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Social Media and Contemporary Authorship by Justin Tonra

Submitted by site_editor on Mon, 2015-11-23 09:47

Readers today have greater opportunities to encounter authors than in times past. For every breathless piece of fan mail requesting a lock of Lord Byron’s hair, there is now a reading, signing, or interview at which the eager reader has the opportunity to meet their literary idol. The publicity circuit that now accompanies contemporary authorship places readers and authors within situations that seemed remote to previous generations. Developments in technology have complicated the nature of these encounters, whether in the shape of Margaret Atwood disappointing fans by signing books remotely with a robotic arm, or more recently, in the many opportunities for connecting with authors on social media.

In an article entitled “What Is an @uthor,” Matthew Kirschenbaum describes historic and recent encounters with famous authors, how technology has mediated them differently, and what consequences for our understanding of authorship have resulted. One example recounts William Faulkner’s two-year tenure as writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia in 1957-58. While his meetings with students during this period are unsurprising to those familiar with the duties of the writer-in-residence, their extent—thirty-six classroom conferences—provokes wonder (and jealousy) at the regularity of contact with a major author available to UVa students during those years.

Even more strikingly modern, perhaps, is the revelation that twenty-eight hours of audio from these sessions were recorded (and are now available to listen online), edited, and published as the volume, Faulkner in the University. But this printed volume represents a traditional and canonical outcome of a more radical and experimental set of encounters between an author and his (admittedly circumscribed) public. Kirschenbaum contrasts this book, safely preserved on library shelves around the world, with an exchange on Twitter between a panel of scholars at the 2015 MLA Convention and the novelist William Gibson. The panel was live-tweeted, and during a discussion about the ending of Gibson’s The Peripheral, the absent author interjected with a tweet that queried the panel’s interpretation of his novel. Kirschenbaum questions the status of this exchange, and of another interpretive comment by Gibson at a public reading, now captured on video and posted to YouTube: are they part of an authorial record in the same way as Faulkner in the University?

Faced with a digital reality in which authors’ public appearances are more likely to be recorded for posterity in some fashion—Instagram, Twitter, YouTube—Kirschenbaum posits “a new kind of archive” which critics of contemporary literature must be prepared to acknowledge and navigate. In this authorial panopticon, are writers more likely to embrace these more immediate publicity channels, to retreat into Pynchonian reclusiveness, or to adopt a more self-conscious, circumspect attitude towards scenarios in which their comments are no longer ephemeral? Are we experiencing a newly intensified revival of interest in authors’ intentions?


These were the kinds of questions we had in mind ahead of a Twitter conversation between my Literature of the Internet class and Belinda McKeon, whose story “Counterparts” (from the Dubliners 100 collection) we had read and discussed. The syllabus for this module combines contemporary literature with a thematic focus on the digital age (including works by Dave Eggers, Joshua Ferris, Gary Shteyngart), formal and structural antecedents (Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Queneau, Robert Coover), and writing with conceptual origins in the internet (Sharon Mesmer, Ara Shirinyan).

McKeon’s story was chosen for its particular engagement with social media, which plays a pivotal role in the narrative—a contemporary rewriting of James Joyce’s “Counterparts.” Both stories share a focus on compulsion and feature a protagonist whose poor impulse-control has ultimately destructive consequences. Joyce’s Farrington is a legal clerk stifled by the mundanity of his work who is prompted to rage against the injustice of his situation and escape to the pub: a kind of anti-Bartleby. Meanwhile, McKeon’s Elizabeth Farrell has similarly frustrating employment: she is an overqualified intern for New York Fiction House, an organisation collaborating with the Irish Department of Culture to host Re:Joyce, a commemorative Joycean event (or, “Sexy Joyce,” as her boss describes it). Elizabeth’s refuge from her humiliation (she has a PhD on Joyce and is now writing press releases) is the internet, and throughout the course of the story she occupies a “shadow online life,” trawling her Twitter timeline for Dublin news and gossip from her office in New York. Her downfall results from ignoring her better judgment and the advice of a self-penned Post-it note on her desk (“STAY OFF THE FUCKING INTERNET”), as she responds to a troll who mocks her for trying to find an appropriately sympathetic angle in her tweets about a trending missing-child case. The resulting public exchange catches the attention of her boss who flinches at the potentially negative publicity consequences of the spat and fires Elizabeth.

A number of interesting outcomes emerged from our conversation with the author. First, we found that our reading of the story focused on similar themes to those identified by McKeon (compulsion, self-destruction, humiliation) but that her take on the story included some delicately nuanced perspectives. For example, McKeon sees the “territory” of Elizabeth’s bleakness as deliberately narrow compared to Farrington’s, and “all the more pathetic” for that reason. Farrington’s climactic encounter with his young son has the quality of an epiphany born out of brutality, but the solace Elizabeth fleetingly experiences at the positive outcome of the missing-child case is vicarious and illusory: she is a remote and passive agent in the case and the unconvincing satisfaction she expresses at the story’s conclusion is symptomatic of the kind of mediated pleasure supplied by social media. Ultimately, it is cold comfort for having lost her dignity and her job.

A second feature of our conversation had those of us in the classroom happily indulging in the appeal of authorial intent—or, suspecting the fallacy of the intentional fallacy. Elizabeth’s remote immersion in Irish social media drives the plot of the story, but McKeon explicitly linked the phenomenon to the emigrant experience. Discussing her own use of social media, she made the point that its apparent value in keeping the emigrant in touch with home might actually contribute to an increased rootlessness, a sense of being “neither here nor there.” McKeon sees in Elizabeth’s situation a common feature of emigrants’ lives: being “much more aware of what's going on in another country than they'd like to admit.” The distance between our classroom in Galway and our correspondent in Brooklyn suddenly became very apparent.

Beyond the interesting interpretive moments in our discussion, our classroom hummed with a genuine excitement at the opportunity to directly connect with an author that the students had read. Chances like these don’t occur too often for university students, but in the media environment of contemporary authorship, will they become more commonplace? Perhaps; perhaps not. We were grateful for McKeon’s generosity in finding an hour in her schedule to chat with us; other attempts by the class to reach out to contemporary authors on Twitter have been met with deafening silence.

The broader consequence of our discussion with McKeon was that it opened a debate in class about the nature of contemporary authorship—one whose terms echoed those explored in Kirschenbaum’s article. But far from our class discussions about the use of Twitter for authorial publicity, McKeon was more interested in considering social media’s presence as a disturbance and distraction in the job of the author, “both in terms of what a writing day, or a writing month, or a writing life, looks like, and at the level of the sentence you are trying to get right at any given moment, or on any given day.”

Our conversation prompted some interpretive shifts in our view of “Counterparts” (both Joyce’s and McKeon’s), but were we unwittingly binding ourselves to the perspective of the author? What is the “threshold of responsibility” for readers, students, and critics of contemporary literature when negotiating an increasingly capacious and public authorial record? Can scholarly commentators still restrict their purview to peer-reviewed journals and the major review publications, and risk ignoring the social media venues where authors (except Jonathan Franzen, of course) are—deliberately and serendipitously—engaging in interesting expression and debate. When the oracle is closer at hand, will we incline to consult it more often?


A full record of our Twitter discussion can be found on Storify.


Justin Tonra

National University of Ireland, Galway.