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Friend. Follow. Text: Shawn Syms on Stories From Living Online

Twitter lit? Facebook fiction? On how contemporary writing is enhanced by social media.

cover friend follow text

Twitter lit? Facebook fiction? Here at 49th Shelf, we use the online realm to bring books and readers together. A new book, Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, really takes this idea to heart. It consists of stories where the ways we connect online—chat sessions, Facebook status updates, website comment threads—are incorporated directly into the narrative. We asked editor Shawn Syms to talk about some of the stories in the book and the ways in which contemporary writing is being increasingly enhanced by the language and format of social media.


How we meet each other, talk to one another, experience our lives together: it’s all changing. The possibility of being constantly online—while dancing in a big, sweaty crowd or standing alone on a quiet, snowy mountaintop—has started to permanently alter how we communicate as a culture. Whether we’re talking about sharing photos, trading tweets or texting exes, some find this delightful, others disconcerting.

This shift has affected us as readers. Curled up in bed reading 1984 on a tablet or getting breaking news while sitting on the bus, our eyes scan more information of myriad types in many different ways now. And it’s starting to affect how authors construct their works, too. Is there a place in literary writing for text messages, blog posts and emails?

Literature has long interrogated current cultural preoccupations and communication paradigms. I think back to John Cheever’s 1947 short story “The Enormous Radio,” which talks about the dramatic change that a new—and indeed, somewhat supernatural—radio has on the domestic lives of a married couple. So how are writers today talking about and incorporating the possibilities of social media in their work?

That’s a question I set out to answer—or at least begin a conversation about—with Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. The book’s 27 contributors, from such CanLit stalwarts as Steven Heighton and Zoe Whittall to talented newcomers, use a range of innovative approaches to tell stories that share a focus on today’s digitally interconnected lives.

Some of these stories are told in a traditional manner and others are more experimental, but each is distinctive, readable, and offers a compelling narrative. In Sara Press’s “Google World,” a restless and disillusioned young traveller finally finds human connection—in an Internet cafe in Vietnam, where he has a conversation with an equally unilingual 11-year-old boy through the help of Google Translate. Angelique Stevens’s “Spiral” is told entirely through a transcript of voice mails, texts, emails, and phone calls. From this unique formal approach, a coherent story emerges—as spring turns to summer, family members come together and apart as they respond to a sister whose life is spiralling out of control.

What are the stories about? The usual stuff: fear and dreams, love and friendship, crisis, and renewal. Though some of these tales are written in an experimental manner, they deal with issues to which we can all relate. Jessica Westhead’s “And Also Sharks” takes the form of a response to a self-esteem blog called “Planet Janet.” We learn about the character’s ambivalent reactions to Janet, but also about her own daily life, filled as it is with insecurities, parents, and casseroles. Every word of Heather Birrell’s “No One Else Really Wants to Listen” comprises comments on an online message board for expectant mothers. A moving, dramatic story evolves as the women type posts to one another, arguing back and forth about issues ranging from God to abortion to whether or not you can truly get to know someone you’ve never met in person.

Indeed, many of the book’s stories focus on the question of our “real” selves versus online personas—where and how these diverge and intersect. One relationship comes together while another falls apart in Sonal Champsee’s “The Wedding,” when a woman tries to resolve a fight with her partner via text message while sitting through a long, traditional Indian wedding. Is it really possible to have “Sixteen-hundred Closest Friends”? Steve Karas’s protagonist, a settled family man, finds out when he connects in real life with a childhood buddy who’s turned himself into a Facebook celebrity.

Yes, there are breakups and disillusionment with life in these pages—but a heck of a lot of laughs as well. The book opens with a gritty noir short by Toronto playwright Marcy Rogers that imagines what might happen if you decided to make your most annoying Facebook friend shut up for good. The lies people tell on dating sites—accidentally or on purpose—are fodder for hilarity in Wyl Villacres’s “Baby, Let’s Rock.” Ever get annoyed by a Facebook status update and passive-aggressively respond to it in your own? Kate Baggott’s uproarious “A Collection of Ill-Advised Facebook Status Updates” takes this idea to an extreme, and riotous, conclusion.

As more of us start to read on tablets and phones as well as the printed page, and to share our favourite books with our friends online, more and more stories will be told using the conventions of social media.Friend. Follow. Text.contributor Alex Leslie says this is particularly true of younger readers: “People enjoy reading things that echo back what they experience … The ways we receive information are being transformed, and that transformation is most intensely experienced by people who have to change with it, or lose the ability to communicate with their own generation.” In the end, I think this is true of all of us though. And while the tools we use to read and write are changing, the end goals remain timeless and compelling. We may friend one another,follow one another and text one another, but ultimately, what we all want is simply to deeply connect with one another—on the page, on the screen and out in the world.


Shawn Syms is the editor of Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. His short stories, journalism, poetry, criticism and other writing have been published over the past 25 years in more than 50 publications. A finalist for the prestigious Journey Prize for fiction, he has completed a short-fiction collection that he hopes will make its way into print soon—and he’s currently toggling back and forth between the early stages of a novel and a second book of short stories.

And naturally, Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesfromLivingOnline is on Facebook. 

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