to be defined. “Did you say, ‘tweet’?” “Face-what?” Among the contributors are some of Canada’s best wordsmiths of the short form: Steven Heighton, Heather Birrell, Zoe Whittall, Greg Kearney and Jessica Westhead, seriously just to name a few. (There are 27.)
I asked Shawn Syms a few questions about the book. Why fiction, for instance, and not essays? Can the collection rise above gimmick to stand the test of time into and through the next new thing? And, of course, how does he imagine Friend. Follow. Text. will be shared among readers?
Julie Wilson: You point to E.M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” as one of the first pieces of fiction to characterize communication across distance via an interface. Published in 1909, the story even references such features as the “isolation knob” to render one unreachable and imperfections such as an inability to “transmit nuances of expression.” I want to tie this to fiction and your decision not to edit an anthology of essays. Was this simply something you began to notice in the books you were reading?
Shawn Syms: Yes. I spend a lot of my time either reading, writing, thinking about or reviewing short fiction, and, over the course of a year or so, I started to notice more and more pieces where the form and/or content was influenced by social media and online communication. Much of the time, this would be within the context of an individual story. In the case of Rebecca Rosenblum’s collection The Big Dream, which centres on a group of workers in a corporate office environment, her stories were bookended by fictional email messages that involved key characters and helped establish mood and tone.
I learned of the Forster story via Steve Himmer, editor of Necessary Fiction, a big supporter of the book. He pointed me to a Storify thread on the subject of early fiction that anticipated the rise of social media. The funny thing is that I had already chosen as a working title of the book Only Interconnect, based on “Only connect,” the epigraph to his 1910 novel Howards End. (I’ve never read that book, but I’d seen it quoted in the front matter of one of my mother’s paperback novels when I was a boy.)
Forster’s “The Machine Stops” is rather dark and interestingly a lot of my submissions also concerned fairly weighty matters. I put a lot of thought into the sequence of the stories and one of my considerations turned out to be a desire not to put too many intense stories in a row! Luckily the pieces overall are complex and sophisticated, and so few of them are relentlessly dire. Wherever there is sadness, there is generally hope as well.
JW: A number of the stories in this collection were previously published pieces. How did you then go about soliciting the remainder of the stories?
SS: This is the first book I’ve edited, so I wasn’t quite sure what the standard approach would be—should I line up the stories first with the hope of finding a publisher, or try first to hook a publisher on the idea itself? The notion of the book was borne of messages exchanged on Facebook with Megan Stielstra and Brian Joseph Davis. That conversation validated that this was a good idea and helped me believe I could actually do it. Initially I approached the authors of the previously published pieces and pitched the idea, and all were enthusiastic. From there, I set up a submissions page using the online service Submittable, and paid for ads in various places to drum up interest. In my call, I made a particular point to invite women, queer and trans writers and writers of colour, which is reflected in the book. I wanted the book to resonate for many different readers and to reflect the current moment, and I wanted the stories to be as diverse as possible in terms of form, content, thematic preoccupations and in the different sorts of social media integrated into the storylines. I got about 80 submission, and honed down the contributions to 27.
JW: Were you concerned that you’d get back pieces that were overly self-conscious? How did you go beyond gimmick?
SS: I’d characterize a certain subset of the submissions that way. This could be reflected in small ways—overuse of texting acronyms to a point that seemed forced or was distracting, for instance, or stories that featured overt, heavy-handed editorializing about perceived negative aspects to online communication. The stories that appealed to me the most generally took for granted the role of social and online media in people’s lives and explored that in a broader context, either in traditional prose or using formal innovation inspired by social media to invent a new way to construct a compelling narrative.
If anything, I found the more formally experimental pieces quite exciting to work with. I’ve long had a bias as a reader toward more conventional prose as well as a timidity with regards to experimentation in my own writing, which may reflect the fact my background prior to writing fiction was in journalism and reportage. And I find myself generally wary of writing that feels as if it’s formally experimental simply for its own sake. So to see writers taking forms that I’m most familiar with outside of lit—texting, blogs, message boards, hookup apps, and the like—and integrating them formally into their work in ways that succeed from the standpoint of craft and storytelling, I find it pretty inspiring.
JW: This collection is above a wink and a nod, isn’t it? You’re pointing out that narrative now exists in the most common forums. We’re, all of us, more conscious about how we construct our messages, where they’re posted, how they’ll be received, and even how to go about finding an audience.
SS: We are always, in various ways, telling the story of ourselves—sometimes with a highly specific audience or individual in mind, sometimes never really knowing. That’s true online; it’s also true simply walking down the street in whatever attire and with whatever comportment. And of course with the advent of mobile, these can be simultaneous true, as we are increasingly online while we walk down public streets. And in those moments, we are, in a sense, in multiple places at once.
I was part of the blogging community LiveJournal starting in 2003, and before that in the 1990s I participated in a listserv called the Bears Mailing List. In those forums, we were working through all of the same predicaments—risks of dramatic miscommunication, perceived differences between the online self and the supposedly “authentic” in-real-life self, interplay between the ego and the notion of playing to an audience—that have become far more widespread today, particularly with the advent of Facebook. The difference is that now the potential audience is larger and in some senses potentially global in span. (That said, I think that social networks in many ways reflect, rather than transcend, structural inequities such as gender, race and global economic power.)
JW: Narrative now also commonly includes visual imagery.
SS: The simple act of sharing a photograph or set of photographs of yourself with someone is all about constructing a narrative (and this notion is explored in Megan Stielstra’s story “SO. MUCH. FUN.”) The pictures you select and the order in which they are sent—how does that influence a story you’re telling without any words at all? What is the impact of the quality of the image as much as its composition, however intentional or not? The type of device from which you send versus the one on which someone receives—phone, tablet, computer—how does this influence the story? Whether you are alone or not when sending; the social context of the recipient. The ever-shifting story of ourselves, our stories about others, and how we communicate these things—questions of representation are nothing new, but I think they are becoming preoccupations, consciously or subconsciously, for more and more of us in these increasingly digital times.
JW: When you came up with the idea for this anthology, did you have a particular reader in mind? The commuter? The gadget geek? If so, was it a matter of introducing fiction to the on-the-go reader or packaging thematic content for the educational market, or . . . ?
SS: I saw myself as primarily working within the milieu of small-press literary fiction and its traditional audience. This book is based on an original idea, is full of great stories, and has some potential to be a popular success, but there are numerous constraints—the very busy and small staff of its small-press publisher, my own energy level and ability to connect with influential people in publishing and promotion on top of my day job, the struggle to get the book into larger chains.
All that said, reactions have been very positive, and I hope that the form and content will resonate with as many people as we can expose to the book. I do think the educational market is a logical target; I just need to figure out how to gain access. And the electronic versions of the book should be ready soon; already people are asking and the publisher is more optimistic than usual with regards to the e-sales prospects for this particular title.
This will make it more accessible to readers on the go, which I think fulfills some of the promise behind the book. What actually happens in terms of sales and the accessibility of Friend. Follow. Text. remains to be seen though.
JW: From the introduction: “We friend. We follow. We text. Above all, we connect.” It’s amusing, if you think about it, because in books we retreat deeply. The hope, we believe, is that the reader will re-emerge and: Like. Fan. Share. I imagine you can’t put together a book like this, with this level of sophistication, and not think about the long tail. With that in mind, is Friend. Follow. Text. also an experiment in how readers come to locate books and share them?
SS: One interesting thing that has come up—writer Nathan Burgoine has been reviewing the stories one by one while in the process of reading the book, and posting his thoughts via Redroom.com and Twitter. To me, this sort of engagement has exciting possibilities for which I think a book of this nature and with this many individual contributors is well suited. It’s a bit different from the traditional model of writing a book and then engaging in promotional efforts that you hope will result in getting reviewed in a newspaper. It suggests there are some additional possibilities out there for engagement with readers and critics, ones that are not so static.
JW: Is there another communication trend on your radar, something you expect will begin to appear more in fiction and provide you with a follow up to this anthology?
SS: The idea behind the book is far from exhausted; I can easily imagine a sequel, though this might ultimately be dictated more by market factors than anything. The concept would naturally evolve. My contributors have many ideas in this regard. K. Tait Jarboe is a multimedia digital artist and sees many opportunities for the book to exist beyond paper and kickstart some more interactive and engaging experiences. Trevor Corkum has many thoughts about how we can directly engage readers online, as well as new directions that fiction may take as more and more people read while on the go. The main bottleneck has been me!
Personally, I’m somewhat curious about the impact of literary feedback-mechanism sites like Red Lemonade and writing-collaboration tools such as the social writing app Next Sentence. All this suggests to me there are a billion possible directions for a follow-up to consider, some of which will only reveal themselves as time unfolds.