The Art of the Internet Novel

On what we seek in novels and how Jeff Bezos became a literary critic

Welcome to q-sharp whydunnit, where I’ll be sharing the unedited thinking that eventually gets laundered into the essays and books I publish on unstacked platforms. It’s not quite a draft, not quite a newsletter, not quite the airing of a writer’s process, it’s….a writer’s dirty laundry? a riff on my favorite line from Muriel Spark? (Yes, yes it is.) You can expect posts casual enough to allow for ellipses and ampersands, 19th-century & stodgy enough to quote Henry James (see below), just rushed enough to respond to what’s going on online. 

Noveliness 

In February, I partook of the “internet novel” debate. 

A lot of good and diverse criticism surrounded the publication of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, two highly anticipated, hotly discussed “internet novels” that spin, Rumpelstiltskin-style, the experience of millennial social media into fiction. Many of these reviews, my own included, brought us back to basics: What is fiction? And are these really novels? 

To not a few critics, it seemed that saturating fiction with social media came at the cost of a certain kind of noveliness. This wasn’t necessarily a demerit--part of the thrill of both debuts is observing how the novel form strains to incorporate the voracious, twitchy anxiety of being online. Still, the question lingers: What is this “noveliness” critics craved? 

If a neat definition existed, I doubt we’d have novels or “novels” at all. Nevertheless, entertaining the idea of noveliness is exactly the kind of exercise this Substack is designed to take on. As I understand it, this is a platform best suited for a) questions better left to PhD dissertations; b) stray thoughts unsalable in the pages of most mainstream magazines; c) plain gossip; d) the id. 

“The Art of Fiction”

Re: noveliness, I keep returning to this bit from Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction”:

“The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life. When it ceases to compete as the canvas of the painter competes, it will have arrived at a very strange pass.” 

This may not provide us with a ready definition, but the idea that art competes with life does help to explain, I think, why both Oyler and Lockwood’s debuts arrived at the “strange pass” critics identified. 

James is primarily concerned here with responding to a school of thought that, circa 1880, would have restricted the subjects available to the novelist (e.g., avoid the vulgar!). He counters that the novelist can take up any subject she likes, as long as she does it well--that is, as long as her novel carries an “air of reality.” For this reason, “The Art of Fiction” is often cited as a treatise in favor not only of artistic license, but of literary realism. 

Personally, I’ve often felt that there are hairline fractures in James’ description of ‘the real’ here, narrow escape routes into other -isms. The novel ought to bear an “air of reality,” sure, but “the measure of reality is very difficult to fix.” More on taking this as a permission slip for other -isms on another day.

For now, it’s enough to notice that the “air of reality” we find in novels forces a comparison: What’s more “real,” more true, life as presented in fiction, or life as presented in...life? It’s on this measure of truth that fiction “competes.” 

A more concrete way of thinking about this: we might say fiction, like memory or history, organizes human experience. The novel achieves this according to its own unique modes, i.e., through plot, narrative time, and prose style. Encountering an experience in fiction, then, can flip a switch--reveal a truth--that encountering it in other forms may not. 

To my own tastes, it’s exactly this sense of competition for the true (not necessarily the “air of reality”) that makes a novel interesting. In a formula less eloquent than James’, we could argue that good novels bear an ‘air of competitive truthiness’ with other modes.

Is the Internet a Narrative??

The internet also organizes experience. Right? Or does it?? “My information. Oh, my answers,” the social-media junkie at the heart of Lockwood’s debut muses. “Oh, my everything I never knew I needed to know.” Twitter can accrue self-referential callbacks and memes, it can retweet your blunder from 2017, but it’s mostly a kind of perpetual present, a Markovian now. We can create a history, or a “story,” or at least a chronology, of online experience--Lockwood, in her novel, concatenates social media’s greatest viral hits, and maybe this is in part what the internet novel is for--but if Twitter organizes our experience, it’s with an entirely different relationship to time than what we find in fiction: “timelines” and “feeds” are not plots.

Regarding the noveliness of internet novels, then, or lack thereof, we might start by asking: in borrowing so heavily from the internet, what reality do these books conjure, and in what way do they compete, re: truthiness? 

Reddit’s r/place experiment (above), in which users worked together to create a mural, pixel-by-pixel, in real time, is a pretty delightful approximation of what narrative structure looks like to the internet.

Other Worlds

I was interested in Becca Rothfeld’s observation, in her review of Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, that the term “internet novel” is possibly void of critical meaning. “There is a reason we do not speak of ‘phone novels’ or ‘flag semaphore novels’ or ‘novels in which people talk,” she writes. They just aren’t especially differentiating categories in which to place books.

I don’t quite agree that this logic extends to “internet novels,” but I do find it a useful anchor for thinking through how fictional and “real” worlds tend to compete with each other, especially given Rothfeld’s point that most “‘internet novels have succeeded too entirely…they are too exactly like being online.”

We don’t speak of phone novels, sure, but we do speak of campus novels (Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, Phillop Roth’s The Human Stain, John Williams’ Stoner), female friendship novels (Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series, Mary McMarthy’s The Group), dystopian novels (recent Ishiguro, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall), and film novels (Isherwood’s Prater Violet, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer). We may disagree on what books go in which bins, but generally speaking we’re able to group these novels into loose categories precisely because campuses, friendships, dystopias, and films all constitute worlds. The internet, too, is a world, while the phone, by contrast, is an object, and so is more likely to manifest in the novel as a trope, motif, or plot point. Rothfeld acknowledges that insofar as the “internet novel” constitutes a category, it doesn’t really include novels that simply incorporate being online as a kind of ambient narrative noise. Parul Sehgal makes a similar point in her review of Fake Accounts, noting that while other hyper-contemporary debuts like Meghna Majumdar’s A Burning may hinge on a rash Facebook post, despite the importance of social media to the plot, we don’t necessarily classify A Burning as an “internet novel.” It mostly inhabits offline worlds. 

It’s fair game, I think, to consider novels that do inhabit online worlds as “internet novels,” just as campus novels inhabit campuses and film novels the escapist spaces of movie theatres and film sets; Lockwood, for one, literally presents the internet as a “portal” to another world. What narratives can survive on the other side? 

Novel v. “Real Life

The first kind of truth-competition in our unaudited, quasi-Jamesian model, that which exists between novels and immediate life, is especially legible in science fiction. Take, as an example, the dystopian America presented in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993). Butler’s depiction of a near-future US, imagined here as a ravaged wasteland of exorbitant income inequality and environmental catastrophe, ruled by a dictator and plagued by racism (there’s a reason the adjective most commonly applied to Sower is “prescient”), relies on, borrows from, reveals, and productively competes with the conception of America the contemporary reader brings with her to the page; the novel explicitly invites us to make a comparison between two versions of the same nation that at heart aren’t so different at all. As a result, Parable of the Sower inhabits the crisis of America’s negligent relationship to racial, environmental, social, and economic justice in a different but equally powerful way that living in America does. Butler being Butler, the novel also transcends the reader’s understanding of American life as it is, inviting us to imagine life as it could be--an idea explored much better and in greater depth here, by Gabrielle Bellot, in her piece on Butler for the most recent issue of Bookforum

For any kind of “[insert world] novel,” there exists an additional layer of competition, not always so transcendent. A tension arises between the characters’ obsession with the sub-world that consumes the novel (Twitter, say, or a college campus) and the novel and/or reader’s awareness that some kind of überworld exists (e.g., the world beyond Twitter, beyond the college campus). There’s a reason we often say that college isn’t “real life,” and it’s likely related to the reason that Brandon Taylor adopted the phrase as the title of his own celebrated campus novel. 

Oyler and Lockwood are also interested in pinpointing “real life,” though they wind up at pretty different coordinates. Oyler insists that the internet is contiguous with real life; Lockwood, by contrast, pits the reality of online against the reality of the analog when, due to a rare genetic disorder, the protagonist's infant niece is born unable to see or communicate, except by touch. Interaction is dependent on being physically present. They play a heartbreaking game together: “Little Touch.”  

Either way, the very idea of “real life” suggests that reality is somewhere, even if not right here. 

Amazon v. Book

The internet is also a world, one that exists in competition with Life. But it further enjoys the unique position of existing in direct competition with the book. That Google and Amazon were invented with the express purpose of making all books available online--in a way, to encourage us to shift our reading to screens--is a fact so basic to the history of the internet that it’s easy to forget.

I came across the following quote on Jeff Bezos’ motivation for founding Amazon as a book e-retailer over at the Stratechery blog (thanks, Stratechery!) a few weeks ago. Aiming to capitalize on the whopping 230000% growth rate of the internet in the early 90s, Bezos explained his decision to start selling books as follows:

“I was looking for the first best product, and I chose books for lots of different reasons, but one primary reason. And that is that there are more items in the book space than there are items in any other category by far… And when you have this huge catalog of products, you can build something online that you just can’t build any other way… [doing] something online that you can’t do in any other way is important.”

Who could argue with this as business strategy? Bezos isn’t even wrong about the ways in which the internet can in fact collaborate with books and human experience: I, for one, want more people around the world to have access to more information, more resources. But the above framework also distills the internet’s flawed understanding of literature and in particular of the novel: here, books are presented as information, not worlds. This conception of books as little information packets, purveyors of data, dispatchers of info, is now built into the structure of the web and its culture of “being in the know.” This data-purveyor mindset poses a hazard for the novelist preoccupied with verisimilitude in representing “how we live now,” online. It’s a task quite distinct from the effort to conjure an “air of reality” or to organize experience in narrative time. 

But the Internet IS How We Live! 

Reviews of novels that incorporate social media have a tendency to cite an unattributed yet apparently extra-urgent demand for the novel to “represent,” “deal with,” or otherwise “explore” the internet. 

It would of course be odd for authors to pretend the internet doesn’t exist, or to fail to respond to new technologies, which is why the history of the 19th-century novel is in many ways a history of the human response to new gadgets. In Anna Karenina, Levin spends (too) many pages as a conduit for Tolstoy’s thoughts on spiffy plowing techniques, and Anna is killed by a train; more recently, Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot (saturated in Russian lit; ample references to Levin), hinges on the birth of campus email. But there’s a buried assumption, in this cry to “represent” the internet, that books that do not have erred. Maybe this is one reason why it’s common to take a special interest in the way millennial writers, who tend to be fluent in social media, unveil the “reality” and immediacy of being online to readers. 

Personally, I’m more interested in whether internet novels are still good novels that do what novels have always done well--use the form to be both truer and more absorbing, in some sense, than life. Or, for that matter, the internet. 

The particular challenge and excitement of the internet novel is that the chosen subject--being online--is in direct competition with the chosen form--the novel. “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off,” Joshua Cohen’s own 2015 internet novel Book of Numbers begins. Oyler and Lockwood are also somewhat interested in the way the internet has influenced how we produce and receive text, but ultimately the accent has shifted from investigating the way the internet has shaped writing and humans to the blunt experience of logging into social platforms--frankly, of living on them. Of the two experiments, No One Is Talking About This may ultimately be the more successful simply for admitting that the internet isn’t synonymous with life. Being online is plenty real, but that doesn’t mean it’s ceased to compete with analog and/or narrative. In fact, No One makes this competition its central subject: the first half of the novel takes place entirely online; in the second, the protagonist is rudely booted back into “real life.” 

On the other hand, the tweet-inspired structure Lockwood employs, leapfrogging through time and between vignettes, embraces so much of the fragmented, frictionless, hyperbolic instant of the internet that for the first hundred pages the book seems to build almost no memory of itself. “Couldn’t he see her arms were full of the sapphires of the instant?” our Twitter-and-Instagram-addicted protagonist chides her husband, all the while cradling her phone.

This strobe-light structure leaves us on shaky foundations, noveliness-wise. In the immortal words of Jeff Bezos: “Being able to do something [in novels] that you can’t do in any other way is important.” In the end, if neither of these debuts felt quite like “novels,” it’s maybe because the internet, invited as a guest of honor, ultimately body-snatches the host.

Deep-Cuts Internet Novel

Of the unsung internet novels, and especially of those not to have resurfaced as touchstones in the recent debate over what constitutes an “internet novel,” my favorite is László Krasznahorkai’s War & War. Premise: Korin, a Hungarian man convinced that he has found the manuscript of The Great Hungarian Novel, travels to New York in order to buy a computer, which he sets up in a squalid room he rents from another Hungarian immigrant, an abuser, drug dealer, and all-around crook. By day, Korin types up the manuscript so that it may exist on the internet for future progeny; at night, he wanders the streets, running out of time and money.

The novel springs from the same fountainhead as the internet itself: Put the books online! And quickly! Maybe then we will save them… There is the desperation to be remembered, in literature and on the web; the obsessive and misguided hope that the frenzied and constant newness of the internet produces; the competition between Korin’s understanding of reality and the reality of those around him; the desperate devotion to the persistence of the novel and its relationship to national identity; the implicit understanding that the novel once existed as a primary form of national expression, at least before the internet rendered geographical restrictions on information flow basically obsolete. 

In Other News 

In upcoming posts, I plan to offer some thoughts on flowers and desire as well as some news about new books (mine!). For now, I’ll share that I’m very excited to have a novel coming out with And Other Stories (US & UK) some time next year, but I also just turned in a revision, and my editor has an infant, and there’s a global pandemic on, so stay tuned.

Also...

  • The paperback of The Exhibition of Persephone Q is now available from Picador as of March 2nd. Here are excerpts in The New York Times and The Cut

  • Again, here’s my review of Fake Accounts for 4Columns. 

  • I wrote about social media and masturbation -- literary, literal, and figurative-digital -- in an essay called “Corona Porn” for The Paris Review. Thank you to all those who emailed to ask about my own habits. Regretfully, I will not be responding individually.

  • Speaking of fictional “worlds,” I enjoyed this discussion of “world glimpsing” in Christian Lorentzen’s review of Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. 

  • This household is half Bengali, so we are following the state elections in West Bengal, where the BJP is poised to edge out the incumbent Trinamool Congress. Voting commences March 27th. 

More from my mind, & soon, hopefully next month?,

Jessi

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