April 15, 2024

Kate Brody on writing about the Internet ‹ Literary Hub

For years I avoided technology in my work. Despite my poor research habits, I had set stories in the decades before my own birth, or worse yet, I had constructed the literary equivalent of a black box, a stage devoid of temporal artifacts where eternal human struggles could play out without the interference. of annoying mobile phones. This impulse was born from fear.

I had seen other writers get it wrong about our modern life. As a reader, I cringe when text messages turn clearly written dialogue tinny and empty. When it came to the Internet, I spent so much time online that I could hear every wrong note. But it was for the same reason that I finally decided that I had to face my fears and write a book that would address contemporary problems head-on. Like it or not, this is how we live now: half meat and half username. Avoiding it completely also rings false.

I knew from the beginning that rabbit hole would feature the real criminal communities of Reddit, and I was worried about how it would translate pages and pages of nested, meaningless, vitriolic, funny, and bizarre comments into something fictionally compelling. As with so many writing problems, the way to solve it was through art.

Different elements of our online lives speak to different elements of the craft. In my obsession with this topic, I have developed a theory of sorts and will lay it out using the following texts as case studies: Sedan by Bea Setton, esthetic by Allie Rowbottom, Nobody talks about this by Patricia Lockwood and North America Hotels by Rick Moody.

To write convincingly online, you first have to pay close attention. Another way to think about this comes down to the old adage of “making the familiar strange.” When I interviewed Bea Setton for Write or Die, I asked her how she wrote the Sedan where the narrator, Daphne, ranks her online dating suitors. As a reader, I found her true to life and fresh. Bea noted, from the beginning, that the specificity of each detail arose from her own observations: “I did extensive field work. ethnographic research. I went into the apps and swiped.”

Similarly, Allie Rowbottom has spoken about her own organic interest in Instagram, something with which she is intimately familiar and anthropologically distanced: “Part of the reason I wanted to write the book was that I spent a lot of time on Instagram and [I was] feeling really weird about it.”

To write convincingly online, you first have to pay close attention.

So the first step is basically: pretend you’re an alien. You just arrived here, wherever it is: Tinder, Reddit, Instagram. Do you see? What is strange about this way of interacting?

Once you’ve noticed everything there is to notice about the platform you’re interested in writing about, you can start thinking about how it works. This is step two, the most important.

Twitter (the basis of the “portal” in Lockwood’s sense) Nobody is talking about this) remembers poetic forms. Tweets require significant economy. They are based on negative space, on word choice, on repetition (retweets). Lockwood, herself a poet, plays with all of these elements in Nobody talks about this. The art of your work reflects the intrinsic elements of the actual application.

Instagram, on the other hand, is photo-based, so Rowbottom leans toward images. She contrasts descriptions of perfectly curated Instagram posts with powerful and disturbing images of bikini waxing, cancer treatment, and assault. She relies on metaphor, on the body, on moments frozen in time. She imitates the platform.

In North America Hotels, In a novel written as a series of online hotel reviews, Rick Moody notes the strangeness of reviews—the way people on Yelp or TripAdvisor establish their authority, the way they divulge information about their lives—and then connect with art. Hotels It’s all about character. Through the reviews, we learn the entire backstory of his writer, Reginald Edward Morse. They are a vessel for his loneliness, as well as his desire for a modicum of power.

In Sedan, Bea Setton focuses on point of view. Online dating, after all, is defined by its interactivity. You cannot passively consume dating profiles. One judges and classifies: winners and losers. Whether a profile goes left or right depends on who you are and what you want. Therefore, point of view. Daphne is a graduate student. So how would she respond to this task? Of course, she takes footnotes. Create a taxonomy: “Little Prince Readers”, “Men with Sisters”, “Allies”, “Conspiracy Theorists”, “Men Who Don’t Like Women”, “GI Joes”, “Intelligent and Cultured Men” and “Charming Men.” , Wonderful men.”

For my part, I spent a lot of time on Reddit. In real criminal communities, of course, but also in subreddits that made sense for my life. For example, when I was pregnant, I joined groups for expectant parents. when I was writing rabbit hole, I joined groups about writing. I thought about what it feels like to be part of the community and what makes Reddit unique:

It is largely text-based.

It’s basically anonymous (not a popularity contest, like Twitter or Instagram).

Users search for their communities (minimal dependence on followers or algorithmic mixing)

I discovered that voice was the defining craft element of Reddit. Every time I logged on, I was struck by the sensation of listening to a cacophony of different, disembodied voices. I considered how to recreate that chorus on the page. I was worried that the users would sound the same since they were all me, so I played it by ear, playing around with things like profanity, chunking, capitalization, and even response rate. Some usernames spoke volumes; some, a little. Some cursed; some were clean. Some wrote complete sentences, with full punctuation. Others used Internet shorthand and misspellings.

When all that was done, I distilled it. This is the third and final step. As much as I hate reading bad writing on the Internet, I hate reading the Internet. In any parchment, 80% (at least) is ordinary garbage. But art is concentrated life. High-octane human experience. As a writer, it’s your job to edit out the filler, leaving only what the reader needs. Like great dialogue, all great Internet writing should advance characterization, plot, or both. It is not enough to simply point out what we all know and can see for ourselves.

The TL;DR version: Don’t rely on caricature and bad impressions. Simply look at the perspective of your own online world, find the craft element at its core, and boil your writing down to its most powerful form. This is how we live now. What do we have to say about it? And more importantly, what does it have to say about us?


rabbit hole by Kate Brody is available from Soho Press.

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