26 January 2010

Thoughts on the self-conscious first person

Blog fiction is a very self-conscious form. Novels in the first person don't necessarily portray the face that the character intends to show to the world; a stream-of-consciousness or internal monologue voice can observe and reflect freely, totally unaware of the reader. Most epistolary is written from the viewpoint of a character who either expects never to be read (diaries) or to be read by only one other person (letters). Yes, there are forms where the character expects a broader readership, and the author plays on the form of memoirs or autobiographies, but the implied writer is, in those cases, so distanced from the implied reader that they1 can say almost anything they like.

Blogs are both public and intimate. The character writes for friends and strangers alike, and may expect replies from both, possibly challenging ones. A blogger has to be careful what they say and how they say it, because they're directly answerable to their readers (and since you ask, yes, I am a little anxious right now). It may be that they don't care what their readers think, or even spark arguments deliberately, but these are equally self-conscious positions to write from. My point is that a character in Blog Fiction is not merely the narrator of their story, but a self-aware narrator, who decides consciously how they will portray themselves and those around them, which aspects of their lives they will write about, and which they won't. This puts in my writer's toolkit that fun little gadget, the unreliable narrator.

Most first person narrators are in some sense unreliable - if only because if they were to instantly understand and explain everything that's going on, there wouldn't be much interesting plot to discover. Narrators are usually unreliable because they're missing something - they don't understand their situation as well as the reader does. Traditionally, the unreliable narrator is honest but mistaken. But what about an unreliable narrator who's being deliberately dishonest? In a traditional first person form, this is a hard one to pull off . When the liar is your only source of information, being informed at the end that it was all lies seems like a pointless Deus ex Machina (though it's been pulled off successfully in some detective stories). The clues to the truth have to have been there throughout for the reader to feel deceived rather than just cheated. But if the narrator is the guardian of those clues, and a highly self-conscious one at that, how does the reader get to them? Without making the implied writer stupid enough to give the game away unintentionally, how does the reader even find out there is a game? Where does the doubt come from?

That's where the 'multiple characters' format (a distinct type of Blog Fiction, as defined by DustinM on Blog Fiction) comes in handy. All these first person characters are not merely self-consciously writing their own stories but scrutinising each other's. They may not be looking specifically for inconsistencies, but they know each other, and they can spot when something isn't quite right. They can challenge, berate and encourage each other, or go behind each other's backs. They have secrets from each other and secrets amongst themselves. And just because they're self-conscious about what they say, they don't have to be entirely conscious of their own motivations at all times. Unreliable narrators may be more successful at fooling themselves than their friends. So what I'm trying to create with Bad Influences is not four 1st person stories that stand alone, but an overall story of how those four characters interact, communicate and influence one another - in honesty and deceit, for good and bad. The story in the comments is, I'm realising, going to be as big as any of the character blogs.

1 I'm with LeGuin on the use of the plural pronoun as gender-neutral singular, and I'm gong to have to ask you to deal with it.

19 January 2010

Welcome to my research blog

Since I'm now officially a research student at Edge Hill University, and blogging is part of my research, I should really be keeping a blog about it. This is in part a way to keep my supervisors, family and anybody else with a passing interest informed on what I'm up to, and partly a guide to remind myself what I've done, what I have to do and when I'm meant to be doing it.

My Ph.D., for the above interested parties, will be in Blog Fiction and Narrative Time. I'm researching from a Creative Writing perspective, so the main part of my thesis will be a work of Blog Fiction. I'm currently almost certain that this will be called Bad Influences, hence the title of this blog.

Somewhere on this page you will find a link to the full version of my research proposal , but in brief, my plan for the next year is to write Bad Influences. This will consist of the fictional blogs of four characters during a worldwide influenza pandemic in the year 2025. The story will consist not only of these four characters' survival stories but their comments and interaction on each other's blogs, and the comments of other bloggers and minor characters (whose blogs will be either locked or less extensive and included as the hypertext equivalent of a DVD extra). The idea is to deal with the usual apocalyptic themes - loss, societal breakdown, survival, isolation, community etc. - all set amongst the confusion of distance and intimacy that comes with online relationships.

The year after writing the story, I'll post it in real time - that is, the time lapse between posts and comments being revealed to the reader will match the narrative time experienced by the characters. It is the narrative time aspect of Blog Fiction that interests me most, and I'll be writing a critical analysis or mini-thesis on this topic to accompany the fictional work that makes up my main thesis.

This critical work will take up the remainder of my research time. I've spend the last year or so preparing background research to the story and providing the evidence of methodological and ethical consideration that my research department requires, so I'm hoping to complete the Ph.D. within three years. However, I am on a part-time programme and I'm also going to be working three to four days a week, so this time may be extended. In short, if you're holding your breath for the story to appear, I take no responsibility for any symptoms of oxygen deprivation.

In the meantime, I'll keep you updated on my current research and anything about the writing process that I deem to be interesting enough to record here. This is mostly for my benefit, as a record of the research and writing process will be useful when the time comes to write up the critical part of the thesis, but I'd love to chat about it to anyone else who reads, writes or researches blog fiction.