If you've tried to read a book — or anything longer than 280 characters — lately, you've likely pondered the role of, and appetite for, fiction in our attention-fractured times. So, too, has Tyler Cabot, although his interest started before the coronavirus swept in.
"We've had an overflow of news, generally, and then on the other side, a lot of opinion pieces," said Cabot, the former Esquire editor and current affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for internet & Society at Harvard. "But what I found lacking was a place to think more deeply about the news, where art is used to get a better understanding of the way that we're actually living now."
In early March, after six months of work, Cabot and a small team of friends launched a website, the Chronicles of Now, a collection of bite-size fiction pieces inspired by headlines.
For the inaugural post, titled "The Extinction Show: Live! One Night Only!," author Manuel Gonzales took cues from a report about the human-accelerated demise of certain species. In subsequent weeks, Colum McCann rattled off, rapid-fire, all of the thoughts that crossed soccer player Megan Rapinoe's mind during the 61st minute of last year's World Cup final; Sloane Crosley imagined actress Lori Loughlin's internal monologue amid her lawyers' claims they have new evidence of her innocence, and Vauhini Vara used SpaceX's Starlink satellites as an entry point for her exploration of what we believe in.
"I have a 5-year-old — he was 4 when I wrote the story — and I wrote this story where I imagined him seeing those satellites, but I was also imagining myself having that experience as a child," Vara said. "There's this intellectual question behind it all that made its way into the story, like: What's real? What's not? What's true, and what's not? I think of that as the whole project of the Chronicles of Now, too: looking at — and playing with — that border between the real and unreal."
The stories, succinct enough to become part of one's regular fugue-scrolling, are ensconced in explanatory sidebars and suggestions for further (nonfiction) reading or watching. He hopes to soon release a Chronicles of Now podcast.
None of this was expressly planned to counter the pandemic-heavy news cycle.
"It's almost like the moment caught up to it," Cabot said when asked about the project's timing. "Some of the earliest stories that I commissioned were prescient in terms of foretelling where we are now. A lot of authors are reading the signals before we do, so it's been fascinating."