Thursday, June 09, 2011

A Quick Word... On John Green and New Ways of Storytelling

This morning I woke up, got dressed, stumbled out to the kitchen to grab a coffee, and then I sat and watched John Green's latest video.

For those unfamiliar, YA author John and his musician brother Hank set themselves the challenge of ceasing technological communication for a year, and instead sent each other scheduled Youtube videos, in which they talked about their lives and major current events, and allowed the world to watch it all unfold. It was so successful that even when they had finished the project - Brotherhood 2.0 - they continued to make videos three days a week. Their viewers, known as 'Nerdfighters' and sometimes numbering in the millions, have seen marriage proposals accepted, humanitarian tasks crowd-sourced for assistance, and importantly watched a baby-bump turn into a squalling child and grow into what is now an actual, moving, talking toddler.

I adore John 's YA fiction, he is a phenomenally clever and talented writer. But I don't interrupt my morning to read another chapter of Looking For Alaska. Watching a 'vlogbrothers' video however, is part of my routine now. As much as it is necessary for me to brush my teeth and check my emails, a day with a new Hank or John video is incomplete until I've seen it.

Some may say that John Green's time would be better spent writing 'real novels', but I don't feel that this is true. His videos are shorter sure, and probably take less effort, yet they keep him constantly on my radar. Over time the clips have become like chapters, and I am as invested in the real-life story of Hank and John with an equal - and perhaps even greater - degree of enthusiasm to my investment in his fictional characters. I wouldn't sacrifice one for the other because I feel that this online autobiography is made all the more pertinent by the fact that it is being written as it happens. Take for example his passionate plea for Looking For Alaska not to be removed from the syllabus, his advice to a lonely girl who wants to know how to make herself more appealing to boys; these are worthy, vital viral videos.

This week on McSweeney's, James Warner wrote on 'The Future of Books', and cuttingly satired the age of the internet author, saying that by 2040 authors would become like Tamagotchis, with citizens able to 'cultivate with their favourite writers the warm, fuzzy, organic bond a trainer develops with their Pokémon, a process that will culminate in staged fights-to-the-death between your author and the author sponsored by another book club.' I personally don't see the nature of online storytelling as a threat to the novel - it seems to me unlikely that the viewers of John's videos are sitting at home thinking 'well, I guess I don't have to read his books now'. On the contrary, when I discovered his Youtube videos I was possessed insatiably to seek out his books and read them. And I feel I enjoyed them more because I now knew so much about him, and could hear his voice in the text.

During the MONA FOMA festival here in Tassie, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop Q&A session with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, in which they talked about online personality and the role of social media in their work. Amanda said that it was often asked of her: "Doesn't it freak you out that all these people on Twitter just follow you and feel like they know you?" "Of course not," she says. "I put everything up there - that's my life. They do know me."

To say that John and Hank's Vlogbrothers project is less valuable than a novel because it presents itself in the form of online videos is short-sighted to say the least. We need not feel that the changing nature of storytelling puts our traditional novels in the firing line - from Alice In Wonderland to The Odyssey, some of our most memorable and enduring stories started with a single figure standing in front of a group, fumbling their way through an experimental narrative that grew as it was told.

The only difference now is that the audience is on the other side of a webcam, and they can be sitting anywhere from round the corner, to the other side of the world.

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