Authorship has changed drastically in the past decade. E-reading and self-publishing are no longer just for the stuff that wasn’t fit enough for print. You can find any sort of online reading material making money nowadays, becoming a normalized resource for publishing ventures in the form tweeted books, fanfic turned novel, tumblr blog turned book, YA lit publishing communities, and so much more. Someone who published a book fifteen years ago would hardly recognize the industry, much less navigate it, without more than a little help.
Enter Olivia (Anna Gunn), an introverted and wary college writing instructor who gave up hope in succeeding as an author after her first novel was published fifteen years ago and was disappointingly ignored by the industry. Olivia seems happy with her path, accepting a lifestyle of measured expectations and few surprises. She continues to write privately for herself, fearful that having anyone else read her work will rifle it with criticism and failure. Her personal life mimics her professional attitude: Olivia seems to be happy in her own self-fulfilling way, though she’s extra careful about opening herself up to others lest they view her flaws.
Olivia is just finishing up her second novel at a writers retreat in snow-ridden Michigan when she meets fellow lodger Ethan Kane (Billy Magnussen), who is Olivia’s antithesis in more ways than one. At 28 years old, Ethan’s a hugely popular writer whose blog (under nom de plume Ethan Strange) detailing his hook-ups with strangers landed him a multi-book deal and a movie contract. Ethan is direct, loud, and brash. He makes his living airing out his dirty laundry in public, and perhaps due to this, there’s less fear of failure or criticism. He fits more the role of an ambitious entrepreneur (he has big plans to build the next big reading app) than the genius writer, though Ethan seems to desperately want to be taken seriously as a author, putting a halt to his blog to focus on solidifying a literary image.
The generational difference between these two characters and the era of publishing during which they were most successful are hugely embedded in their values. Ethan is a man of the social media generation. His life is publicly broadcast to thousands of followers several times a day. He understands and manipulates the intricate differences between public personality and inner life, though the border between the two gets more and more unclear as the play goes on. In a way, Ethan’s obnoxious and sex-crazed online persona is a way of mediating criticism towards something outside himself. If he were to publish something that he truly believed in, would he be more cautious like Olivia? Fearful of being hurt and criticized?
Olivia, on the other hand, has no experience with the trials and tribulations of social media and online trolls. For Olivia, exposing her life equals vulnerability. For Ethan, and for most of us under 35 who grew up on Facebook, exposing our lives is routine. It’s fascinating to see how the gap between the personal and the public plays out in Ethan and Olivia’s relationship, as well as in the professional strategy in Laura Eason’s smart and enjoyable play.