I was intrigued by the premise of the book Mitzi Bytes. It’s about a blogger who started her blog way back in the primordial swamp of the blogosphere, a dozen or so years ago, and who kept writing as her family grew and evolved. (You can see why I was intrigued!) Unlike me, however, blogger Sarah Lundy chose to keep her blog identity anonymous, writing under the pseudonym of Mitzi Bytes. The novel explores what happens when Sarah’s carefully separated online and offline worlds collide. It’s especially painful because Sarah has been less than kind in her depictions of those closest to her.
I have to admit, I was reluctant to like this book going in, maybe because it seemed so close to home. It was even written by a fellow Canadian, author Kerry Clare, who also teaches blogging (I didn’t even know that was a thing) at the University of Toronto. I feel like we must be separated by a few degrees of connection at most. And yet, I was quickly hooked by both the premise of the story and Clare’s style.
I’ve long been fascinated by the questions at the heart of this book. How much do you affect the story by telling it, and how many versions of the truth can there be? Much of the book riffs on themes of identity – who we think we are versus who others think we are, and about the persona we create online and how much it parallels or diverges from who we really are.
Mitzi Bytes, the pseudonymous blogger, achieves enough fame to be named one of Time Magazine’s top bloggers, and writes three books, two of which become best sellers. The blogger behind the keyboard, Sarah Lundy, profits financially and eventually pays a painful toll, but she is divorced from the fame of her alter ego. What does fame mean, though, if it’s fame by proxy? And there’s a wryly self-effacing undertone which resonated with me, of being “internet famous”.
Though we have much in common as moms and bloggers and (though never explicit on Sarah’s part) Canadians, I found Sarah prickly, selfish and hard to like. As the meticulously maintained walls separating her online and offline worlds began to crumble, I found myself curious but unsympathetic, which took away from my enjoyment of the book somewhat. I like to be invested in my protagonists, and to cheer for them. In the case, for example, of A Man Called Ove (my favourite book of the year so far), one comes around to be sympathetic toward the thoroughly unlikable protagonist, eventually building affection for him and becoming invested in his story. In Sarah’s case, I’m left at the end of the story thinking, “Well, what did you expect would happen?”
Having said that, the part of the book of which I was most cynical in the beginning ended up being one of my favourite parts of it. Kerry Clare, via Sarah, explains perfectly the addiction of blogging, and why it appeals:
She said, “What’s the point of a blog?” She’d been thinking about this a lot. It’s a question she’d been asking for years. “I wrote it for me, to figure out what I think of things. It was like therapy at first, and I guess I could have written it all down in a notebook and then shut it away in a drawer, but it wouldn’t have done any good for me, then.” The good wasn’t just finding her voice but actually using it, being heard. She was at the lowest she’d ever been, having lost everything she’d thought she had, but all of a sudden, she had stories to tell, and she was funny. That was huge.
It wasn’t that the blog mattered simply because people read it, but when people read it, the blog mattered more. It was looking outward – a letter, not a diary. Though she would have written it even if nobody was reading, but because people were, she forged connections with them, was challenged by their feedback, pushed herself to be sharper, funnier. She’d tapped into a whole other world of friends and readers, and she could be honest there, when she couldn’t be at home.
(Oh, the heady addiction of finding out someone thinks you are funny. That alone kept me coming back for years!)
The main reason that my own blogging has fallen off in the last few years is exactly the opposite of Sarah’s last words here. I was honest, breathlessly and occasionally painfully honest, in the first crazy years of blogging. But as the boys grew up, and social media grew up around them, I became more and more self-consciously aware of the vulnerability inherent in laying everything bare for anyone to see. I wonder, sometimes, how different things would have been had I remained as pseudonymous as I intended when I sent those first few blog posts into the ether, when I’d named the boys (there were only two at the time) Luigi and Franky, based on their middle names. The riches I’ve reaped from the blog are vast, far greater than any gains I think I could have made if I’d remained anonymous, but sharing our stories so openly hasn’t been without challenges over the years. Many, many times I’ve wanted to write more openly about my thoughts, my opinions and my life, but felt the need to censor myself to protect the privacy of those around me. (I have never much worried about my own privacy. Whether or not I should have done so may be a question for another day!)
In writing this, I realized another reason that I might have had difficulty embracing Sarah Lundy and her online alter ego, Mitzi Bytes: I’ve never really followed the most popular blogs. From Dooce to Suburban Bliss to The Bloggess, I have always been able to appreciate their talent but never felt able to connect with them on that personal level that invests you in a blogger and their stories. And of course, the halcyon days of blogging as an act of community are long gone. And yet, here I still am – and I think a few of you are still listening. I think that’s why I also found the simple existence of this book intriguing: a book with a blogger as the protagonist released in 2017? How delightfully anachronistic. And yet, the story feels surprisingly current and relevant today.
In the end, I enjoyed Mitzi Bytes, and I’d especially recommend it for anyone who has spent time thinking about blogging and identity, about the selves we present to others (online and offline) and the selves rattling around in our heads. If you’ve ever sent a blog post out into the ether and felt that thrill of connection and engagement, you’ll find resonance in this book. But even if you have not, Mitzi Bytes is still an interesting story, well told.