Research Notes: Shitstorm
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Fernando Sdrigotti writes about Shitstorm from Open Pen.
Most of my fiction comes into being first as a draft and then as an idea. In less hyperbolic terms, what I mean is that beyond an initial impetus my stories are born while I am writing them. Sometimes discovering the problem I want to think through takes a few hundred words; other times it takes several thousand. This is not just about laziness — it is also about creating a space where my writing can breathe. Yet with my latest book, Shitstorm, the whole process was completely different: this is a book that was born in my head well before it was born on the keyboard.
Shitstorm deals with the world of social media, opinion, and politics. And even if the final version of the book wasn’t evident to me for a while, as far back as 2013 I was already trying to get my head around our interactions in a world increasingly composed of digital agoras, where outrage is a currency, and where reaction many times replaces thinking.
My first attempt to make sense of these themes was an essayistic response to an online outrage caused by Richard Dawkins, after he released one of his reactionary excrements, as he does every so often. My argument was that regardless of social media democratising public opinion there are still hierarchies: a shitstorm very often ends up with a public figure penning an op-ed for a broadsheet, explaining what they have really wanted to say, how they have been misunderstood.
Some weeks after my essay was published the Justine Sacco affair hit the screens, deeming my effort quite pointless. If (as expected) you don’t remember Justine Sacco this is the woman who released a provocative / racist [delete as appropriate] tweet into the void before boarding a plane from New York to Cape Town. Her message was picked up by someone with a few thousand followers and retweeted. When Sacco landed half a day later in another continent her job as a PR exec was gone and her name was trending worldwide. The outrage dragged on for days and days; it was covered by the media and articles and op-eds were written about her and these were frantically shared. Virgin stockpiles of outrage were found and fed back into the storm. She trended again and again, over a week or so, and it could have gone on forever, and then it was all over. In my piece about Dawkins I had only focused on shitstorms as a threat to personalities and celebrities. I don’t know if I missed previous cases of randoms being dragged in the e-mud, but with Sacco it became pretty clear that no one is safe from Our Righteous Rage.
Since then there have been as many shitstorms as there have been days. Remember Cecil the Lion? Remember the troll who sent nasty messages to the parents of a missing child, and who then committed suicide after being confronted by journalists outside of her home? Remember the misogynist protein ad, the racist t-shirts? What about the witless Youtuber who cheerily filmed the corpse of a suicide hanging from a tree in Japan’s Aokigahara forest? You may remember some of these, fine. But has the outrage generated by these shitstorms resulted in any meaningful change? I would say that this is rarely the case. Because most shitstorms aren’t really about change but about ourselves — most of the time they aren’t aimed at structures but at individuals — and most of the time they remain self-referential online affairs. And sooner or later they vanish with the same speed they come. And the only thing that’s left after their passing is the debris of jobs, relationships, and even lives not always deservedly lost.
I started to work on my manuscript — of what was originally called Stupidity — in late autumn 2015. The initial writing plan was to follow the day to day of three main characters, as they reacted to the world of viral news. These were the days of the Bataclán terrorist attacks, Trump becoming a serious contender for the Biggest Job on Earth, the rise of insular right-wing populism in the UK, several identitarian kerfuffles in campuses in the USA, among many others. Research meant following obsessively the news, spending lots of time reading opinion pieces and on Twitter, something that not only damaged my mental health but that could have very easily slid into the perfect procrastination exercise, forever. But in this way I got to understand the different conflicting albeit equally mirthless contenders: MRAs, literal feminists, contrarian trolls, the minions that would come to be known as INCELS, op-ed writers of fraudulent and fluctuating opinions, and a growing number of social media powered right-wing commentators.
And thus, in early 2016, I found out about a secret meeting organised by an American MRA activist slash motivational speaker in London, and I rsvp’d from a burner email account. To kill two birds with one stone, I pitched a potential story to a British publication that accepted it in principle — this charlatan was already starting to make some noise, piggyback riding the Gamergate controversy. The meeting — its location secret until a few minutes before its start, in case it was raided by snowflakes — finally took place in a pub near Tottenham Court Road. It was attended mainly by guys in their early to mid twenties, although to my surprise there were some women in the audience too. The gathering was a rather sad affair, with lads timidly requesting the most commonplace of advice, and with this guru delivering the most commonplace and reactionary of guidance, from how to be an Alpha Dude, to how to ditch college, to how to retire by forty by investing in property (supposedly like him, although I have since learned that he lives off his ex-wife’s money). I left the meeting just before the moment “of exchanging contact details and building networks”, or something equally tupperwarish. By the time I got home I had decided not to write the article because I didn’t want to give free publicity to this bunch. Months later, when the election campaign gained momentum in the USA, this neo-masculinity guru became one of the most vocal and influential of Trump endorsers. I had missed the connection between him, his acolytes, and the emergence of a new kind of fascism masked as a reaction to identity politics. I also missed Brexit first and Trump winning the elections later, which meant that a book called Stupidity made very little sense. I put the project to sleep, in my ever-growing folder called FAILURES.
Until in January 2018, during the winter lull in London, I was invited by Sean Preston, editor of Open Pen magazine, to watch a Leyton Orient game. The Os — as this battered icon of the East End is known in footy speak — was playing a non-league game against Borehamwood Forest. It was a nice afternoon — it was even sunny. And the game so exciting that we couldn’t avoid discussing our projects for the year. Sean mentioned that he was planning to start publishing very short novelettes. And I surprised myself pitching him my book in a drunken haze, avoiding to mention the sorry state of the manuscript.
The next thing I know I was back in my old project, now with a late March deadline, and with a word count four times shorter than I had originally planned. But somehow the book was written. Having an editor chase me might have helped. So did the fact that having failed before I knew exactly what not to do — very little of the first manuscript went into the final version.
In a recent article for The Guardian, British author Jonathan Coe writes of the difficulty of “engaging with the present”. I do wonder whether writers ever do anything but engage with the present, by whatever mean they choose to pretend they are doing something else. Still, it is certainly anxiety-inducing to run a race against the contemporary moment, when that contemporary moment is shamelessly at the centre of your work. And I agree with Coe that this is a race that can never be won by fiction, not only because of the time it takes to write a book but also because of the time it takes to get it published. When trying to get hold of the Now it is very easy for the Now to stun you in ways you hadn’t anticipated, and for your book to look old or make little sense before it even sees the light. But should we stop trying to engage with the present? For Coe (and for me too) that possibility isn’t worth considering. And the real question, then, is how to pull it. In other words, how to write about the present without sooner of later ending up offside.
I guess there are as many answers as there are writers threading this path. My answer, in Shitstorm, has been to imagine the possible instead of attempting to grasp the real. After all, I am not a journalist, but a writer of fiction, of possible fictions. How far reality departs (or not) from my imagination, only time will tell.