I had many things on my mind when I was writing Wit's End. I was thinking about the colorful city of Santa Cruz. I was thinking about the genre of the mystery story, which I love in spite of my uncomfortableness with murder as the vehicle for light entertainment. I was indulging in one of my favorite research topics: bizarre and improbable religious cults. I was wondering if it was even possible to write the book I was writing — a comic novel whose main character spends much of her time paralyzed by grief.
But front and center through it all, I was thinking about the Web. Since this was a contemporary book, I wanted to include my own daily realities of email, YouTube, blogs, and Wikipedia, which is tricky, because these things can be quite boring on an actual book page. Since one of my characters is a popular writer, a woman much more successful than I can even quite imagine, I also wanted to think about the impact of the internet on the life of a public figure.
A lot of my novel is focused on privacy, and what that means in the age of the internet. This includes things like the creation of the author persona, the mediated fake intimacy of the Net, and a new kind of accessibility of writer to reader. But the main metaphor I had in my mind was the diary. When I was a girl (back before you were born, dear), diaries came with little keys. The things you wrote in them were secret things — you locked the diary after and you hid it in a drawer, under your clothes just to be really safe. How strange to watch the secret diary morph into the public performance of personal blogs and Facebook.
The question of whether the internet has enriched or impoverished my own life is a good one for me, because, no matter how much I think about it, I really don't know the answer. Everything I love about the internet, I also hate. And versa vice.
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Here's something I hate: the emoticon. I don't understand why the same words if written in a letter will easily convey the writer's intention, but if written in an email require the punctuation of a happy face. I'm not arguing that this isn't the case. I've watched it happen many times; most of the email dust-ups I've been involved in started because something meant as a joke was taken as serious comment. So I see the emoticons are useful. And still I loathe them. Nor do I like LOL, ROFL, 4EVA, and the rest of that ilk. A cliché is still a cliché, no matter how quickly you deliver it.
I love the blogs, but only the blogs I love and only if I don't have to do one myself. In the morning, my husband reads the newspaper and I check out some trusted political websites. When we are done, I have the better sense of what's happening. I know the newspapers are in trouble; I'm deeply concerned about that, and I know I'm part of the problem. But I'd still be reading them if they and I agreed more often about what the important stories of the day are. To paraphrase what Arlen Specter has just said about the Republican Party, I don't feel that I left the newspapers; I feel the newspapers left me.
I love email, except on the days when I don't. But I regret the loss of letters as does everyone my age. I have boxes of letters up in my attic. They start when I'm 11 years old and end in about 1992. Their final disposal will be my children's problem. Around 1992, it all moved to email. I'm in email correspondence with some amazing writers, and I get some amazing emails, but emails aren't letters. Plus, I haven't figured out how to store them. Every time I buy a new computer, I leave three or four years of correspondence behind. This is far too easy on my children.
The transience of email aside, there is a permanence to the Web I both love and hate. I love how I can go watch a video of Cab Calloway, hear Yeats read his poetry. Not so thrilled that I'm there, too, reading or speaking from some venue, maybe doing well, maybe not, maybe having a really bad hair day, and yet caught in amber for the ages. A mistake made on the internet, and sadly, there are no shortage of those, is made forever. A writer friend of mine told me an article once got his age wrong and there is no correcting it. It would be easier, he said, to change his birth certificate.
I love the democracy of the Web. I love the music. I love the book review blogs. I love it when someone loves a book and writes about that; it doesn't even have to be my book. I'm not as wild about Amazon.com reviews, though you can't fault them for passion. Any time I'm in danger of thinking too well of myself, there is the convenient antidote of my Amazon.com reviews.
I love the ingenuity, originality, pure inventiveness of unknown people posting on YouTube, but the internet also exposes the writhing id. Wit's End includes a chatlist altercation, but it is very pale, a mere hint of what a flame war is like. Under the cloak of anonymity, the anger and hatred some people express is a chilling thing to see. America has a long tradition of hate radio, but the internet brings that all in very close, often closer than I can stand.
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When I was in the sixth grade, Friday was science day. Every Friday we would get a science newsletter with short articles on space, space travel, biology, chemistry, etc. Sometimes there were predictions about the future. I recall how aghast we all were, in an article about continuing human evolution, to see an artist's conception of how humans would look centuries from now. We'd all have enormous bald skulls. This science newsletter with this same drawing went to sixth-grade classrooms all across the United States. Is it any wonder that a few years later, we were all, boys and girls alike, growing out our hair?
Other things were promised more imminently than those bulging, hairless scalps:
We would get phones with video capabilities so that we could see as well as hear the people we were talking to. This has finally happened, though much more slowly than anticipated. I don't care since I never wanted a video phone anyway.
We would fly about our daily business with our own individual jetpacks. A jetpack would have been cool. But I don't want one anymore.
We would visit the moon as tourists. I haven't completely given up on that one though it now seems more likely that instead of us going to the moon, the moon will come to us — that the landscape of Earth will grow increasingly dead and lunar. I don't remember anyone predicting global warming.
There is one unfulfilled prediction I feel genuinely bitter about. With the rise of technology, we were told, with more and more machines taking up the drudgery of housework and assembly line, we found ourselves on the brink of a paradigm-shifting future. Vast fields of leisure stretched before us. How could we possibly fill all those empty hours? What would we do? Who would we be? In high school I was assigned as a paper topic: The Societal Ramifications of the Leisure Problem.
I hardly need point out that we have no leisure problem. There isn't a person I know who doesn't feel that they live their life on the run. "I love to read," I'm often told when I'm at workshops or bookstore events or libraries, "but I just don't have the time." Technology is partly to blame for this. Instead of freeing us up, it is demanding our time in ever expanding ways. A year or so ago, I began to wonder how many hours a week I spent online. I kept track for three days and was so horrified I shelved the whole question.
Apparently, I had no interest in changing my behavior, even for those parts of my Web-based activity that are social and/or optional. I'm not required to follow a trail of links down a rabbit hole that ends with a YouTube posting of Snowball, the dancing cockatoo. I'm not required to watch that video twice. Yet there I am, and honestly pretty happy to be there until I look at the clock and wonder where the morning went. Messing about online always takes more time than it feels like it's taking. And once those hours are gone, they are gone. All the cockatoos in the world can't bring them back again.
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Karen Joy Fowler's previous novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, was on bestseller lists nationwide and spent thirteen weeks on the New York Times list. Sister Noon, her third novel, was a finalist for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award.
Books mentioned in this post
Karen Joy Fowler is the author of Wit's End