Can Literature Survive Twitter?

Can Literature Survive Twitter?

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

Can Literature Survive Twitter?

Ria Golovakova

November 2019

Plato can rejoice: writing has finally caught up to speech.

Back in 370 BCE, the Greek philosopher lamented in his dialogue Phaedrus that written words “stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent.” In contrast to a live speaker, the author of a text is unapproachable. As a reader, you only have the words to go by, and “if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” If you want to express a criticism, the author needs to be there to support her writing, as “alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.”  Except not anymore—social media has changed that dynamic.

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Authors are everywhere, and they want to talk to their readers: much like asking a question after a speech, a reader can now close the book and tag the author on Twitter, sending her all the pressing questions that the reading inspired. If the ending was unsatisfactory, the writer can be pressed to disclose more information. If a side-character was popular, the reader can request a spin-off or at least extra tid-bits about the character’s life. If the premise was controversial, the writer can be made to acknowledge the criticism. Roland Barthes is irrelevant—the author is no longer dead.

In 2017, Andrew O’Hagan wrote in The Guardian that “writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low,” and he lamented that the new Internet age has destroyed any notion of a “private life” outside the screen. He also wondered about the writer’s role in this digital landscape: “what if she didn’t unplug when confronted with the new fictionalities but inscribed herself into the web and reported back?” I propose to answer that question with the case study of a very Internet-active author: J.K. Rowling.

An example of
J.K. Rowling’s infamous tweets.

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The writer behind the beloved Harry Potter franchise has taken a particular liking to Twitter. In fact, she has now become a running internet joke (or meme) for her notorious use of the platform to add to and augment the series’ canon. She has posted answers to fan questions that drastically changed the interpretation of her books or contradicted them entirely, with claims that Albus Dumbledore was actually homosexual or that Hermione Granger wasn’t white. In an article for WIRED, Emma Grey Ellis claims “at this point, Rowling herself seems to be running with scissors, ready to slice up your childhood.” She compares this behavior to the culture of fan-fiction, which has exploded since the early 2000s on Internet forums and has been particularly active in the Harry Potter fandom. But Ellis recognizes that Rowling’s interventions “seem as remote and unnatural as bad fanfic,” because they do not respect the internal logic of her original stories.

Still, consensus holds that Rowling’s statements are canon because they are made by the original author. In a paper titled “The ghost of JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the ur-fan,” Dion McLeod and Travis Holland suggest that such intervention forces the fans “who wish to read the texts through the dominant authorial lens established by Rowling” to “reinterpret the meanings they had previously found in the texts.” The paper in fact proposes a new way to look at the reader-author relationship, where Rowling becomes “the ur-fan.” In this role, she interacts with the fandom in a way that a fanfiction writer might, but she is given precedence because of her status as the original author of the text. This way, her interactions with the series become a gray area of not-quite-text and almost-canon.

These blurred boundaries suggest that the text is no longer the whole story, even with authors who are less active on social media than Rowling may be. There has been a rise in authors who either started out as popular social media users or who became more successful as writers because of their social media followings, such as John Green or Rupi Kaur. Of course, one can argue that all of the authors discussed so far do not write literary fiction, and that more mainstream pop fiction may lend itself to social media interactivity. But to me it seems short-sighted to assume that the authors of highly literary works could not be interested in the possibilities that Twitter brings. The dynamic between readers and writers is now fundamentally different, and even those writers who do not appear on social media do so as a conscious decision, which becomes part of their branding.

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Even if a writer is not on Twitter, some of his or her readers will be. Ellis speculates that “the future of storytelling is likely something more participatory and inclusive,” with readers actively involved in creating and interpreting literature in ways that were not possible in the past. Fan fiction, interpretive theories, analysis video essays, speculative fan art, inspired original fiction, discussion boards: readers can gather in multitudes of digital spaces and mold their favorite works as they please, potentially toppling down the author’s superiority and making literature a two-way street instead of a sermon.

Rudy Rucker’s science fiction novel Software presents a model of evolution that resonates with this  discussion. Within the story, the creator of “boppers” (intelligent and self-conscious robots) Cobb Anderson, realized that “no one can write a bopper program … they’re too complicated” but one might not have to. Instead, he “set a thousand of simple AI programs” loose, with “fitness tests” that mirrored natural selection, and mutation when “all the surviving programs were randomly changed.”

Twitter reminds me of this software battle ground, where readers instead of AI programs are all set loose and compete for likes and retweets with their contributions to a fandom. Authorial intervention or other unexpected events, as well as the simple changing make-up of users, serve the role of mutation to the general landscape. Individuals build their ideas off of each other, creating complex systems of theories and interpretations that none of them could have come up with alone. As a public forum, the internet has created a growing network the creations of which are more than the sum of its parts.

The future of literature may be in trusting the crowd and the community. After all, genuine fans tend to want the best for the books they enjoy and their engagement may increase the value of the text more than the isolation of a static book ever could. Perhaps literature has now become the new Athenian assembly, after all. If Plato saw it, maybe he would not criticize writing as much as he did.

 

Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.

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What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

Ria Golovakova

September 2019

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between the categories of “work” and “labor.” She differentiates between two types of human worker: the “homo faber who makes and literally ‘works upon’” and the “animal laborans which labors and ‘mixes with.’” In this conception, work is the creation of some product “which outlasts its own activity and forms a durable addition to the human artifice,” while labor “needs to be reproduced again and again in order to remain within the human world at all.” Arendt concludes this meditation on the nature of work by arguing that art, in her opinion, is the most durable creation that humans can make, and thus the best form of work

How then, might Arendt classify work done by someone like Jing Zi, a young Chinese woman whose job is to live stream herself for 7 hours a day? In a 5-minute documentary video about her done by Noah Sheldon, Jing Zi goes through the motions of her typical content. She puts on makeup, plays with cute video filters, sings karaoke, and eats lunch that one of her fans ordered in for her. The woman is an employee of a media company in Beijing, that hosts other live streamers like her, and provides them with individualized filming sets and promotions in exchange for a percentage of the profit. Jing Zi regularly makes more than 10,000RMB ($1454) a day.

In fact, Chinese live streaming is one of the world’s fastest growing industries: in 2018 the number of users reached 456 million people and Deloitte valued market at $4.4 billion. The Chinese are dedicating their time, love, and money to their favorite streamers in extents that are unfathomable within the Western framework of internet celebrity.

Hannah Arendt in the classroom

Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University

In the West, internet concept creators often follow the “influencer” model of internet celebrity. They post some content on a variety of internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and attract a large following of people who engage with their content through comments, likes, and shares. None of these interactions, however, directly earn money for the content creator. Instead, their stream of income is usually a combination of merchandise sales, paid subscriptions on platforms like Patreon, and sponsored advertisements, in which companies reach out to them and provide a flat rate per post based on the number of followers.

Chinese live-streamers, while also trying to amass a large following and often working with advertisers, are in a very different position. Their main source of income is directly built into the platform: viewers during a live stream can buy “gifts” for the streamer, which appear as little animations on the screen in real time, and are purchased with actual currency deposited onto the app account. The streamers tend to respond to the gifts in real time, engaging with the users who pay larger sums and thanking them directly. In some platforms, there are added benefits, such as gaining the host’s contact information after reaching a certain monetary threshold in gifts.

“Live Streamer” is a short documentary by Noah Sheldon, exploring the industry through the example of live streamer Jing Zi.

Incomes of the most popular streamers can reach over $100,000 dollars a month, and even the less successful hosts earn many times the average salaries of college graduates in China. Many of these internet celebrities originally come from the working class, but through their popularity are able to obtain rich and lavish lifestyles. Their situation is in stark contrast to the rest of China’s population, as there is very little social mobility in terms of wealth, as the working class do not have the same educational and professional opportunities as the wealthy, who have stayed rich for generations. In fact, many of these working class viewers even impede their financial prospects, as they donate significant portions or even the entirety of their salaries to their favorite live streamers.

This seemingly irrational behavior is caused by the desire to keep one of their own rich, since the working class audiences are well aware that they could never reach those levels of financial success themselves. Furthermore, they are drawn to the live streams to feel less lonely: the changing economic and geo-social makeup of China, especially through increasing urbanization, has left many young people disconnected from their families and communities, and isolated in large but lonesome cities.

The live streams are an attractive form of escapism: hosts mostly stream boring content, like eating on camera, chatting, or simply going about their daily commute. Nonetheless, in some cases viewers tune in for up to 8 hours at a time, spending their entire day in virtual company with likeable hosts.

This particular medium, however, is very unique compared to other popular forms of internet content. Live streams are transient: the video is not recorded or uploaded for potential later viewing, all that exists is the here and now. In Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, Crystal Abidin writes that such “always-transient content” is “largely motivated by the followers’ cultivations of perpetual ‘FOMO,’ or the ‘fear of missing out.’” The immediacy creates a sense of exclusivity, and heightens the effect of virtual connection between the audience and the hosts.

Can Arendt’s conception of work and labor be applied to this occupation? Live streams do not have inherent market value or practical use. Instead, they are an evolution of other kinds of internet visual content (pictures and videos), which can be viewed as art and are often judged to aesthetic standards that resemble the approach to artistic products. In this case, lack of usability can also be viewed as proof of artistic status. However, the transience of live streams complicates this category. While the hosts technically create something new, the durability lies not in the content itself but in the audience that the content generates. The direct product, the stream, gets consumed in its very process of creation. There is no “true reification,” so this supposedly artistic project becomes a labor process of toiling every day on the clock, the live stream both becoming the means to an end and an end itself that must be repeated ad infinitum.

In this vein, the categories of “labor” and “work” appear insufficient. Perhaps, we should take the new types of vocations that the internet has brought about, such as live streamers, seriously. A different conception of work may be in order.

Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.

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Citizenship and the Novel

Citizenship and the Novel

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Citizenship and the Novel

Ria Golovakova

February 2019

The Philippines, like many other parts of the world, is currently being torn apart by a populist president. Although its median age is 23, the government is filled with those over 60. In the face of corruption, poverty, and dynasty-dominated politics, Miguel Syjuco writes with hope.

Syjuco doesn’t want to remain on the sidelines: he sees his purpose in speaking about the situation, using his writing as a vehicle of political change. He writes for people who he believes “have the potential to be leaders of their families, communities, or country but are set back by larger institutions and powers that be.”

Last year, Syjuco kicked off NYUAD’s Faculty Reading Series by reading from the first chapter of his upcoming novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!. Structured as a series of interviews, the book is a collection of source material gathered by a ghost writer to produce a memoir of Vita Nova, a fictional celebrity. The interviews include one with Vita Nova and twelve others with her former lovers. While the plot centers on a political scandal and a presidential impeachment, the book weaves in personal narratives in an attempt to humanize these media headlines through the personal.

Syjuco’s first novel, Ilustrado (2010), warns us to be aware of the sly, deliberate structure of his fiction. The work is a collage of texts: excerpts from history books, blog posts, manuscripts by the book’s protagonist, Crispin Salvador, and interviews with Salvador. Many of these texts deal with Filipino history, introducing that unfamiliar history to the world’s English-speaking audience. The deconstructed novel is therefore a tool of communication rather than artistic fancy.

Novelist Miguel Syjuco

Photo courtesy of Miguel Syjuco

I was the President’s Mistress!! similarly uses a non-traditional structure. Syjuco draws from his work as a journalist: the book is full of “material” that a journalist has collected; the story is for the reader to construct. When I met him to talk about the excerpt, Syjuco told me that the reader is meant to feel “as if they found a box of cassette tapes or a folder of audio files on a computer and decided to start listening to them.” The structure, he hopes, will provide a sense of discovery as well as agency, allowing for multifold interpretations of the story. Since no dominant narrative is present, the reader is left to “wrestle with contradictory facts” and take their own stance.

The reader’s agency is important to Syjuco. “It’s about figuring out how we, as citizens, can participate in this story that we all find ourselves in,” he says. I was the President’s Mistress!! is a loose sequel to Ilustrado, set in the same universe: while Ilustrado dealt with the past, however, his upcoming novel tackles the present. It seems appropriate that the novel, a snapshot of our current era, remain without authorial interpretation. After all, we cannot adequately analyze the present until it has become history, and its consequences have become clear.

But that does not mean that we should not attempt to make sense of the present moment. Syjuco tells me that the central issues—“corruption, power dynamic between genders, political inequality”—are already obvious. These are the realities of today, things that will continue on for as long as humans are engaging in the political, and democratic, process. Syjuco sees his writing as tackling the dynamic between individuals and the larger socio-political institutions that influence them.

The reading, although centered around the Philippines, happened halfway across the globe from it. Syjuco addressed our international and multicultural audience in Abu Dhabi, its desert landscape nothing like his native Manila. Although he has lived abroad for almost two decades, Syjuco does not believe that makes him less of a Filipino writer, contending that “the Filipino experience is a global one.” He, like many others from his country, has had “to expand to the wider world in search for work.”

Living away from the Philippines has presented challenges in writing about it. I Was the President’s Mistress!! has been in the works for eight years, and according to Syjuco, many drafts have been tossed during this time. Syjuco speaks of the difficulty he has had in grounding the novel in actual Filipino reality. After failing to connect to it from abroad, he decided to return to the Philippines for a year. Simply being there physically, though, was not enough. “A lot of people are in the Philippines but live in a bubble: going to the mall, to church, their jobs, and staying within their communities does not connect them to the country as a whole,” he says.

Both for his second novel and his many nonfiction pieces, Syjuco has made a conscious effort to leave the bubble for contexts that differed from his own. He visited “provinces, slums, and many dark corners of the country where people are experiencing great agony and inequality.” He has been at scenes of murder on Manila’s night streets and spent time in morgues, talking to the victims of Duterte’s drug war. All of these efforts, in his words, were necessary for him to have an informed opinion. An informed opinion, he says, “requires going out and doing the legwork, talking to people and listening to all sides.”

He hopes that his work will inspire and influence others. During the reading event, Syjuco shared prompts from his project Usapang ATIN, “Our Conversation.” This project, which he later presented at the Global Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg, is “a template for discussion that seeks to help people relearn civic conversation.” He hopes that the platform will allow his fellow Filipinos to speak about the truly important issues, and to find connections despite difference in political opinion.

This spring at NYUAD, Syjuco is teaching a class called “Citizen, Writer,” in which students “learn the skills that prepare them for the blood sport that is public discussion,” be it on an internet comment thread, a larger media outlet, or an in-person debate. His goal is to equip students with the ability to “make their pens mightier than swords” and to help them discover the agency that the act of writing can enable.

“We often turn to writing,” Syjuco says, “whether it is creative writing or just spewing on social media, because we don’t feel heard.” He sees a need for public discourse forums which provide an outlet for the human impulse to tell stories as well as influence social structures. Writing and speaking are acts of democracy. “Having a voice means having a vote.”

Syjuco admits that “one of the huge challenges of being a writer is that you are always an outsider,” but views that facet of the writing life as an advantage. “When you become an insider you start to live within an echo chamber,” he says. Outsiders bring new perspectives; they notice things worth sharing. If he can help others make just a little more sense of the world, be it through writing or teaching, then his own nightmares, anger, and hopelessness will be easier to deal with. If someone listens, it might all be worth it.

The NYUAD Faculty Reading Series returns on February 27 with a reading by Tishani Doshi, Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at NYUAD and the author most recently of the poetry collection Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods (2017).

Ria Golovakova is a junior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She attended high school in Manila, Philippines, where she first came across Miguel Syjuco’s work.

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