How to Incorporate the Internet into Your Fiction

3 Feb
Ben Lerner is an award-winning poet whose second novel, 10:04, was included in many best-of lists for 2014.

Ben Lerner is an award-winning poet whose second novel, 10:04, was included in many best-of lists for 2014.

Odds are, if you’re a living, breathing writer, then you have a smart phone. You’re probably on it more than you’d like, checking Facebook and Twitter and doing research via Wikipedia. And yet how often does any of this technology show up in our writing?

Ben Lerner’s latest novel, 10:04, breaks from the usual conventions of novel-writing in many ways, but one of the most striking is its seamless inclusion of our ability to search the Internet from the tips of our fingers. You can read an excerpt from the novel, published as the stand-alone story “The Golden Vanity” at The New Yorker.

How the Novel Works

The novel is, in part, about the mundane ways that we observe, encounter, and reflect on the quotidian elements of our days. Much of these encounters take place through or with our phones, which is why, perhaps, that Wikipedia makes three appearances in the book.

In the first, the narrator is walking and thinking:

I walked home through the park. “You have failed to reconcile the realism of my body with the ethereality of the trees,” I said to the mist. Because the park is on the flight path, the city corrals and euthanizes geese. Which mate for life, I confirmed on Wikipedia. The glow of the screen seemed to come off on my hand.

The second comes during remarks during a discussion by a panel of writers:

While preparing these remarks, I was reading up a little on Magee—by which I mean, why hide the fact, that I was reading his Wikipedia entry—when I noted a section called ‘Sources of Inspiration for High Flight.’

The third appearance actually appears twice, first as an illustration of a Brontosaurus skeleton in a book-within-a-book written by the narrator and then as an illustration credit in the back of the book—the illustration having been provided by Wikimedia Commons.

The different ways that Wikipedia is folded into the novel reflects the many ways it’s become part of the fabric of our experience of the world. When we think and question, we Google. When we hold forth on a subject, our holding forth has often been informed by an Internet search. And when we write books, the process has almost certainly been shaped or, at the very least, interrupted by the temptation to open the Internet browser.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s incorporate technology, especially Internet search engines, into our prose, using 10:04 by Ben Lerner as a model. We’ll try three ways of approaching the technology:

  1. An extension of thought. Much research has been done on how our phones have become extensions of our brains, which is why when they break or get lost or die, it’s as if we’ve suffered a stroke. We can’t think right. Most of us use our phones almost unconsciously, checking them as many as two hundred times a day. So, in your prose, try letting a character think about something—any kind of reflection will do: an act of problem solving or remembering or basic curiosity. We write those moments for our characters anyway. Now, simply add a line like Lerner’s: “I confirmed on Wikipedia.” Take it out, and the moment reads the same. The addition simply reflects our new reality.
  2. A reference during a discussion. If you spend any time at all around teenagers or twenty-somethings, then you know that it’s rare to talk with them for more than ten or fifteen minutes without a reference to something they saw on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or somewhere else online. Again, this makes the Internet not so much an addition to our discourse but a continuation of it. We’re doing what we’ve always done—talking about things we’ve seen or heard—but now we’re hearing and seeing them online. This can even be the case for a noteworthy poet, as Lerner shows in his novel. The poet references something he knows and adds, as an aside, that he learned this fact on Wikipedia. This feels authentic to real life. We tend to talk about videos and posts as if everyone knows what we’re talking about; it’s rarely necessary to state where we saw them. So, let your characters talk about something they’ve seen and simply add an aside, like Lerner: Oh, I saw it on _______.
  3. A direct insertion into the text. This one might be easy. You’re probably already switching back and forth between your writing and the Internet. That flipping back and forth is certain to influence your work: in content or in style. What would happen if you recognized a moment where this influence had occurred? What if you simply stated the influence as a kind of footnote. This may mean venturing into David Foster Wallace territory or, for a piece intended to be published online, including hyperlinks within the prose.

Have fun with this exercise. The fact that Lerner’s Wikipedia references stood out so sharply suggests that few writers are including the Internet in their work. So, if you play with this idea, you’re on the cutting edge of a new kind of writing. What’s more exciting than that?

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2 Responses to “How to Incorporate the Internet into Your Fiction”

  1. Book Guy Reviews March 2, 2015 at 8:02 p03 #

    Awesome stuff! Feel free to check out my review at Book Guy! Thanks!!!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Friday Finds for Writers | ErikaDreifus.com - February 6, 2015

    […] interesting post on “How to Incorporate the Internet into Your Fiction” (with excerpts & […]

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