A few weeks ago, Joe discussed the importance of placing content "where the eyes already are", and creating an experience for readers that is "fully integrated" – or at least, as close to that as possible.
His article struck a chord with me, because I am about to embark upon a reading experiment that is, to my knowledge, the first of its kind. On April 1st 2014, I am releasing my prize-listed novel, A Short Death, for free on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr. Called a “Social Media Serial”, the book will be serialized into chronological social-media-friendly chunks, allowing readers to receive the latest installments simultaneously, in the convenience of their newsfeeds.
In this experiment I am teasing out the extent to which social media can enthrall us across a more sustained narrative. More importantly, I am seeking to discover new ways that writers can connect with readers in a shared experience.
Where did my inspiration come from?
I’m a photographer as well as a writer. In the world before social media, when I used to send photos to my friends by email, few people opened the attachments. But when I put my photos on Facebook, my images suddenly had a more engaged audience.
I looked at Farmville. And poking. And all those other useless things that people were doing and telling me about in regular newsfeed updates. The more I mused on these quaintly absurd and wasteful uses of our time, the more I realized why people were looking at my photos. When you are in the Facebook universe, you look for reasons to stay there. The inexorable pull of social media makes you want to be there in case something happens, even if nothing does. You form relationships with your news feed. On one level, you begin to live there.
Then I wrote a book
A Short Death was an experimental fiction. It told the story of Se, a sweet and hapless nineteen year old teenage boy who was killed on the beach in broad daylight in Rio de Janeiro. Inspired by a real murder that I witnessed in Brazil in 2005, the fictional account that I later created sought to unnerve the reader; to invoke the same kind of confusion and emptiness I felt the day it happened. The story I wrote was set in an absurd universe that emulated Brazil in its places, its language and symbols, but remained removed from the country Brazilians would recognize as their own. Its use of the second person heightened the sense of discomfort; of being a foreigner in Brazil, or indeed anywhere, regardless of literal home.
It was short-listed for Australia’s largest prize for an unpublished manuscript. It went through a few cycles of feedback and editing with a commercial publishing house. In the end this process stopped because the commercial and artistic concerns of the project failed to align. To be specific, the reader’s report requested that Se be rewritten like Holden Caulfield. I felt that was at odds with its genre as absurd fiction. I put the book away in the proverbial bottom drawer and decided to think before I decided what to do with it.
What are books?
Books are of course products: mysterious products that may or may not resonate with readers, subject to the whimsies of timing and trends. The way in which all these soap bubbles seek to rise to the top is via exclusion: more than music or art, the worth of a book rides upon its authority. Authors and publishers define themselves by referring, specifically or implicitly, to a supposed objective quality that makes the book worth reading. This is our idea of a good book. There is a sense that it is something objectively inherent in the work.
Yet inspiring a reader in this way can ignore the nature of a book as a two-way process. It mistakes publishing for a presentation rather than a relationship. In truth, it’s a communication. And while we often think of solitary writers plunking away at their keyboard, and lone readers thumbing a paperback on a hammock in the sun, in doing so we can mistake the form for the substance. A story is a shared experience; never private. The writer and readers share the world of the book.
Accordingly, I felt that offering A Short Death to its readers should invoke something more than objective qualities. Better understood as a shared moment between reader and author, I turned my mind to how the reader could feel the story of Se’s death on a beach in Brazil in their private lives, viscerally, as they read.
How is the Social Media Serial different from an e-book?
I decided that a Social Media Serial could accentuate the shared experience of a book. To communicate with readers where they were, merging the world of the book with their own private worlds, and in a forum where they might easily communicate their synchronized momentary experiences with others sharing the journey.
A Short Death will therefore take place where readers are already congregating, and create an integrated experience that will allow them to enjoy the content without having to go elsewhere to find it. In seeing the book appear on their news feeds, it has the opportunity to become integrated with their usual daily activities; to merge with their real social lives.
I also sought out other artists to see if we could collectively invoke sensations that would stimulate this idea of an experience more intensely while reading the book. In this fashion, A Short Death is also an artistic collective that offers extra-sensory stimulation complementary to the story.
Aurally, from April 1, musician Oliver Grimball’s album Anodyne Holiday will set the soundtrack for the ten week journey into the life of Se. It is complementary to the style of the story, and very much sets the scene for reading. As an independent album, Anodyne Holiday is a turntablist, music and lyric driven project where Oliver blends classic hip hop with spoken word. As a compliment to the novel, it similarly explores new territories. Described in the press as "…visionary in a way that hip hop nowadays seldom dares to be,” the album was said to have wordplay that is “origami like - microcosmic with hyperlinks throughout; smooth from the heart to hit the cardiac dead center."
For people seeking physical and visual overlaps between the story and life, readers will also be able to purchase fashion inspired by the plot, designed by the talented Paris-based underground street artist, Spizz.
In terms of temporality, there is a sense that the main character, Se, will be 'born' at the launch of the book on the 1st of April. When the book finishes on the 12th of June, the book will be removed from all social media channels, emulating his death once more.
Following the story as it unfolds on social media will ask readers to enter into the experience of the book with a spirit of openness; preparing them to feel provoked and unsettled, and offering them a participatory role in a shared momentary experience.
These are the aspirations of the Social Media Serial.
What do I hope to gain from releasing a book like this?
This article was written by contributor Jade Maitre. Jade is a writer and photographer who is passionate about creativity and media. She has worked as an editor for human rights publications at UNESCO, a communications consultant for NGOs, was the director of two artistic projects in Brazil, and wrote online news, interviews and gossip for MTV Australia. She has also been published as a travel writer and a journalist. She currently photographs for Getty Images and is the co-founder of the premium site for European vacation photographers, TripShooter. Jade is currently based in France.