Why Fiction Writers Need Facebook

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I’ve been thinking about Facebook a lot lately.  Or maybe I don’t mean lately.  Maybe I should just come clean and say: I think a lot about Facebook.  Who doesn’t, really?  We all love to hate it or pretend we hate it; we all roll our eyes and inject irony into our voices when we admit to having gleaned a particular piece of news or gossip or information on Facebook.  I only know it from Facebook, we confess.  I saw it mentioned in a comment thread. We understand each other perfectly.  We smirk over our shared jokey disgust.

The truth is, I agree with almost all Zadie Smith’s objections to Facebook, famously summarised in her NYRB essay last year.  I’d like to think my real friends don’t fall into the conformist traps Facebook sets for us all, but there’s no question that the vast majority of Facebook users are there precisely for the sanctioned self-absorption, the minute-by-minute accounts of restaurant meals and workout sessions, the endless opportunities “to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do.”  I share Smith’s concerns about the not-so-subtle link between consumerism and the kind of conformism Facebook encourages; I agree with her that as superficial/virtual connections become the norm, our ways of relating to each other — our powers of empathy, our understanding of life and death — are changing, mostly for the worse.

But here’s where my views diverge from Smith’s.  My “last defense” is not, in fact, that Facebook “helps me keep in contact with people who are far away.”  It helps me see pictures of their offspring and their pets, yes; it helps me find out if they are getting married or having babies or taking photo-worthy holidays.  I recognise that this is not real contact.  If I’ve stayed on Facebook, it’s partly because it’s an efficient way to reach a large audience whenever I need or want one (while still, I hope, remaining “a person who is a mystery” to some extent).  Writers need audiences, after all: we need people to show up to our events, to read our stories and our essays and our blog posts, perhaps to be lured by our views on politics and culture into seeking out our work offline.  But these are only the practical, logistical uses of Facebook for a writer.

The real reason, the profound reason I’m on Facebook is because it reminds me every day that our world is chaotic and complex, that everything is happening at once, all of it, the revolutions and the recipe-testing, the marathons and the strikes and the potty-training and the assassinations, the people who believe X to be unquestionably true/divinely revealed and the people who believe just as fervently in an opposite truth, all of these things intertwined in some ineffable way that used to be the exclusive domain of religion and/or spirituality.  Yes, I am arguing that Facebook has revealed the Oneness of the universe to me.  Before Facebook, I knew on an abstract level that all these things were happening at once.  When I went to a mall, attended a poetry reading, and talked to my mother on the phone on the same day, I was certainly aware that my own world was irreducibly complex, each component of my life impossible to convey to all the other components, yet I was still living within my own small corner of a Bruegel canvas.  When I read multiple newspapers from different parts of the world or surfed TV channels, I caught glimpses of the big picture.  But there’s a vast difference between viewing disparate events from a distance, filtered through the perspective of an intermediary whose job it is to filter, and being actually immersed in all those disparate points of view.  To be sure, neither one approximates direct experience, but I’m going to assume that even if that were the fiction writer’s goal — which I’m not sure it is, because I, at least, am more interested in how other people respond to events than in the events themselves — it would be impossible in most cases.

I’ve always been a big fan of Harper’s Weekly Review, which seems to be to be a slightly rarefied precursor of the phenomenon I’m talking about.  It’s clear that a lot of thought and artifice goes into constructing these lists, which suggest grand narratives of modern life by juxtaposing — to take one recent example — a mafia don’s take on murder (“Some people, they kill.  Some people, they earn.  It takes all kinds of meat to make a good sauce”) with the image of a retired greengrocer in Southampton knitting a three-tier wedding cake to celebrate the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton (“It’s not based on a pattern,” said 74-year-old Sheila Carter.  “I just made it up.”).  I think of Facebook as my own personal Weekly Review, a daily newsfeed cobbled together from the fragments of lives that particularly interest me, in the frequently unmediated words of their protagonists.  Here’s a quick taste of what I mean, Weekly-Review style:

Muslim clerics in Malaysia called for a fatwa on the poco-poco dance, a type of line dance common at Malaysian social gatherings.  Following the burning of a copy of the Quran by a Christian pastor and his congregation in Florida, a violent mob killed seven UN workers in  Mazar-i-Sharif.  A young Israeli settler of Surinamese origin attempted once again to explain why Israel needs a strong army and secure borders to defend itself against Muslim terrorism. A housewife in Kuala Lumpur was distressed to discover that the eggs she purchased from a supermarket were manufactured fakes: when she cracked them open, they smelled funny and the whites and yolks mixed by themselves.  A twenty-something graduate student in California successfully made Ladurée-style macarons for the first time.  The UN advisory panel on Sri Lanka reported that in the last days of the civil war, “a large group of women and children, who were queuing up at a milk powder distribution line,” were shelled by government forces.  “Some of the dead mothers,” the report said, “were still clutching cards which entitled them to milk powder for their children.”  A Sri Lankan-American writer dismissed the UN Secretary General as a puppet and posted a first-person account of an LTTE massacre of Tamil civilians.  A blogger in Malaysia argued that Malaysian Christians should not be allowed to use the word “Allah” in the Malay-language bible because “in Islam the GREATEST SIN is the equation of ANYTHING OR ANYONE to Allah,” a sin which the Catholic Church commits through the doctrine of the Trinity.  When a reader pointed out that this argument incorrectly assumed that followers of other religions care about what is or is not a sin in Islam, a young Malaysian medical student on a government scholarship in Russia responded: “So are you a slave of bRITNEY sPEARS or are you a slave of God?”  A reporter in Singapore worried that she would not be able to leave the house because of a large stick-insect stationed in her doorway.  An aging novelist was surprised to discover that LOL does not stand for “lots of love.”

My husband claims that my Facebook circle is particularly diverse (ethnically, socially, intellectually) because 1) I’ve moved around a lot in my life, from Malaysia to an international school in the US to upstate New York to Michigan to rural France; 2) I indiscriminately add anyone and everyone who sends me a friend request, and have been known to send people friend requests purely because I anticipate being able to milk their status updates for my fiction.  I don’t know if my husband’s theory is true — I haven’t run diversity tests on my friends’ Facebook friend lists — but I do think that my Facebook page mirrors the state of our world.  And while it’s true that good fiction cannot just be about the big picture, I’ve come to think that you can’t accurately depict small pictures without some idea of the big picture.  The twenty-first century novel has to try, at least, to be about everything all at once.  David Foster Wallace knew this, Jonathan Franzen knows it, even Zadie Smith herself knows it.  I can’t completely rule out the possibility that there are other sources of information and inspiration for such a novel, but for me, at least, Facebook is the most honest and consistent one out there.

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