S.D. Chrostowska, Marie Calloway, and the New Media Novel

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1. The Email-Epistolary Novel

In a 2010 broadside subtitled "Where are the iPhone Addicts and Facebook ‘Stalkers’ in Contemporary Fiction?" Joanne McNeil critiqued the email correspondence in Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story (2010) as having been "presented no differently than the epistolary passages in nineteenth-century literature." McNeil argued that the accurate portrayal of online communication today would resemble Burroughs and Gysin's cut-up technique.

If McNeil’s desired stalkers and addicts are still rarities in contemporary literature, the last several years have been bizarrely good for the email-epistolary novel. Besides Super Sad True Love Story (2010), S.D. Chrotowska's Permission (2013), Lynn Coady's The Antagonist (2011), Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2012) and Kimberly McCreight's Reconstructing Amelia (2013) are all either primarily composed of emails or structurally rely on the form. The traditional epistolary novel is not as antiquated as memories of Richardson’s Pamela (1740) or Stoker’s Dracula (1897) might suggest. Contemporary authors are, after all, chief among the fetishizers of dead media, and snail-mail epistolary novels get churned out regularly. But the email-epistolary novel, arguably kicked off by Matt Beaumont's e in 2000, has now achieved conventionality as well.

Perhaps, however, this isn’t so bizarre. Email offers fertile ground for the central elements (unreliable narrator, disjointed plot, use of multi-media etc.) of contemporary conventional literature. And then there is the fact that most people who write conventional lit are old; old, as in above thirty-five. And old people write emails. They might text and post on Facebook and Twitter-fight about the latest listicle, but they've been using email for decades. They’re comfortable with its possibilities, with the way they can control it.

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"Go to bed, Tao Lin."

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I thought we could either gchat, then edit later, or meet in person and transcribe whatever happens w/o editing (including things like ["long pause"] and "[nervously laughs]." I think I kind of prefer the 2nd.

So began my interaction with author Tao Lin, a young author known as much for his self-promotional antics as for his several published novels. I wanted to interview Lin about his experiences with a popular image board called 4chan, known for being a playground for internet trolls and the birthplace of the "hacktivist" collective known as Anonymous. 4chan is a place where thousands of people gather for cheap thrills: porn, gore, and spontaneous collaborative pranks that range from harmlessly goofy to insidiously dangerous. 4chan trolls go after religious cults, white supremacists, scam artists, pedophiles, and animal abusers. They also seem to hate Tao Lin. I wanted to know why.

4chan is a collection of image boards that allows users to anonymously post messages that disappear quickly unless they contain content that inspires others to respond. It is marked by the presence of a geeky, insular cultural currency of internet-borne ephemera which we've now decided to collectively call "memes." For the most part, 4chan's users just want to kill time shooting the shit with other geeks. They talk about anime, mecha, papercraft and other mostly-geeky topics. I've been hanging out on 4chan pretty regularly since 2007—it's a fascinating Darwinian "meme-pool," from which much of internet culture derives. I wrote a book about 4chan last fall. 

Two years ago, 4chan's administrator added a literature board, or, /lit/, to the fifty or so extant forums. It was an immediate personal thrill to see the often puerile tone of 4chan's boards used to describe Dostoyevsky, for instance. The content on the ...

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