Dispatches | December 13, 2010

I have several reasons to be interested in Figment.com. One is that a New York Times article about it was e-mailed to me; another is that it combines literature with social networking, much as my job at TMR does; still another is that on January 24th, TMR is unveiling textBOX, a new literary site of our own, and I like to be aware of what else is out there. Being a grown man in a creative writing PhD program, I don’t exactly need to have my work critiqued by anonymous teenagers, but I couldn’t help signing up for an account anyway.

Figment touts itself as a social networking site for young writers, a forum to which one can submit one’s writing, so that other people can read it, critique it, fall in love with it, or simply glance at it and move on.  I could try to describe Figment exhaustively, but since it is a web site you could simply go see it yourself – and I suggest you do this, as I am interested to know what you think of it, whoever you are, dear reader. So rather than be comprehensive in my response to it, I’ll focus on a couple of things that stand out to me.

For one, the appeal of a site like Figment is rather clear to me.  Having grown up in a place that lacked a thriving literary community, or even one that lurched along with character, and having gotten no encouragement when young to even think of writing words down on paper, let alone to try to do it well, I might have relished the opportunity to sign up for a social network devoted to writing.  I might not have, as I was a sad and distracted teenager, but I am tempted to see Figment as the Internet at its very best – a medium for bringing disparate people with similar interests together in one virtual space.

Soon after I signed up, using my real, full name, as I was encouraged to do, I was drawn to Figment’s discussion forums. There I saw, under the category “The Writing Life,” the subject line “adding quotes at the start of a chapter.” The young man who started this thread said that he loved starting new chapters of his books with quotations. Several others agreed that this was a good practice, and still others offered advice for doing it effectively. Their suggestions were sound, but what struck me was that none of them used the word “epigraph,” a nice, succinct designation for “quotes at the start of a chapter.”  Unless the thread participants were aiming for unpretentiousness, the word isn’t on their radar. I don’t want to be critical of these people, or the forum that provides them a space in which to have their conversation, and on the one hand I can see it as a possibly generative experience for people to have writing discussions without having a preexisting vocabulary imposed on their conversation. But on the other hand, I suspect myself of condescension, and a writing vocabulary can be rather handy, and one nice thing about a writing classroom, which isn’t exactly what Figment seeks to emulate, but which isn’t far afield of it, is that it might well contain a knowledgeable teacher who can share this vocabulary, among other things, with her students. Figment doesn’t seem to allow me to do a whole lot that I couldn’t do without Figment – in a writing classroom or elsewhere. Compare it to the site Xtranormal, which makes stiff, animated people with bad hair and clothing say things I type into my computer; that’s something I couldn’t do anywhere else. Also, I’m not convinced Figment is dramatically different from a site like LiveJournal.

I wonder:  is publishing your work on Figment better than writing in a vacuum?  I also wonder what the implications are of a note written on Figment’s legal information page, that “Figment has the right, but not the obligation, to review the content of the Publications, and may remove any Publication from the Website at any time at its sole discretion.” What, my inner Mencken wants to ask, would Figment do if the next William Burroughs were to offer his first novel to the world via Figment? How would Figment handle a decidedly lewd work of intrinsic literary value, and who are the de facto editors at Figment who would make the decision to keep or trash it, anyway?

I tried writing for Figment. Using its composition feature, I wrote a short essay called The Sun Also Rises. It is 114 words long, consists of one chapter, and, according to Figment, it would take half a minute to read.  How this was decided is beyond me, but it took only slightly longer than that to write it. It features an epigraph by Ernest Hemingway. Please feel free to sign up and offer your critiques.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.