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Where’s the Internet Gone?

October 14, 2010

Can you imagine our current world without the internet? Many writers seem to. In the August edition of the Australian Author, Geordie Williamson observes that the net is absent from much contemporary fiction: “… a look at the past decade of winners of the Man Booker and Miles Franklin reveals no prize-winning title that gives the web more than a passing glance.” Yet here is a force that has transformed our world.  Why isn’t the fiction of contemporary life reflecting that?

Are we swimming in the digital world without noticing it, as fish don’t notice the water, so that we forget to put it in our stories? It’s easy to do – I was halfway through writing a contemporary novel (ironically, I’d titled it How the World Works) before realising that I’d barely mentioned the internet. Given the qualities of the characters I’d created, I knew that the web’s presence in their lives would be much greater than I had portrayed. My excuse was that the focus was on relationships and value conflicts, but of course those dynamics now play out on a digital-saturated stage.

Where are the role models, the writers who have not ignored the net in contemporary fiction? I’ve just found one – Karen Hitchcock, whose short story Forging Friendship is in the latest issue of Overland. It’s a beautifully told tale of a relationship and its aftermath, in which the internet becomes a major part of the narrator’s life. Here’s a sample:

“eBay. Facebook. Twitter and chat. I’ll comment on your post from the comfort of my lounge room, though I wouldn’t cross the street to say a single word hello. I’ll buy stuff that would repulse me face to face. Things that are not acts will pretend to be acts; they will take the place of acts. I will watch and I will trawl and I will never catch you, I will never be caught.”

Overland issue 200, the anniversary edition, is a beauty. As well as Karen Hitchcock, there’s fiction from Christos Tsiolkas and Janette Turner Hospital. Tsiolkas’s story pretends to be an essay about an eighteenth century artist. The reader enters into a collaboration with the author, using the rich detail to construct the story.

The issue is packed with thought provoking essays, including two feminist analyses of the ways in which capitalism (the fishbowl we swim in) shapes people to understand themselves in terms of the market.

In another essay, Marion Rankine looks at how writers evoke a sense of place. Original writing, she says, describes place in ways we haven’t heard before, and transforms our understanding. Often the elements of the spaces in which we live are invisible to us, and an original writer enables us to see them.  In contrast, popular writing “acknowledges audience expectations and faithfully meets them.” As examples of original writing, she cites Chloe Hooper’s description of Palm Island, Sonya Hartnett’s evocation of the monotony of suburbia and the way Michelle de Kretser summons Melbourne to life (“golden-eyed tramfish glided through tinsel rain”). She contrasts this with a novel she classifies as popular fiction: Andrea Goldsmith’s Reunion, in which, according to Rankine, the author does not use language to evoke a sense of Melbourne, but relies instead on mentioning the names of places, such as streets and buildings.

I like Overland. I don’t always agree with its contributors, but in a Murdoch-coloured world, it helps us to see the water in which we swim.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    November 25, 2010 2:29 am

    I haven’t seen a copy of Overland for ages. Thanks for reminding me about it.

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