I caught a couple of disappointing panels at SXSW, as well as a couple that gave me lots of new thinking to chew on. My favorite was Liz Henry and Oden Soli‘s panel on Fictional Blogging. Liz presented an excellent and thorough outline of some of the different ways blogs can be a space for fiction: presenting chapters of novels being written, promoting a work by blogging from the point of view of a character, blogging as characters that are obviously ficticious (like the wonderful Mars Rover livejournal) and writing less transparent “hoaxes” as fiction.
“Good fiction is thick and messy,” building worlds that can be extended by other storytellers through fan fiction, or that have the possibility to cross over into the real world. Whether it’s group projects like Lonelygirl15 or solo efforts, taking on another identity to write fiction has a long path, including my friend Ben Franklin, who wrote many of his works under psuedonyms, sometimes posing as a woman which might have given his words a credibility to female readers that they might have lacked if they’d seen his bald pate. Fiction, Liz points out, is lying as an art form – how does writing fiction in a form that is often used as a journaling or citizen media form complicate that line between lying and storytelling?
Odin Soli is a good person to put this question to. He was the author of a prominent web fiction (or hoax, depending on who you’re asking), Plain Layne. Layne was a bisexual twenty-something “infowaif” who wrote about her thoughts, feelings, romantic life and process of self discovery from 2001-4. Crucially, she answered comments from readers, which helped build a community of 250 or so regular Layne followers, who sometimes tried to intervene and advise Layne on her decisions.
Soli maintained the deception until he was “outed on the front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press,” his home newspaper, which forced him to explain his authorship to his wife, amongst others… (“Hi honey, probably should have told you that I’ve spent the last three years writing interactive fiction online, pretending to be a twenty-something girl.”) Layne wasn’t his first experiment with online fiction – he began years ago, writing fiction in his .plan files (if you know what those are, you’re officially old, even if you’re young.)
The Layne community reacted with a great deal of anger to the revelation of the hoax – some members felt betrayed by the fact that they’d invested emotional energy in a character they thought was real. Others were charmed by the “soap opera” that Soli had put together. Soli makes it clear that he learned a great deal from the readers of the blog, using questions they’d raised as inspirations for future plot twists. By the end, he felt, “very Layne-like. I think I learned a great deal about young women.”
Soli believes that “fiction is moving towards ludology, towards an interactive game.” We expect to be able to talk to our characters and influence their direction. But there’s an open question about our expectations – “when we open a book, we’re expecting a lie.” What can we expect when we look at a blog?
The conversation beyond Layne touches on some of the interesting questions this sort of fiction raises for the internet as a whole. Soli wonders whether there’s a way to monetize long-form online fiction beyond Google ads. (Amazon wishlists for fictional characters, I suppose.) There’s a discussion about corporations’ ability to use these tools to influence purchasing behavior, including a dismissal of the PSP2 blog as “amazingly lame” and evidence that the marketers needed to hire a better firm to write the hoax.
The former art school student in me loves this idea and wants to go out and create some compelling online fiction. And the human rights activist in me wants to pick a fight with Soli out in the hall and rough him up a bit. So I ask a question instead: “What are the implications of this form of art for people who are forced to blog under psuedonyms, like ‘Sleepless in Sudan‘? Will the rise of blog fiction endanger citizen media, as repressive governments dismiss critical blogs as works of fiction?”
Soli had confronted the issue before on an earlier project, “The Sex Pistols are Alive and Well and Living in Sohatsenango”, in which he masqueraded as an Arab-American news reporter, taking time off and travelling by land in Africa and writing under the psuedonym “Acanit”. Post 9/11, he decided that particular fiction was not sustainable:
After 9/11 Acanit suddenly became a pointless and unbelievable and even dangerous experiment. I found her — myself, really — embroiled in discussions about the Middle East and Islam and American policy that I couldn’t honestly represent. So I let her fade away.
I’d be interested in continuing the conversation with Odin Soli and with Liz Henry on this topic. It seems impractical to beg people not to engage in this sort of fiction – clearly it’s going to happen, and it’s only a matter of time before someone claims to be living in a refugee camp or trying to overthrow the Zimbabwean government in the course of writing fiction. And that fiction, if it becomes popular like Layne, is going to radically complicate the efforts of Global Voices to cover the world via weblogs – we’re in a tough spot if we amplify those posts, and probably in an equally tough spot if we choose to challenge that author’s legitimacy and reality.