Reading fiction is an escape, something transportative that pulls you out of everyday life. But don’t we also read fiction to learn more about ourselves — to see our hopes, aspirations and fears reflected in the pages, to gain insight into the confusing mechanics and meaning of love, family and community?
On Thursday night, we held a salon in the TED office called “The Fiction Issue,” to celebrate the season of reading. Curated and hosted by our Editorial Projects Specialist Thu-Huong Ha, the event explored fiction in the past, present and future. For the event, four speakers spoke about the ways that fiction operates in our everyday lives — from how jealousy makes us all into storytellers with a fine-tuned sense of cruelty to the new ways that fiction writers are using digital forms.
Parul Sehgal, an editor of The New York Times Book Review, kicked off the evening with a fascinating meditation on the “loneliness, longevity and thrill” of jealousy in fiction. “Would we have literature without jealousy?” she asked. From Shakespeare to Proust to Fitzgerald, envy drives great literary works and offers a narrative arc as it explores the tension between character, desire and impediment.
But jealousy is much more than just a literary device, Sehgal reminded us. It’s a pervasive and powerful emotion shared by babies, primates and bluebirds alike. It keeps us up at night, and makes us do crazy things. As we weave fantastic tales of other people’s lives, “jealousy makes us all amateur novelists,” Sehgal said. Jealousy reveals us to ourselves because, as both the storyteller and audience, we always get the gut-wrenching details just right.
Next up was Andrew Fitzgerald, the head of Twitter News and an advocate for the emerging medium of Twitter fiction. Just as radio evolved as a medium for storytelling when it was first introduced, Fitzgerald believes that Twitter is fiction’s next frontier. “New mediums,” he said, “define new formats, which generate new stories.”
He showcased excerpts of “Twitter fiction done right” by authors like Elliot Holt, who spontaneously created a narrative through the Twitter accounts of her characters, and Jennifer Egan, who used @NYerFiction to create episodes of Black Box, a novel she storyboarded into 140-character pieces. Twitter, Fitzgerald said, is not just a means of publication but one of production, as is the case with parody accounts like the foul-mouthed, sci-fi version of Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, captured in @MayorEmanuel, or “fictional characters that engage the real world,” like the accounts of the entire cast of The West Wing. Twitter, with its anonymity and livestream format, is changing the way we tell stories.
Third came a speaker who left many in the TED office a little starstruck because we so deeply loved her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. Téa Obreht grew up in the former Yugoslavia, and returned to the Balkans on an article assignment in 2008, at the height of the Twilight craze, to vampire-hunt. As she went from house to house asking families about their experience with vampires, she noticed a highly ritualistic telling of stories — and gained a new appreciation for the power of family myths. “We all have stories on which our families are built,” said Obreht, “and from which we derive our ideas of who we are.”
In her talk, Obreht revealed some of her own family oddities — scissors are kept under every bed to ward off spirits — and looked at how family myths function, by allowing us to insert ourselves into an epic narrative. Family myths, she said, change with us as time passes, and we move from being skeptical teenagers to elder storytellers ourselves.
Jonathan Harris: The Web's secret stories Finally, a talk from Jonathan Harris, who is no stranger to the TED stage. Back in 2007, he enchanted us with his tales of the secret stories of the web. Tonight, he was telling more tales, showing off Today, a project he kicked off on his 30th birthday to take a photograph a day, write a story and post them online. After 400 days, though, the project became a cross he was not able to bear. Rather than helping him to experience life more vividly, he confessed, it ended up making him feel like he was a spectator. He recognizes that this is happening with many of us in the digital age. “There’s the perception that we’re documenting reality, but actually it’s closer to fiction,” he said.
The carefully edited lives we share through social media unwittingly overstate how fabulous we are, he said, describing an “economy of awesomeness” to laughs and wry nods from the crowd. Harris concluded with a look at his latest project, Cowbird, an online repository for photos and stories that he has noticed empowering an “economy of vulnerability.” From the site, Harris shares an arresting photo and moving tale of sisterhood, followed by a photo that comes with its own ironic twist: It’s a picture of a young boy pleading with his mom to put down her camera and be in the moment for once. (So she did.) It provided a beautiful, thoughtful end to “The Fiction Issue.”
“The Fiction Issue” was part of TED@250, a series of salons held at our New York office at 250 Hudson Street. Since our main conferences are only twice a year, TED@250 is an opportunity for talks that rethink headlines and respond to conversation happening in real time. It’s also a place for speakers with the kind of personal stories that simply work better on the small scale. Stay tuned. Some of these talks may be coming to TED.com.