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10 April 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:45am

Anxiety of influence: how Facebook and Twitter are reshaping the novel

Ignore the cultural Jeremiahs: novelists are responding to the changes in language, form and subjectivity.

By Alex Clark

I recently put down my Kindle, on which I was reading The Circle by Dave Eggers, to check my email on my smartphone. I had a message from Amazon, asking me whether I was enjoying – you guessed it – The Circle by Dave Eggers.

One of that novel’s principal targets is precisely this kind of social consumerism. Was Amazon’s algorithm displaying an unlikely sense of humour? I shouldn’t have felt disconcerted – I don’t, for example, rear up in surprise if Marks & Spencer tells me it is having a sale while I am wearing a pair of its knickers – but I was already defaulting to Eggers’s world-view, in which my every preference, no matter how lightly held or provisional, has a value and the social membrane (between me and somebody selling me something or becoming my friend or arresting me or asking me to vote for them) has become irreversibly porous.

The future conjured in The Circle – its title alludes to a vast company that is at once Google, Facebook, Twitter, PayPal and Instagram – is one of constant ratings. Life proceeds by the “smiles” or “frowns” you bestow on every experience, product or person you encounter; you are granted membership of this society only if your “participation ranking” holds up. To withhold information of even the most trivial variety is to be selfish; ultimately, it is to wish for the destruction of society.

The lens through which we view this newly forged marriage of technology and narcissism is Mae, a young woman who has just got a job at the Circle and whose loyalty, already strong, is further secured by the company’s protective embrace: soon, her ill father no longer has to battle daily with insurance companies; she has no need for her rancid flat when the luxurious anonymity of a company dorm room beckons.

Refuseniks are rare. One of the few is Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer, a regular sort of guy who makes chandeliers out of salvaged antlers. When she tells him he should get online for the sake of his work, he replies:

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I know I’m successful if I sell chandeliers. If people order them, then I make them, and they pay me money for them. If they have something to say afterward, they can call me or write me. I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky.

He’s not wrong. But this fucking dorkiness, based on what Mercer calls the manufacturing of “unnaturally extreme social needs”, presents novelists of the contemporary world with an arrestingly altered proposition: a social landscape that is changing so much and so rapidly that it seems to defy representation. It’s not merely the speed of change but its Hydra-headedness: its effect on our relationships with people we both know and don’t know; with the inanimate hardware and sometimes frighteningly animate software that become more and more embedded in our daily lives; and in its effect on how we interact with our environment, with the body politic and our own bodies. Behind all of this is a half-articulated sense that what must be chronicled is not simply a changing interface between us and the outside world but a more fundamental shift in ourselves.

We are wary, these days, of concepts such as the essential self. We have learned to think of ourselves, perhaps not always that comfortably, as more fluid products of social and environmental construction. But we have yet to write off the idea of subjectivity, our unique way of experiencing the world and of describing it to ourselves and others. We know that our apprehension of things isn’t inherently stable – consider the way time seems to speed at some points and drag at others, for example, or how our emotions can suddenly flip-flop – but we hold to the idea that there are as many ways of processing the world as there are people in it and that our subjectivity is what separates us from one another. On one side of that subjectivity are the societal norms that we have agreed on in order to be able to live together, themselves subject to frequent dispute and recasting. On the other is the imperfect language we have at our disposal to communicate with each other about both what is inside us and what is outside.

It is foolhardy to define the purpose of the novel or the job of novelists or, more accurately, to suggest what the novel and novelists have, so far, been like. Yet a rough attempt might suggest that a novelist will try to trace the invisible threads that link these three poles – ourselves, our society, our language – and to listen to the vibrations they produce. What happens if the poles get uprooted, knocked over, repositioned?

At first, one might have thought about social media as another technological advance to be dutifully shoehorned into the creative record; something that would be jarringly noticeable at first and later entirely natural. It would be like the first time someone made a telephone call or downloaded an email in a novel. (A digression about attention spans in the internet age: I attempted to find out when this occurred by googling, of course. My search results were so heavily dominated by a novel by Mitch Albom called The First Phone Call from Heaven that I gave up.)

The earliest memorable use of social media in a fictional work was Patrick Marber’s play Closer (1997), in which two men have internet sex in a chat room (one is impersonating a woman); a giant screen on the National Theatre’s Cottesloe stage projected the profanities in real time. It was a clever, witty trick but it now feels indicative of a time when the internet was something to joke about, a twilight zone occupied by porn addicts, nerdy early adopters and disaffected teens.

The all-encompassing “age of social”, though, is having a more profound effect on creative endeavour and the novel is no exception. It might surface in the form of an obstacle for a hapless character to overcome – often comically, as in the case of the middle-aged Bridget Jones waiting forlornly for anyone to notice that she has joined Twitter – or as a vital part of plot and setting.

A telling example of the latter is Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First, published last year following a bidding war between 11 publishers (not a run-of-the-mill response to a debut novel). The set-up is as follows: a socially inept young woman, bereaved and isolated, becomes drawn into an online forum devoted to discussing philosophical and ethical dilemmas. By a curious and sinister chain of events, she is persuaded to “help” someone she has never met, a far more superficially desirable woman who wants to commit suicide but wishes her family and friends to believe that she has gone to make a new life somewhere else. The conceit is this: is it possible to mimic another person simply by absorbing the details of their life and continuing it online, to the point of convincing those intimately connected to them?

It is a clever idea and neatly executed. Perhaps most interesting is the bullish way it confronts the idea of online identity creation, exploring how we manipulate what people know about our lives and how it simultaneously reveals so much and so little of the “real” us. If much of our apprehension of other people is a matter of wish fulfilment, corroborated by incidental details they let fall into our path, how much more smoothly our relationships will progress if we’re not confronted by the inconvenient reality of their actual person.

The performative nature of our lives online presents the novelist with rich territory, not least because it creates a new shared language, often compressed by the speedy exchanges of social media. “THIS,” people write in their retweets to express approbation of an idea. Further elaboration is deemed extraneous. Although it seems self-effacing – “What could I possibly add to this perfectly expressed thought?” – it is in fact a tiny piece of rhetorical coercion. It means: “Think THIS because I do, because it is the right thing to think and I don’t even need to explain why.”

Catchphrases, jokes and expressions of outrage spring up, gain currency and become outmoded in the blink of an eye. How can a novelist capture a conversation that moves so fast, that seems to boast almost superfluous linguistic versatility? How can fiction reflect the subtle hierarchies and allegiances of the constantly mutating online crowd?

There have been literal attempts to adapt fiction to the constraints of social media. Soon after Twitter was launched in 2006, its users realised that the 140-character limit was a good format for very short stories. The Times ran a micro-story competition in 2009 (sample entry: “Once upon a time there was a beautiful Princess. Something morally relevant happened. Then Disney f***ed it up to sell toys. The End”); in 2012, the Guardian asked writers to try their hand (Anne Enright: “The internet ate my novel, but this is much more fun #careerchange #nolookingback oh but #worldsosilentnow Hey!”). This is nothing new. The bar for micro-fiction was long ago set with a six-word story (often attributed, apparently without proof, to Hemingway) that read: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Others have taken part in more intriguing Twitter experiments. Jennifer Egan, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, wrote a short story entitled “Black Box” for the New Yorker’s science-fiction issue. In May 2012, @NYerFiction released the story over a period of ten days in a series of tweets. They came one a minute, for an hour each day; a precise timetable of drip-feeding that would appear differently in the context of each individual timeline.

In an accompanying interview, Egan revealed that the story was a result of two creative experiments rolled into one. She had been wondering what would happen if she took a character from one kind of book and transplanted them into another genre altogether; in this case, a character from Goon Squad found herself in a futuristic spy thriller. And, she said, “I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialisation on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one – because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in 140 characters.”

The physical construction of the story was strikingly unlike its mode of delivery. Egan didn’t tap the whole story out in a series of tweets, ready for posting; she wrote it by hand in a Japanese notebook in which each page consisted of eight rectangles. (The analogy between Japanese haiku and tweets is an obvious one: in 2009, Rick Moody, the author of the 1994 novel The Ice Storm, composed a short story in 153 tweets, inspired by the haiku-like “merciless brevity”of the form.) It took her a year.

A story that not only appeared by way of a modern miracle but also took it as a theme – Egan’s spy has espionage technology implanted into her body – and that inevitably conjures an atmosphere of instan­taneity, of creative facility and an easy, readily available stream of words, was anything but. It was minutely crafted without recourse to new technology over months and then pinged into the social media maelstrom.

Lulu, the unnamed spy in “Black Box”, was pictured towards the end of Goon Squad as a tech-savvy twentysomething, “a living embodiment of the new ‘handset employee’ ”. So at home is she with her machinery that she finds having a one-to-one conversation trying. “There are so many ways to go wrong,” she says, in the course of an exchange with a more old-fashioned character called Alex. “All we’ve got are metaphors, and they’re never exactly right. You can’t ever just Say. The. Thing.” Her response is to continue their dialogue by electronic means, even though remaining physically proximate with Alex.

“Can I just T you?” Lulu asked.
“You mean –”
“Now. Can I T you now.” The question was a formality; she was already working her handset. An instant later, Alex’s own vibrated in his pants pocket; he had to jostle Cara-Ann to remove it.
U hav sum nAms 4 me? he read on the screen.
hEr thA r, Alex typed, and flushed the list of fifty contacts, along with notes, tips on angles of approach, and individual no-nos, into Lulu’s handset.
GrAt. Il gt 2 wrk.
They looked up at each other. “That was easy,” Alex said.
I know,” Lulu said. She looked almost sleepy with relief. “It’s pure – no philosophy, no metaphors, no judgements.”

Using the dislocation of remote, electronic conversation to achieve clarity and directness is a technique also employed by Ben Lerner in his novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), in which the story’s most dramatic moment (a swimmer drowning in a river) is related over instant messenger.

Yet what kind of novel works without philosophy, metaphors or judgements, however affectless its surface? Another character in Egan’s novel is making an
academic career on the back of studying newly redundant words: “English was full of these empty words – ‘friend’ and ‘real’ and ‘story’ and ‘change’ – words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks. Some, like ‘identity’, ‘search’, and ‘cloud’, had clearly been drained of life by their Web usage.”

The idea that words do not merely change meaning but are somehow annihilated by their new online connotations is significant. It also seems pessimistic. The notion of the quest or “search” underpins much of world literature but must we assume that it is “drained of life” if it comes to denote a computer process? The kinds of searching that we are able to undertake now bewilder us because we can’t even guess at their limits. They dispense with the classical unities of time, place and action. A cloud is not merely a scudding rain-receptacle above our heads but the holder of unfathomable amounts of information.

What could provide greater possibilities for the novel, the form that encompasses the picaresque, the fantastical, the realist, the tragic and the comic? Time, then, not for reinvention but for reimagining. Just as the trauma of the First World War produced the fragmentary streams of consciousness of modernism, perhaps the age of social will produce a new literary movement to capture its reshaping of reality.

Cultural Jeremiahs have tended to see that reshaping as a threat to the novel. Yet we have not ceased to produce stories; we have yet to dispense with metaphor and make-believe to explore what can’t be encompassed by straightforward documentary record. The novel of the future will be different from the novel of the past but the same heart will beat behind the screen.

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