I’m just getting around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s provocative essay making allusion to Virginia Woolf:
In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound – and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavours – radio, television, print – and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.
There’s a lot of connecting the dots to do when it comes to this. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say that just as in 1910 a revolution in media and communications technologies is currently in the midst of re-shuffling much of the potential range of human experience. But that’s not entirely what’s at issue here. One of the keys to Woolf’s proclamation that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” is the use of the word character. Woolf was thinking about social change as a literary question, as posing a challenge to the conventional means by which the novel represents character.
This challenge provides the point of departure for Woolf’s famous essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” in which she speculates about the means available to a modern novelist such as Arnold Bennett to represent the character of a fictional woman, Mrs. Brown. So the question is: who are Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown today? What kind of challenge to “human character” is posed by Facebook and Twitter?