Reshaping Writing, Reshaping Self or: Just Calm Down, Katie


you may not be able to do this with the internet but you can put this on the internet

I love ‘traditional’ (read: 19th century) novels. In my most angsty teenage years or the most alienating months at my first “real” job, my best days were gobbled up by absorption in Dickens, Hugo, Tolstoy, and Doyle. I’ve also broadened my reading horizons to include other living authors, too, such as Zadie Smith, Muriel Barbery, and Alice Munroe, most recently [shameless name-dropping!]. But despite this broadening, just pass me Anna Karenina and leave me alone to read in peace (gosh-darn-it!). I don’t like technology-novels or Twitter novels. Those are not novels.

And then there are two inescapable, contrary things to my love of “traditional” reading materials: (1) my uber-accepting stance on open media and (2) my digital essay (a WRITING project). In these two things, I advocate: free materials! Open education! Unhampered access to learning! Embracing all the digital things but think about how to do them well! Abandon paper publishing for the present and future! Write and communicate using online mediums and language!

But books.

But Dickens.

But the deckled-edged novel in bed with tea all day.


I decided to learn more about the way that authoring texts (literary, in this case) is changing since I recognized that I needed to come to some sort of conclusion about what I really thought about this subject before I could both address the potential arguments against my project and stare my ideologies in the face. I came across Alex Clark’s article in the NewStatesman (online, appropriately), “Anxiety of influence: How Facebook and Twitter are Reshaping the Novel,” which promised to be the sort of thought-piece I needed.

Clark brilliantly takes on those among us who fear that the Twitter-novel might replace the ‘real’ novel (really, a 19th century construction) by addressing the issue of the “essential self.” This self is influenced by the digital world that we live in, and it is what makes us both accept new technologies and fear the erasure of old technologies. This essential self is troubling:

“We know that our apprehension of things isn’t inherently stable – consider the way time seems to speed at some points and drag at others, for example, or how our emotions can suddenly flip-flop – but we hold to the idea that there are as many ways of processing the world as there are people in it and that our subjectivity is what separates us from one another.”

Clark continues: “It is foolhardy to define the purpose of the novel or the job of novelists or, more accurately, to suggest what the novel and novelists have, so far, been like.”  Instead of defining these terms, Clark determines three ‘poles’ which comprise interactions in the digital world that novelists are trying to trace: “ourselves, our society, our language.” Instead of panicking and wondering what we’ve ‘lost’ or how we’ve ‘lost’ it—which, it seems, are always worries connected to our understanding of how the self develops and maintains identity—Clark asks us to consider: “What happens if the poles get uprooted, knocked over, repositioned?” (emphasis is mine).

Perhaps, Clark contends, those who are worried about this infiltration of digital technology into the novel and loss of the old forms are worried instead about technology just becoming another gimmick or obvious plug in the pages that we know and love. Perhaps we will just mold the old novel-forms to fit some new or flashy ideas. This is not the case, though. Instead, the novel is being re-formed.

Clark goes on to list several ways that technology becomes an actress or plot-point in novels, how writing online has created a new language, and how the structures of the novel have adapted to platforms like Twitter. These things are scary, Clark says, but scary things are not always bad things. Novelists have always (are always already) created within these three poles as they create the thing that we think of as novel. Novel is reshaping culture at the same time as it is being reshaped by culture:

“Cultural Jeremiahs have tended to see that reshaping as a threat to the novel. Yet we have not ceased to produce stories; we have yet to dispense with metaphor and make-believe to explore what can’t be encompassed by straightforward documentary record. The novel of the future will be different from the novel of the past but the same heart will beat behind the screen.”

We’re not losing ourselves (or our strange sense of selfness) in this changing novel. People still write these things, people still read these things, ideas are still created and distributed, communities still exist around them, lives are still changed. It’s okay to love these old forms, too, but just to claim that they are the best way of creating novels and disseminating ideologies is reacting in fear.

Instead, it’s better to consider “how” and “why” writing is changing/is changed by the digital world. Let’s also consider what kind of place we—and our projects—can take in this digital space, which will also require our willingness to change the way that we think about reading and writing and creating practices.

8 thoughts on “Reshaping Writing, Reshaping Self or: Just Calm Down, Katie”

  1. Katie,

    Before your post I had never heard of a “twitter novel” or a “tweetbook.” Now that I have, I have to agree with you: those are not books. And I also agree with your final conclusion that there is space for both of these genres within the literary realm. I wonder to what degree tweetbook authors imagine themselves participating in the tradition of novel writing vs. creating something entirely do. Either way, at least Dickens will always be there.

  2. Katie,

    This was a fantastic post. Thanks for calling our attention to Clark’s piece– I’ve got it bookmarked to read more carefully when I’ve got the time. I also really like Heather’s question about the extent to which the authors of these new, digital forms “imagine themselves participating in the tradition of novel writing.” In the middle of a digital revolution, I think it’s worth asking how old genres of fiction inform and bleed into newer ones, and also now new genres react to and reject certain aspects of older ones.

    On a more personal level, I wonder if I should be doing something to make myself more open to these new genres. A tweetbook doesn’t sound particularly appealing to me– but is it because I’m not steeped in the culture of Twitter? Over the course of the semester in this seminar, I’ve come to suspect that I really need to invest more time in my “online self,” so to speak– that I need to read more online; to find digital spaces that appeal to me; to try putting more out there myself in a variety of platforms. It is, after all, ultimately a fear of the new that keeps me from doing such things. (Well, that, and everyone’s favorite problem: the number of hours in a day). Maybe if I invest more time in simply experiencing these new contexts and genres, I will come to figure out what they offer that is valuable and different from the traditional forms, like the novel, that I’ve come to value.


  3. Katie,

    Thanks for contributing to our conversation from a distance. It feels to me like you eloquently restate the very reasons I wanted to teach this course: “Let’s also consider what kind of place we—and our projects—can take in this digital space, which will also require our willingness to change the way that we think about reading and writing and creating practices.” Well put!


  4. Like Heather, I’ve never heard of “tweetbooks” or “twitter novels,” but I’m pretty sure those aren’t actual books. They do have their place in the literary world, but I’m extremely hesitant to say that they belong next to Dickens, or any ‘real’ literature. I think it’ll be a long time before that changes!

  5. Katie–As a fellow Victorianist, I too share your love of what Henry James called “large loose baggy monsters” (“the deckled-edged novel in bed with tea all day” is pretty much my ideal), but let me play devil’s advocate along with you. Why *couldn’t* a tweetbook be a “real” novel? After all, most novels are divided into chapters, or in the days of serialization, were split into installments. I’m fascinated by the adaptation of these forms with texts like “Black Box,” and the potential that a tweetbook would simply make those divisions more condensed, 140 characters at a time instead of 1,4000 words. Even though there might be somewhat less fluidity in such as reading experience than in a conventional novel, I’d be willing to bet that some tweetbooks would make more sense than some canonical novels (here’s looking at you, Faulkner).

    Besides, hasn’t the novel always been a site of innovation, wherein both genres and forms are remixed and mashed-up? See, for instance, the work of the fabulous British author Bernardine Evaristo, whose novels-in-verse, particularly The Emperor’s Babe, are wonderful in the ways they mix poetry/prose as well as historical detail and “modern” dialogue. Here’s an interview in which Evaristo discusses the process of writing her novels, for the interested:

    1. You get at exactly what I’ve been struggling with here, Petra. I don’t want to let go of my conception of “novel” (one that has only been around for a little while, anyway), but at the same time I know that the novel has always been this fluid category of “thing we’ve decided to call a novel during this generation.”

      This article was very convicting to me, since I know that I need to reshape my idea of novelness.

      1. Okay, weird semi-related observation: for some reason, when I’m writing fiction, I just never remember that my characters can gchat or text or tweet at each other. It’s like everything occurs in an alternate universe where social media doesn’t exist except when narratively necessary (I call it the Fictional Law of Conservation of Internet). Even now, when I get into the speculative fiction/detective fiction hybrid, I skip straight past texting and go to more advanced non-text technology, like somehow the novel and the short story just *can’t handle* written text as a substitute for dialogue even though the whole thing is made of written text. I’m not sure what structures underlie this bizarre creative choice (I’m not alone here–when was the last time you read a conteporary novel where the protagonists texted each other?) but I think those structures are part of the ones that call twitter novels NOT NOVELS somehow–they imagine a world where the 19th century novel convention can work untroubled.

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