On the Relief of Ignoring the Internet in Fiction
Joyce Hinnefeld Considers the Obstacles of Digital Obsolescence
On the occasion of publishing a brief collection of some of my older short stories—at the onset of the third decade of a century marked, so far, by our complete submission to market-driven technological distraction and surveillance—I am awash in a kind of nostalgia. Not for a better America. Not for my younger, healthier body and sharper memory, and not for the sweet innocence of my now eighteen-year-old daughter as an infant or toddler or opinionated eight-year-old.
What I miss is writing stories in which a life lived online does not figure—mostly. In three of the five stories in my collection The Beauty of Their Youth, the internet plays absolutely no role. In one there’s a bit of emailing. And in the final, title story, a middle-aged woman confronts the curated myths of a perfect self, both her own and those of friends from her youth, that circulate round the globe.
I remember viscerally despising email, and feeling that the nagging awareness of all the messages I needed to answer was causing real emotional harm—to both my unanswered message-writers and to me. I remember being incredulous when friends told me I had to sign up for Facebook, and then doing it, at the urging of my publisher, when I published my first novel in 2008. I remember overhearing the new president at the college where I teach—whose first order of business was to turn us into an “Apple campus” and order Macbooks for all full-time faculty and all incoming students—telling another administrator, at a meeting, that giving someone a laptop increased their productivity by 50 percent.
I remember feeling sick when he said that. I also remember thinking it would all blow over soon.
Until recently, I thought you had to be my age or older to feel this way, but it turns out that’s wrong. “[E]ven now,” wrote Charles Finch (18 years younger than I am) in the New York Times Book Review recently, “none of my technological habits seem inevitable. There’s still a sense that this vast binge of novelty will stop and we’ll arrive at some levelheaded equilibrium between then and now.” And in her 2019 book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, artist and writer Jenny Odell (25 years younger than I am) makes a case for the act of “resistance-in-place”—in response to, for example, “commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.” Odell advocates “‘doing nothing’ both as a kind of deprogramming device and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully.” I love that word disassembled. It’s a perfect description of how I feel these days, as a citizen, as a college employee, and as a writer.
During the first decade of this century, I published three of the short stories in this new collection, along with two novels. Over the past decade, when I wrote the other two stories in the collection, I attempted, and arguably failed, to write two more novels.Another difficulty with writing fiction set in the present, or the near future, has to do with how quickly things go from bad to worse these days.
There are various ways of explaining that failure. It was a complicated decade, for a number of reasons. I lost both of my parents, and my mother-in-law. I agreed to act as department chair at the college where I teach, with essentially no administrative assistance, for five years. My second novel, published in 2010, did not sell particularly well, which did not help my prospects for publishing another. The landscape for literary publishing kept shifting (you could get whiplash), as Charles Finch—who sees novels tagged as “autofiction” as a logical response to the dominance of “tweets and emojis” in the 2010s—documents. And I was older, no longer a first novelist, and not writing what people (or more accurately, the New York publishing world) wanted maybe.
The thing is, I thought I was writing what people wanted. Because in both novels I was writing, at least in part, about the internet. Around 2010 I remember reading someone, somewhere, who took writers to task for not creating characters, and fictional worlds, that were honest and accurate about the growing prevalence of digital technology in our lives. I guess maybe I took that as a challenge.
In my first novel manuscript from the 2010s, a young woman from a depressed town in the Pennsylvania coal region adopts a new, alternative identity as a romance novelist of Native American heritage, one that’s been created, and orchestrated, for her by a friend who eventually becomes her editor. And then she’s stalked online by someone, possibly an old boyfriend, who, she fears, is planning to expose her. In the second, a teenage girl from the rural Midwest and a friend she meets, first online at their charter “cyber-school” and then in person, get themselves and their families into serious and irrevocable trouble by provoking gun-loving teens in their part of the country online.
I did my research. I read books like Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum’s The Offensive Internet and Frank M. Ahearn’s How to Disappear, along with articles about online imposters, doxing, swatting incidents, and more. I don’t think the problem was the fact that I myself don’t particularly like the internet, and don’t spend as much time there as many people do. I think the problem is simply this: who really wants to read fiction about such things?
This is about more than the fact that a novel about the internet that attempts to be current is, of course, doomed to fail. Things in the online world evolve, changing almost daily, and the slow cycle of writing and publishing a novel simply can’t keep pace—as anyone who picked up Dave Eggers’ The Circle, probably as soon as a week after it was published, can attest. When I started reading The Circle though (well beyond a week after it was published), the thing that induced a feeling of mild nausea in me as I read was not the ways in which that novel’s depiction of an ur-tech company (a kind of combined Facebook and Google) already felt dated. It was, instead, a feeling of familiar dread that grew into a deeper aversion as I read, a sense that I already know how glib, superficial, and exploitative that world is and don’t need or want to be reminded of that. And a sense that this is decidedly not what I go to fiction for.
Within the realm of commercial fiction, the 2000s and 2010s were (in my admittedly personal and probably idiosyncratic memory) an era of historical novels and novels about a dystopian future. The same could be said of much of the literary fiction from that era. A quick scan of National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction since 2010 turns up works that probe the past—or other worlds that are far removed from scrolling feeds on smartphones—in various ways: Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jessmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, and Richard Powers’ The Overstory, to name a few.
A possible exception is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, published in 2010 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011. In the closing chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad we find “handset employees” who bring to mind today’s gig economy; we also follow the character Alex’s algorithmic manipulation of online friends to create a “blind team” of “parrots”—people who can be manipulated to help gather a crowd for a concert staged by music promoter Bennie Salazar (who Alex hopes will employ him). It’s sometime in the 2020s, and the Manhattan occupied by these characters feels either accurate (the crazy real estate development) or imminent (the climate-induced wall at the river, the extreme warmth in February). Millennials in this futuristic Manhattan that both has and hasn’t come to pass apparently have children; children “point,” using handsets, and their points can ensure a musician’s success. Though Alex feels a bit dirty, having contributed to the crowd-sourcing that makes the concert at the novel’s end a success, the concert itself has a sweet, utopian quality.
You could still feel that way, I guess, about the potential for good in a world of “T”-ing on handsets and of ready access to boundless personal data, back in 2010. Remember the Arab Spring? And for a while longer probably, too. Remember journalists’ updates during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013? Remember Twitter before Trump? (I don’t recall when that started, but—speaking of feeling dirty—I’m not willing to check his page to find out.)
Another difficulty with writing fiction set in the present, or the near future, has to do with how quickly things go from bad to worse these days. In my novel with the teenage friends who run afoul of gun lovers, one character goes to work at a refuge for endangered whooping cranes. She has to work at a coffee shop as well though, because the crane refuge has lost its government funding and can’t afford to pay its employees anymore. When I started writing this novel, in 2015, I imagined this part taking place around 2023. But then, in 2017, government funding for the whooping crane propagation program at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland—the inspiration for my fictional refuge—went away. And in 2019, the Trump Administration rolled back significant provisions of the Endangered Species Act. So much for a novel imagining a grim future for wildlife in the US—set in the mid-2020s. It was already happening all around me.
“As our social lives, typically the dominion of the novel, have partly mutated into a flow of adjacent but isolated images and captions,” writes Finch, “autofiction’s careful human pace is a protest that no matter how it may seem, we still haven’t quite merged with our computers. Not yet.” But is autofiction truly the only viable option for fiction about our current, digitized, data-driven lives—lives whose daily tools, preoccupations, and terrors change so suddenly it’s perhaps become impossible to write plausibly about any moment in our shared, social time? Is fiction that’s not about the life of its writer, and that’s also not historical in focus, or about an imagined (dystopian or utopian) future, even possible now?I thought I was writing what people wanted. Because in both novels I was writing, at least in part, about the internet.
Writers Zadie Smith and Namwali Serpell, writing in The New York Review of Books at two different points in 2019, seem to think so. Both are, in fact, dubious about autofiction and memoir. “Embarrassed by the novel—and its mortifying habit of putting words into the mouths of others,” Smith notes, “—many have moved swiftly on to what they perceive to be safer ground, namely, the supposedly unquestionable authenticity of personal experience.” Acknowledging the risks of appropriation, Smith refuses to yield to “the old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know,” which, she writes, “has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane.”
One could make the argument that bad appropriation is, mainly, bad writing—realistic fiction that’s in fact riddled with cultural inaccuracies perhaps, or “propulsive,” plot-driven fiction that can’t be bothered with the slow pace of language that’s meant to be savored. Smith, searching for the essence of fiction that works, for her, writes that it comes down to “a certain kind of sentence . . . The sort of sentence that makes me feel—against all empirical evidence to the contrary—that what I am reading is, fictionally speaking, true.”
Serpell dismisses both Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autofiction and his claim of an “ethics of the novel” that “dissolves the remoteness between writer and reader” (in his acceptance speech for his 2015 Welt Literaturpreis, published as “The Vanishing Point” in The New Yorker). Instead of a facile claim that fiction somehow cultivates empathy, Serpell proposes Hannah Arendt’s concept of “representative thinking,” in which, Arendt says, “one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.” “This way of relating to others is not just tourism,” writes Serpell. “Nor is it total occupation—there is no ‘assimilation’ of the self and other. Rather, you make an active, imaginative effort to travel outside of your circumstances and to stay a while, where you’re welcome.”
Four of the five stories in The Beauty of Their Youth depict characters who are, largely, outside my circumstances. Digital life, or the internet, or whatever you want to call this ever-present thief of our time and attention certainly existed when I wrote those stories—in its pre-2010 form. But it’s barely there in the stories themselves. In the final, title story, however, things are a little closer to home. Fran, the central character in this story, is, like me, well along in middle age, and a little baffled by how she got there. She’s selective about the photos she posts on social media, yet it somehow hasn’t dawned on her that others in her life, from her past, are being similarly selective. She’s up against a number of less than happy realizations in the story, not least of which is that “there are things you didn’t post.” At one point in the story she asks herself, “Did Facebook somehow make you think you would never be truly old?”
What’s interesting to Fran, as I suppose it is to me, is life before social media. Is this just because I was younger then? Is it because people had longer attention spans, and therefore read more fiction? Is that even true?
I haven’t completely given up on those two novels. I still think there must be a way to write about the presence of the internet in our lives—its presence at this particular moment—that doesn’t induce boredom, or nausea, or both. I’ll keep trying to write novels, continuing with the struggle to shape Zadie Smith’s “certain kind of sentence.” That’s the kind of sentence I find, over and over, in Jennifer Egan’s work, and that’s what makes it possible for me to reread that final chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad—slight inaccuracies about the decade we’ve now entered aside—with a delight that’s similar to the pleasure I felt on reading it the first time. Sentences like these, depicting a moment, in the midst of the huge concert crowd that Alex has helped to assemble, when he finally locates his wife and young daughter using the zoom on his handset:
At last he found Rebecca, smiling, holding Cara-Ann in her arms. She was dancing. They were too far away for Alex to reach them, and the distance felt irrevocable, a chasm that would keep him from ever again touching the delicate silk of Rebecca’s eyelids, or feeling, through his daughter’s ribs, the scramble of her heartbeat.
Sentences like these are why I still read fiction. They’re also why I keep writing it, even now, in age of perpetual distraction. The struggle to shape sentences, and stories, that a reader might slow down long enough to savor remains, for me, one of the more reliable ways of “resisting in place,” in Jenny Odell’s terms. Of piecing back together my distracted, disassembled self.
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