When Postwar American Fiction Went Viral

I’m currently at work on a book project, When Postwar American Fiction Went Viral: Protest, Profit, and Popular Readers in the 21st Century, which follows the social media afterlives of four American authors — James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Sandra Cisneros, and Chris Kraus. I examine how Twitter users retweeted James Baldwin quotations in relationship to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, how fanfiction writers recycled Kurt Vonnegut’s characters on a licensed fanfiction platform owned by Amazon, how anti-censorship protestors “trafficked” Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street through an underground library system and 1,000-mile caravan, and how women on Tumblr blogged about and bonded over Chris Kraus’s novel I Love Dick.

These reception histories, when stitched together, represent a broader shift in American reading culture spurred by the internet and social media. Readers trained by habits of communication in a globalized digital world treat canonical literary texts not as tomes to be passively consumed but as content to be shared, reshaped, and inserted directly into the fabric of social life and social media. This reader-driven remediation allows such literary texts to reach wider audiences and fulfill new social and political roles.

To capture this living digital history in full depth and color demands digital and computational methods. Throughout the book, I combine close reading and traditional archival research with social media and web archiving, computational network analysis, natural language processing, and geospatial mapping. My book hinges on the fundamental claim that internet data provides an unparalleled opportunity to study how literature now lives, dies, and is reborn in the world.