A Group Primal Scream for the Internet
An angry subreddit and a mysterious sisterhood are dueling narrators in A.E. Osworth's "We Are Watching Eliza Bright"
I read A.E. Osworth’s debut novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, very quickly. The novel is fast-paced, but I couldn’t put it down because the story felt so familiar—and relevant to anyone who’s ever used the internet. Sometimes I fell asleep reading and had anxiety dreams about being online, but this didn’t stop me from passing out with the book on my face every night until I’d finished.
The heroine, Eliza Bright, works as a coder at a gaming company, and is the only woman in such a high-level position. When she reports workplace sexual harassment, she’s dismissed. She then talks to a reporter, whose story about sexist culture at the company goes viral. Eliza is fired from her job, and then doxxed by superfans of the game she worked on, a game she herself loved. The more Eliza tries to hide, the more the gaming community’s harassment escalates—both on- and offline (in “meatspace”).
The novel is narrated by two collectives: the first, a subreddit of angry online gamers who believe their “world is being invaded,” rails against the changing culture of games. The second, a clandestine group known as the Sixsterhood, lives relatively off the grid in a Queens warehouse. The groups’ differences are perhaps best encapsulated by the way they deal with anger. The subreddit: “we love when anger bubbles up, floods the landscape like lava. Explosive at times, slow and crawling at others. But as transformative. As destructive.” The Sixsterhood: “the way We deal with Powerful Anger is to call a Powerful Anger Circle in the silks studio and participate in a Group Primal Scream.”
Over the phone, Osworth and I discussed unreliable narration, meta-narratives, and how the pandemic has changed general perceptions of “real life.”
Deirdre Coyle: The story is told from the perspective of an ever-shifting online collective, a subreddit. How did you decide to narrate the story from this kind of hive mind?
A.E. Osworth: I’m trying to remember the nexus of it, the genesis of it. I don’t know that I have a particular moment that I decided this. I’m not sure I can pinpoint the exact moment, but I can tell you that when I think of the internet, that is how I think of the internet, as this sort of connected collective, this hive mind. [The narration] went through a couple of iterations. There was a time I was trying to make it whittle down to one person at the end that was narrating, and that didn’t feel right, because that’s not what I think of the internet. So it remained this collective narrator. It was almost not a decision. If I can sound a little mystical, it almost was something I did not think about. It just happened.
DC: Did you always have these dueling collectives with the Sixsterhood and the subreddit, or did that change forms as you were working?
AEO: No, the Sixsterhood is the newest part of this book. It was in the last year that the Sixsterhood became my second narrator—which is hilarious, because the Sixsterhood as a voice and as a community is closer to how I spend my time. It’s closer to how I live my life. I am queer and trans, and my people kind of do sound like that—and yet I had not written in that voice, and I had to back into it. Originally, the Sixsterhood wasn’t a part of [the book] at all. I changed the back corridor of the book before it even went on submission, and that’s when the concept was born, when I edited right before submission.
What’s interesting is that I could not figure out a way to make the Reddit narrators’ concept of the Sixsterhood make sense. Because they wouldn’t know, right? This is so far outside of their idea of what people are like. It was my editor who was actually like, “Can the Sixsterhood narrate the parts where [Eliza is] in the [warehouse]?” And I was like, “Yes, absolutely, I am going to change it completely. That’s absolutely what’s going on here.” I changed it, and then I got edits back that were like, “Cool, they still sound the same.”
My editor, Seema Mahanian—she’s a damn genius—and I got on the phone during lockdown, and we sat there and analyzed all of the things that I had osmosed from reading a lot of Reddit to make the Reddit voice, but that I hadn’t actually crystallized into, like, “Here is how these sentences work.” Then I sat there and drew lines from them and I was like, “What is the complete and total opposite choice?” Not just in terms of point of view, but in terms of constructing sentences. And that’s how the Sixsterhood—the really big, expansive sentences, and no punctuation—got born.
What I was able to articulate after having done that, and why I was able to go back and rewrite the Sixsterhood to have the voice that they have, is that in many coding languages, there are a bunch of operators that you can essentially [use to] make the computer do stuff for you. In this particular case, the ‘or’ operator and the ‘and’ operator. The “or” operator is the Reddit voice: they think that one thing happens, or another thing. They operate from this place of scarcity. The Sixsterhood is the “and” operator. They think one thing is true and also another thing is true. They operate from a place of abundance. And that is my community, that’s my people. I don’t quite know why it was my inclination to do the Reddit voice when it is not how I live my life, and I had to back my way into the voice that was closer to my community and to the way that my people speak, but that is what happened.
DC: Speaking of the “and” and “or” operators, I also want to talk about the unreliability of the narration. Particularly in the subreddit-narrated chapters, this unreliability manifests in many often surprising ways. Hopefully this isn’t too much of a reach, but what was it like writing that unreliability during an era where journalists’—and really everyone’s—credibility is so frequently called into question by people in power?
AEO: It’s not a reach, but it’s not something I would have articulated before today. I think probably the very fact of truth being constantly assailed is part of how this book turned out. I started it before—we’re talking about the Trump presidency, right? That’s what we’re referencing?
DC: [Laughs] Yeah.
DC: There’s a meta-narrative about the collective narrator(s) arguing over what Eliza’s Gchats mean, and whether those documents should be taken at face value. The Gchats and emails are the only things that we, as readers, know to be objectively “true.” As a reader, this all felt very coherent. But as a writer, how did you keep your brain from turning to mush while holding all of these threads together?
AEO: I started it before the Trump presidency, and I rewrote the whole thing after the election to set it directly after the 2016 presidential election, in the December after. Because I have to. Because exactly what you just said—the relationship to truth has been so murky. What’s interesting about, for instance, the juxtaposition between these two narrators is that one believes only one thing can be true and everything else is false, and one believes that a lot of things can be true at the same time. Obviously there are instances where each one of those worldviews will work better, and I was just trying to explore what those are and what those could be.
AEO: So as a practical thing, I think of it kind of like—have you ever seen a 3D printer operate? You print one layer, and then you print another layer, and then you print another layer. You watch it essentially build up and up and up and up. So I started with one [thread], and then I went back and did another one, and then I went back and did another one. I iterate a lot. I write fast and then draft over and over and over again, like a 3D printer, in this way. In the middle bit where we have to wonder if [Eliza] and Preston are sleeping together, those three chapters present three different ways that that night could have gone. That part was also a late addition where I went through and did three very different storylines that could all be true, or some of them could be mixed, or one of them could be true. 3D printer.
DC: You’ve also done a lot of online reporting and writing about technology, and referred to the GamerGate/alt right subreddit, KotakuInAction, as “the butthole of the internet” (I need to start using this). How did your experiences writing nonfiction about those communities affect the way you wrote about them in fiction?
AEO: So I’ll push back on journalism—I’m not a journalist. I don’t consider myself a journalist. It’s not as though I’m not, you know, what I usually call “committing acts of reporting”; it’s not as though I’m not calling upon some of those skills. It’s that I do not ever want to mess with the idea of objectivity. I am not objective. Ever. And so I will not call myself a journalist, because I don’t even want to think about it. I am a writer; I have a lot of opinions. I try to make sure that when I am committing acts of reporting, that they are solidly based in fact, but I am not objective at all. So I just want to push back on that, just a little bit.
Anyhow, so how does the nonfiction inform the fiction? [The nonfiction I wrote about GamerGate] got me obsessed with it. Truly, madly, deeply, that is the one thing it did for me, is that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I love games, I love playing games—I’m not particularly good at videogames; my heart’s actually in tabletop—but because this is not how I live my life, when I can’t stop thinking about it, I have to expand beyond what I am given. That’s why fiction. It lit the fire. It got me angry, because it’s nothing new, right? This is the way people behave. It’s not about it being on the internet, we just are now faster and bigger; all the internet does for us is make us faster and bigger. So it got me mad at things that were not just. And especially when anything messes with play? I love play; it is my number one value as a person. The ability to learn through play is truly my jam, and when something fucks with play, I get mad. And of course it’s not just fucking with play, it’s fucking with women, it’s fucking with objective truth, it’s fucking with a lot. So it got me obsessed, and it got me mad. Those are the two things it did for me. But the rest I made up, because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
DC: At one point, Eliza says “the virtual world is just as ‘real’” as meatspace. How would you define the “real world”—if you would at all?
AEO: I think about it a lot. It’s all the real world. That is something I believe. This and digital space together—and with other kinds of worlds—comprise reality. That’s the short answer. I feel like before the pandemic, this was the hill I was going to die on by myself. Other people, maybe, are starting to agree with me. We’re living our whole lives right now in digital space—and what, are you just going to say it’s all fake? The consequences of every interaction we have in digital space are real consequences. That is how I define reality, are the consequences real? Do the consequences matter, do they affect you, do they come for you in every aspect of your life? Yes, they’re real. Okay, great. If the consequences were imaginary, it wouldn’t be real.