Paul Mason follows in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf in search of fictional character in the age of social media.
I get on a train and there, eventually, is Eleni Haifa: about 22, massive hair and 5 ft tall.
She is either Italian, Jewish, Arab, Turkish, Kurdish or Greek. She has olive skin and is wearing high heels with gold tips, a white jacket, oyster coloured skirt and carrying two iPhones, one in a black case and one red.
She has one iPhone in each hand and is transferring something from one to another by typing using her thumbs. But not the tips of her thumbs because her nails are so long – and polished – that she has to use the pads of her thumbs to type, very fast. She puts one down – the one playing her music - and then goes to Facebook on the other: to her profile, where the picture is some kind of cartoon. She flips to What’sApp – I can tell it’s What’sApp from the green message boxes. Between Clapham Junction and Waterloo she spends her switching between What’s App and Facebook. She’s been on the train at least from Richmond.
"On or about December 1910 human character changed," wrote Virginia Woolf.
Her argument was with Arnold Bennett, who claimed there were no good novels being produced because, after the 1914-18 war, writers had become unable to create characters.
Woolf disagreed. There'd been a crisis in literature caused by the emergence of a new kind of person: Edwardian novelists had tried to write about them using old, Victorian storytelling forms. Then, once they’d invented new forms (streams of consciousness, fragmented time etc), the conventions the audience shared with writers had broken down. But if the conventions could be re-established she said: "we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature" - as long as we don’t abandon character.
To illustrate her point she got on a train from Richmond to Waterloo and observed “Mrs Brown”.
Mrs Brown is the name Woolf gave to an elderly woman she’d watched on the train in the midst of an argument. Woolf unleashed her imagination on this old lady to illustrate how the modern novelist has to approach character from the standpoint of mind and imagination, discarding the circumstance-based characters of Victorian literature. She was, at this time, halfway through writing Mrs Dalloway, which was a non-sequential exploration of her own psyche and post-war guilt. She had written at the top of the manuscript: “A delicious idea comes to me that I will write anything I want to write”.
Woolf's famous line - "on or about December 1910 human character changed" - haunts the present. Sometime during the 2000s a combination of technology, broken economic life-chances and increased personal freedom changed human character all over again. From the demonstrations on Tahrir Square, to the small exam revision groups organised by women in hijabs in the coffee bars just off Tahrir Square, we are beginning to meet a new kind of person: the networked individual, with weak organisational loyalty, multiple personas and whose consciousness is produced by continual, multiplatform communication.
This has implications for all forms of storytelling based on character. To explore these, I’ve decided to jump on the same train Woolf took - from Richmond to Waterloo in the early evening - and search again for Mrs Brown.
So I get on the train at Richmond, around 1815. The platform is packed.
Richmond shouts “class” at you: it’s overwhelmingly white; there are still the kind of people here who go to the cricket and the whole high street is a playground for non-working wealthy women and their kids, and nannies.
In this experiment the rules are: I have to describe and maybe build a character for the first memorable “networked individual” I see.
But today you can’t call a character “Mrs Brown” – we’re a global melting pot in London and marriage is on the decline except among gays and lesbians. But on Facebook the are always “invented name” memes going around: your pornstar name, your Country & Western name etc.
So I’ve come up with a formula for your “networked individual” name: it’s the name on the badge of the last barista who served you coffee, combined with the place you last saw a riot on TV news. So this woman with two phones has to be called Eleni Haifa.
The difference between Eleni Haifa and Woolf’s heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, is not that she might be living a liberated modern life, zipping over to a hen night in Stockholm via Ryanair, taking the morning after pill, hitting a punchbag at the gym, etc. These things are just the modern equivalents of what the liberated middle class woman from Richmond did in the 1920s.
The real difference is how she thinks and communicates and how that moulds a version of the self, or several versions of it, and how she deploys them. The challenge for all forms of storytelling based on character is how to depict that.
But that’s not the only challenge. The second challenge is: why would Eleni Haifa want to read a form of storytelling that was less interesting than the one she creates with her own life? With those two iPhones she has some awesome narrative firepower of her own, and those thumbs are quick.
Some bullet points about the internet’s impact on the kind of self we possess…
The multiple self: we present clearly defined versions of ourself in different digital arenas – Eleni can be the woman who works for the ad agency, the girlfriend, the secret girlfriend of someone else, the kickboxer, the Arsenal fan, the Elf in Elder Scrolls Online. Each time she spins the dial dial round, to select a one of these selves, the others don’t just rotate – they reconfigure around the selected self, like electrons in a model of an atom.
The leaky self: When we’re online: “it becomes almost like a fluid, leaking out around us all the time and joining each of us into a vast ocean, or web, of relationships with other leaky selves.” (Margaret Wertheim: The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace). Eleni retweets someone’s epithet, shares her friend’s wedding photographs on Facebook, subscribes to a playlist her boyfriend posted on Spotify: the precondition for all of the above is that other people are prepared to contribute parts of their online life to hers, so she must too.
The scattered essential self: Though each of the selves is constructed there will be one self (sometimes more) selected for the processes of reflection that are available online. People will pour out personal shit on Facebook or Twitter messaging services, or via the closed services like What’sApp and Snapchat. This self will be scattered across analog and digital spaces and consists of all the unguarded and frank expressions they’ve every uttered.
The branded self: Below the age 35 most people are now maintaining a carefully constructed version of the self, aimed at the two most essential things in life: getting a partner and getting a job. They consciously construct this self – though they may not fully believe in it. To find it look at Facebook profiles, people’s Tumblrs, their profile pics. Eleni’s two iPhones could be one provided by work and another she runs herself: or they could contain two separate lives. A lot of people do the latter.
The Cartesian dualist selves: Wertheim asks, pertinently: “where am I when I am in an immersive online world?” My body is sitting at my computer but my mind is fighting a dragon with 200 other disembodied selves. Though gaming is the condition mostly associated with this, it could be asked of anybody immersed in their tablet or their smartphone. They are newly capable of being in one place and acting in another. The key here is interaction: there are a lot of people on the train “lost” in books and e-books: this is the same as it would have been in 1924. But those who are interacting in realtime with other people can develop a different kind of online consciousness that comes close to the old Cartesian dualism, of the mind and body being separate.
Other selves are available.
Woolf understood the idea of multiple selves. She writes in Orlando that “a biography is considered complete if it accounts for six or seven selves whereas a person may have as many thousand”. (Orlando p213)
But for Woolf, “people” meant upper middle class people; people who’d been to Cambridge. You can tell this by the fact that in all her writing the “selves” of working class people are one dimensional.
In addition, even for Woolf, many of these selves were publicly suppressed. So her relationship with Vita Sackville West – her lesbian self – is never fully acknowledged, either in her writing or in her letters to other people; even her letters to Vita are prudish about what may or may not have happened. Her political “self” is suppressed, even in her late novels when she’s angry about fascism. She takes out of The Waves a brilliant polemic; she self-censors a risqué joke about lesbianism out of A Room of One’s Own.
No. Whatever freedom and multidimensionality we think the liberated women of the inter-war era had, they only had it in retrospect: we only know it from their biographies, letters and diaries.
Eleni Haifa has freedom, and a publicly multi-identity lifestyle on a scale not only unimaginable in Woolf’s time, but impossible one generation ago. She is also, of course, oppressed, harassed, crushed down by circumstance.
If you plugged into a database every character in every play in the Western canon..
…and plotted complexity against class, you’d probably end up with a neat curve: until around 1890 most low class characters are stereotypes; and though not all upper class characters are complex, most complex ones are upper class, or have significant power. The outliers would be underlings who play a part in the downfall of rich men: Iago, Sganarelle in Don Juan, Figaro.
After that, complex working class characters begin to appear – but usually where the entire world of the drama is working class: eg The Daughter-in-Law, Harold Brighouse etc. It’s better in novels: there are complex working class characters in Zola, Hardy, Forster – often depicted as men and women adrift in the world of the disrupted middle classes.
The real revolution, beginning in the 1890s lies in the depiction of psychology and gender and the rapid fall in the social “centre of gravity”: plays begin to be set in the world of the lower middle class, at whose edges lie beggars, dustmen, prostitutes, closet gay men and the occasional revolutionary.
I say “beginning” but if you look at the statistics, the West End in the 1890s is all Pinero, H.A Jones and Sydney Grundy. “Who?” you say. Yeah who!
This is London theatre scene on the eve of the date that “human character changed”. Jones, Pinero and Grundy wrote plays in which the most controversial social topics were things like divorcees being allowed to remarry. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – the play credited with spreading feminism - was first performed in London in 1889 and again for a 7-night only run in the mid-1990s.
The “change in human character” Woolf is writing about probably begins in the 1890s and is complete by 1910. Theatre, because of censorship, was lagging behind reality.
She chooses December 1910 not just because it was the date of the Post-impressionist Exhibition organised by her friend Roger Fry, but also of the general election which the liberals won on a radical pledge to limit the power of the House of Lords – and because 30 November 1910 had seen “Black Friday” when 300 suffragettes demonstrating outside parliament were physically attacked by the police, sparking the major upsurge in property damage, hunger striking etc. December 1910 may have felt a lot like December 2010 did in Britain, with the student uprising.
If we look at it through technology, the 1910 date for the emergence of the modern person is about right. Here’s a list of things you could do in December 1910 that you could not in, say December 1895:
- go to the movies,
- ride in a motor car,
- play a 78 rpm record,
- read a tabloid newspaper,
- make a long-distance phone call,
- work in a steel-frame tall building,
- radio a message to a ship.
People who lived through the second industrial revolution (1898-1914) understood it was a moment of rapid change – in technology, lifestyles and the psyche. And not just for the middle and upper classes. For working class people there was – via the public library, the labour movement and the night school – the sudden possibility of complexity, challenge, a language of self-reflection.
For the first 100 years of industrial work, life for the working class person had been one of heavy work, scant leisure time, constrained conversation or even habitual silence. Even for skilled and literate workers, rigidly social codes defined what they said, did and thought. Theodore Zeldin explores the archaeological ruins of this world in An Intimate History of Humanity – documenting the preference for silence, taboo subjects, stilted methods of discourse among the French lower classes. I am going to discuss this further in Postcapitalism: A guide to our future (Penguin, 2015).
The point here is that the new technology, combined with new social conditions, not only created the possibility of, say, a character like Mrs Dalloway but also a character like Mellors in Lawrence. When we say “a new kind of person” we mean revolutionary forms of thought infest the world of the ordinary person as well.
This Eleni Haifa person on the train in 2014 is not a revolutionary: her entire mode of dress – the office wear, big hair and the gold shoes - says that. But it is to such people that the revolutions of 2011-13 happened: office workers in Cairo, Istanbul, Moscow, Syria. People who’ve spent a lot of money on shoes basically. And what brought it to them was the same networks they habitually used to discuss their ordinary lives.
Woolf’s complaint was that new kinds of people had been trapped in old literary forms. It feels to me like that’s what we are living through now.
In the English-language theatre, plays where characters habitually stare at their smartphones, where texting and emails are represented as an additional layer of communication and consciousness, have begun to appear. The first play I saw where this was systematically exploited was Karin Young’s The Awkward Squad (2012) – in all other ways it was a traditional piece of theatre. If I think back to the first play I saw where the characters all behaved as networked individuals it was either Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1997) or his Mother Clap’s Molly House(2000).
Probably the most overt impact of the new, networked reality has been seen in the American drama series: The Wire’s entire premise was a war between a hierarchy (the Baltimore cops) and a network (African American criminal gangs using cellphones and codes to communicate). But The Wire was, largely, populated by “old kinds of people”. Only the character of Omar – a gay, self-reflective outsider to all the other worlds in the drama – emerges (by Season Three) as the kind of hyper-connected, multi-self individual we see in post-2000 reality.
By the mid-2010s, however something more significant has happened: it has become normal to reflect the new complexity of characters through the device of the uncertain/unresolved plot.
In Homeland, and in the UK TV drama series Line of Duty, the protagonists are chronically deconstructed. We do not know, from one episode to the next, what their real motivation is, what the true facts are about them, or what they are going to do next. To achieve this, directors have begun to deprive all but the lead actor of any knowledge of how the story ends. Typically the story is not resolved.
The beauty of this new device, the unresolved plotline, is that it is implicitly understood by the audience: the audience no longer has only to suspend disbelief: they have to suspend their expectations of any kind of resolution.
This looks like extreme innovation in plot: in fact it is about character. It allows the creation of characters in which there is space for the multiple selves of modern life. Because the plots never have to resolve, the entire ten hours of the series become a kind of revolving dais for us to see these crystally impure and complex people, revolving round and round, like ourselves. By giving Carrie, the heroine of Homeland, bipolar disorder, the writers award themselves the ability to make her multi-selved and unpredictable.
And what about the novel? Woolf describes the novel’s power as “so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive”. Has the novel’s richness, elasticity and life run out in the face of this?
No – but the literary novel itself is under pressure: economically, from writers’ falling incomes, technologically – with the rise of self-published fan fiction with followings of multi-million downloads, and ultra-cheap e-books - and then existentially, from reality-based texts.
If you give Frodo Baggins a cellphone The Lord of the Rings becomes a considerably shorter book.
So much of old literature’s narrative power hung on the absence of realtime information, or the absence of background knowledge, and the inability to communicate, that the future of narrative where the network is everywhere has to be in question.
Try it with Othello: just hack into her Facebook page, mate – Cassio’s most definitely in the friend zone, its that Iago you want to worry about – he’s obsessed with her. Try it with Casablanca: Rick does not tweet but his Facebook profile says “it’s complicated”: he has just 17 “friends” and he posts Youtubes of old Hoagy Carmichael songs up, late at night, with no explanation.
Try it with Mrs Dalloway, however, and you run into a different problem. In Woolf’s novel the narrative of Clarissa’s day is just a framework on which to drape her self-exploration, her alter-ego – the suicidal PTSD casualty Septimus – her regrets and fantasies about lives she never got to live.
What happens to Clarissa Dalloway if you give her a mobile phone is not so revolutionary: she just becomes a 1920s version of Eleni Haifa. She is already a person with multiple selves, liberated in her own mind. Given a cellphone she becomes the citizen of a world where old things are alive with new information: she gets to express these multiple selves in reality, and not in an experimental novel, or in private letters.
The real problem for the novelist or playwright is not describing Eleni from the inside out: it is describing the externals. For her, reality is being bombarded with external messages every minute. Her reality is the music in her earphones, the messages and tweets and emails and likes and photographs arriving on her two (!) iPhones.
The question is: can we tweak the old forms to make Eleni’s complete story possible – or do we, like Woolf’s generation, have to create new conventions?
In Reality Hunger (2010) David Shields claimed that a new artistic movement was forming in which artists were “breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.” Shields cited – in music, drama, video, novels and poetry – the increasingly frequent use of “raw” material: “unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored and unprofessional.” He described its typical characteristics:
“Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation, an overly-literal tone, as if reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form; pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography; anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) between fiction and non-fiction; the lure and blur of the real”.
Notice how this list veers, towards the end, towards variations on a theme of instant and continuous autobiography. That is what Eleni is making on the train.
It is worth noting that Woolf owned a primitive version of what Eleni owns: a self-publishing tool. She and Leonard owned and operated the Hogarth Press in their home. They self-published some of Virginia’s work, and only Leonard had any pre-publication input, and then only at the galley proof stage. She too produced, over the years, many iterations of the instant and continuous autobiography. The “delicious thought… I will write what I like” and the ability to publish it are linked.
Shields does not like the novel. He believes a novel, in these circumstances, becomes not about reality but about the artifice of writing and plotting and character creation. He says the people really doing what the novel used to do are documentarists, non-fiction writers, or those prepared to montage chunks of reality and self-analysis into the prose:
“The power to make us feel our one and only life, as very few novelists actually do these days, has come from a memorist, a non-fiction truth speaker who has entered our common situation and is telling the story we now want to be told.”
This is true but I don’t think this is the whole story – otherwise why is Eleni Haifa devouring novels - analog and digital - and sitting for hours on end in front of a DVD boxed set, or going to Cirque du Soleil, or a comedy club or even an actual theatre? (When she got off the train she headed for the South Bank).
When I was writing Rare Earth: A Novel my instinct was to make the periodisation fuzzy.
I started writing it in a hotel room in China in May 2009, in the run up to the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square; the key events concern the anniversary itself, but I could have made it “any recent anniversary”. Since there are ghosts in it, and surreal events, and the CCP is not going to be overthrown anytime soon, it would be better situated somewhere in a blob of time between Lehman Brothers and what was then to unfold – the Eurocrisis and the Arab Spring.
The thing that made me reverse out of this, and set it literally day by day in 2009, was technology.
The protagonist, Brough, a journalist, has a GPRS Blackberry which gets confiscated and smashed. He is (plausibly for then) not on Facebook or Twitter but is on email, uses text messaging and most definitely the Internet. Two crucial plot points happen because the Chinese try to seize and wipe “tapes” not knowing that video can be backed up to discs and cards, even if they are not yet shot onto cards. In fact members of his own team don’t know this, and are undone by it.
By the next time I went to China, in 2012, all video was shot on cards. Secret policemen the world over have become adept at demanding SD cards from journalists and know how to wipe them. The real life Brough would have had a 3G Blackberry by 2010, switching to iPhone by around 2011. By 2012 some journalists were switching from laptops to iPad plus mini keyboard for everyday travel use. Meanwhile it has become near mandatory for journalists to be on Twitter. And What’sApp appeared: there are more photos sent via What’sApp per minute than there are tweets.
This rapid change – the rise of social media, their banning in China and the creation of a parallel Chinese social media service, in the form of Weibo etc – all made China in 2012 seem utterly cut off from the real world, in a way it was not in 2009, when it was still part of the shared world of Blackberry, SMS and Internet.
Brough is not me: he is a dumber, more sexist, less radical and at the same time more action-oriented version of me. But he is close enough to me that I realise his character – such as it is – would have changed significantly in these years of social media revolution and mass, horizontalist revolt.
By 2014 he is not the “new type of person” you meet habitually on the protests, or in the alternative lifestyle movements. But he is surrounded by them and changed by them. He too is living testimony that, as I’ve argued in Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, “on or about” December 2010 human character changed.
So let’s rephrase Woolf’s observation…
Sometime between the painting of Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and its first showing (1916) human character changed: the first atonal music is performed, the first abstract art is shown, Diaghilev’s dancers dance in Paris and London, Klimt’s lesbian kiss in the Beethoven frieze is exhibited and taken down. Alexander Bogdanov quits the Bolsheviks and writes his sci-fi novel Red Star, in which an idealised communist society on Mars has abolished gender identities. In politics these are the years of the suffragettes and syndicalism.
During this revolution in human character, in order to find a voice for the new person, most of the conventions of communication between artists and their audience break down: so you get early surrealism, inner narratives, psychodrama, atonality, the Ballets Russes.
But the physical forms persist. There are still theatres, books, symphony orchestras, opera houses. And these physical forms, as Woolf expected, gradually allow artists to rebuild “conventions of communication”. And the language of innovation is toned down, or becomes stylised.
Then comes the surge towards a demotic realism once the mid-century crisis hits: Steinbeck, Greene, Brecht, Weill – the poets and novelists of the 1930s who react against Bloomsbury and surrealism.
Plus you get the rise of mass cultural forms: the popular song, the Jazz record, the movie and the musical, the photograph – all of which quickly stabilise into structures dictated by their physical formats: reels of film, discs of shellac, the size and shape of a Broadway stage, the format of a magazine like Life or Picture Post.
So the 1910 version of “human character changed” disrupted the way we use books, canvases and stages but did not lead to their replacement as physical forms.
If, in response to the rise of network technology, we have to rethink our approach to character, then it is even more likely that we will rethink our approach to physical forms.
If Shields is right we should expect to change not just what is done in the theatre, but where and when theatre is done, and what it physically consists of; not just how a novel looks on an e-reader but what kind of thing should we write for e-readers. Not just how music sounds where how it is stored and played. In each case we should expect large chunks of “reality” to enter into works of art.
This is because the background to the change is not a “second industrial revolution” but a move towards the information society. Information is the raw material empowering (or disempowering, we don’t know) the woman with two iPhones on the train. A lot of it will be information that is free, or is her own information, or unprocessed information.
In theatre there is, already, a boom in interactive performance; alongside this there is the rise of all kinds of re-enactment – jousting competitions in the grounds of castles, fake miners in preserved collieries etc.
(When climate protesters staged a series of performance protests against BP’s sponsorship inside the Viking exhibition at the British Museum, there were times when the punters did not know the whole thing had not been actually commissioned by the Museum itself.)
On top of that there the rising popularity of physical theatre. If the new generation of protesters are used to using performance – staging a climb up a power-station chimney, or creating a Clown Army to disrupt the Gleneagles Summit – then they are drawing from and adding to these two trends in theatre: interaction and physicality.
If protesters use the human body to write graffiti onto the modern city, then dramatists can use them to create theatre in the same way.
The vogue for clowning and circus skills in theatre is probably speaking to an unstated desire to break down forms. For where are we when we’re in a circus? Is it real or a performance?
The assumption is the former: the animals, the trapeze artists, the water that used to flood the arena at Blackpool Tower circus so the seals could perform - are all real. Yet we also have slapstick, and characters: Whiteface, Auguste, the girl on horseback in a tutu. The circus is more real, and less controllable than theatre, and while traditional circuses are dying out, this mix between spectacle and theatre (quite similar to the Sirkus imagined by Peter Carey in The Unusual Life of Tristram Smith) is both commercially successful - Cirque du Soleil in nearly every casino in Vegas - and attractive to a new generation of performers. It is an ideal convention for now. There are others of course.
Then there is devising. It is hard to distinguish fads from fundamental trends but it feels like a lot of serious drama is now made at the devising stage: that is, the author contributes a scenario or structure and the actors/directors bring research, analysis, improvisation etc to the task of creating sustainable characters onstage.
As with the TV drama series, the plot becomes secondary: Mike Lee’s Grief sacrificed the conventional turning points of drama for the most utterly convincing and compelling character creation (by Lesley Manville) through devising and improvisation.
Why is this? Perhaps actors/devisers have the confidence that they can create character better than a writer for good reason: they are nearer to the real, multiple selves of the modern person than the writer can be.
Let’s go back to the train and ask: how much narrative creativity does Eleni Haifa actually want?
Ask her: “do you go to the theatre” – and she will probably answer not often. Asked why, she may answer: “because I can’t afford it”. But this is a ruse. She will pay twice the cost of a theatre ticket for a nail job, or a cheap flight to a city less interesting than her own.
The movies? Yes, but unless she’s some kind of niche intellectual we are talking Hollywood genres: rom-com, action, zombie or ditzy po-mo thriller. Movies are important because they are the raw material for memes in the way theatre is not. Movies are the subject of watercooler moments for this generation: you have to see them to talk about them.
Novels? You bet. A lot of other women her age were reading them on the train to Waterloo (men were also read novels but also a lot of nonfiction – why?). But as in the days of Virginia Woolf it is not likely to be literary fiction. It will be a sophisticated version of genre: by Kate or Kathy or Zadie or Allie (she is statistically unlikely to be reading a novel by a man). I am stereotyping here but within reasonable bounds.
You can boil narrative down to plot, character and poetry. If we ask: what plots can Eleni Haifa deal with the answer is: complex. She is totally schooled in the reversals, twists, surprises, unresolved tensions that range across entire seasons of TV drama, and through multipart feature movie franchises like Bourne.
How much poetry does she want? The answer is a lot. To steal a phrase from Jimmy Stewart’s character in Harvey, nobody brings anything small into a theatre or cinema anymore, or to a novel. The milky sunsets, weak violence and unlined faces of the Robert Redford era are gone. In literature, the style – if not complexity – of a Marquez, Pynchon, Pamuk, Zadie Smith or Arundhati Roy is a required level of intensity.
But what kind of characters does Eleni Haifa want to hear about? I am asking this not in order to “give the people what they want” but just out of interest.
We know what kind of characters she gets. From Hollywood, utter stereotypes. In TV drama it’s the opposite. The new archetype is Carrie – bipolar, poly, physically tougher than most men in the era of Virginia Woolf, and juggling determinedly multiple personalities (woman in the suit, woman in the hijab, the drunk woman in the bar, curled up foetus in the mental health unit). In novels? Supply creates demand here – and the supply is dominated by characters who go generally through epiphany and redemption. And the Jimmy Stewart doctrine also applies: nothing is small. All traumas have to be huge.
Let’s assume the woman on the train “reads”, and can navigate intelligently, all the above formulas in popular fiction and TV drama. What is left for literature, theatre, the art movie, other genres yet to be invented? What are we trying to add?
You could try to create – as Woolf did in Mrs Dalloway – the human character on steroids. One woman’s world, bursting so heavily with subtext, trauma and self-reflection that all the other characters are needed just to tell the story of what’s going on inside her brain.
But at a certain point if that inner narrative is not interacting with networks – messages, memes, the thoughts of multiple selves expressed on social media platforms, long hours spent gaming (Candy Crush Saga is big among the people on the 1815 from Richmond to Waterloo) – if these things are not there then it is not her reality. It is an old reality, like portraying the Edwardian era without suffragettes.
Large numbers of young, urban, connected human beings can get up any day of the week and, like with Woolf, the idea can come to them: “I can write anything I like”. Only they will do it with their body – in an occupation, in a flamenco dance before a Spanish cathedral, spurting fake blood out of their skirt in protest at the abortion law – or in dance club. Or graffiti. Or with their fingers/thumbs using Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr on one or more iPhones.
The raw material of what they produce will always be a montage of other people’s stuff and then something outrageously original by them. On the Jimmy Stewart principle it will be nothing small. It could be as simple as a Tumblr blog about haute couture by a publicly militant feminist revolutionary. The mere fact of who she is and the cool-ly uncommittal images from Vogue she’s posting is a bigger statement than the opening sentence of a lot of books.
Woolf’s injunction was “never, never abandon Mrs Brown” – that is, never abandon real characters. But what does it mean to “not abandon” our woman on the train? Two things:
(a) If we are going to depict her in literature or on stage or on TV, we have to find ways of depicting the full person: the tweets, the memes, the text messages, her Instagram photos, the filter she uses on her Instagram photos; what they mean.
(b) And then we have to adjust the format of narrative to take account of the fact that she is probably producing a very interesting narrative of her own, every second she is awake.
Let me put it another way: in my own writing I don’t have to do any of these things. Nor does any other creator of traditional narratives (film, novel, theatre, TV drama). Fuckyeah we can all stay pre-digital.
Eleni will go on reading Kathy Reichs, playing Candy Crush, watching genre movies and then sharing responses to them on social media. Theatres will still get public funding, novelists will get dwindling advances, blockbusters TV series will get made that sporadically depict truth by getting less and less structured in their narratives. People will flock to Cirque du Soleil, stand up comedy and Glastonbury.
But there will be no Rick, no Ilse, no Clarissa Dalloway, no Mellors, no Connie Chatterley, no Yossarian, no Taste of Honey for our time. Brilliant creators will go on creating characters like these in the old conventions - like Bach went on writing Baroque music, perfecting it even as the genre died.
Give “Mrs Brown” an iPhone and it is people like Mrs Woolf who have to start worrying.
WTF is Eleni Haifa? by Paul Mason is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Acknowledgements: This essay was inspired by a workshop at the Young Vic Theatre, under its director’s programme, in August 2014.