The Novel is Dead, Celebrity is a Disease, and More!
Jarett Kobek Really Does Hate the Internet
I first heard about Jarett Kobek on the Internet—I saw the cover of his forthcoming novel, I Hate the Internet, and desperately wanted to read it after reading the first line of the book’s description: “What if you told the truth and the whole world heard you?” I tweeted about wanting to read the book, and soon, I’d received a PDF from Kobek himself. I became fascinated with this novel as well as his other three books, so I interviewed him over email to discuss social media, the definitions of a “good novel” and “celebrity,” and what’s left to believe in, anyway.
Chelsea Hodson: A few months ago, I saw a description for your book, and I tweeted, “Do I really have to wait until 2016 to read Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the Internet? Looks so good.” I think it was within a few hours after that you emailed me a PDF of the book. This indicates to me that you possibly have a love/hate relationship with the Internet yourself—perhaps you despise it but perhaps you also see it as a crucial tool. What is your personal relationship to the Internet, and how did that inform the writing of the novel? How do you navigate your life as a writer in a world where most information about literary events arrive in the form of Facebook invitations?
Jarett Kobek: Someone told me about your tweet! I avoid Twitter like a plague pit!
When I was writing the book, the relationship was pure hate. I’d just escaped San Francisco, where I’d watched long-standing communities of people be destroyed, basically, by the people who own the Internet. The city gave me a nervous breakdown. An actual, genuine 20th-century nervous breakdown like a rummy drunkard from a shitty Scott Fitzgerald novel. Nothing separates compos from mentis like rumors of a Twitter IPO. Anyway, I Hate the Internet exploded in about two months of pure bile/recovery from the experience of living at the highwater mark of American hypergentrification. So, yeah, absolutely, I fucking hate the Internet.
And yet. I’m a recovered tech person and much of my life has revolved around this shit. For what seems like a thousand years. And I still like the early ethos of tech, back in the hobbyist days, when computers were not interchangeable and no one had realized that this thing the Internet could be used to trample the gullible with advertisements for car insurance. Or before an even more unsavory lot realized that they could make beaucoup bucks setting up unprofitable companies as money laundering events for war criminals and investment bankers. That’s why I did a prequel of I Hate the Internet for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, an old British microcomputer. It felt like there was some virtue counterbalancing all of that disgust with an acknowledgment of a time you using computers did not require you to participate in several overlapping systems of global evil.
How does one navigate being a writer? I whine like a big fucking bald baby and pretend, like everyone else, that I’m not typing morality lectures into devices built by slaves in China. But of course I am.
CH: I’m curious about your subtitle: “A useful novel against men, money, and the filth of Instagram.” I suppose I’m especially curious about the phrase “against men” as well as the phrase “276 pages of mansplaining” which you use in the first page’s hilarious list of “trigger warnings.” In your novel, BTW, the narrator says, “I’m just killing time until the inevitable shift of power away from the patriarchy. The only thing I want is for women to assume their natural and obvious prominence.” What does it mean to be a male writer against men?
JK: There’s no way you can look at the Internet, in terms of the people who built it and in terms of the people who dramatically profit from other people’s intellectual capital via social networks, and argue that anyone but men are pulling the strings. The only major tech CEO who’s not a man is Marissa Mayer and she got stuck with the worst company of them all.
Historically, men have been the shit of the world. Every terrible thing under which we suffer was built by men. Most people receive technology as if it’s sprung from the head of Zeus. Normal people don’t have the time or the inclination to think about all of the engineering choices that went into something like tweeting, and how all of these choices are the prima materia of their suffering and manipulated behaviors. But like every system of government, the Internet should be seen as a thing constructed by men to which women are, alas, very subject.
So that’s what I’m against. Not so much men in general as the terrible choices of the men who have bequeathed us a grotesque world. Which may be the same thing.
As for the 276 pages of mansplaining. It’s difficult to look at the technical device in the novel of defining everything and not feeling like, well, isn’t this just a dude telling everyone what everything else is? How is this any different? So why be bashful? Why not embrace the mansplain? Lean in. Someday all of this will be yours.
CH: You acknowledge the writing of the book itself in chapter two: “Almost all movies are better than books. Most books are quite bad. Like this one. This is a bad novel.” What constitutes a “good” novel and what makes a novel “useful”? I realize this is a novel, but do you also believe that almost all movies are better than books?
JK: The “good” novel is a way of describing literary fiction, which is like any other genre. Bound to its own strictures like a witch tied to the stake.
Showing versus telling, the downplaying of intellect for the sake of emotion, the hackneyed concept of audience identification as reflective mirror, the heavy investment in the lives and concerns of the upper middle class. We could break down these constituent parts and stitch them back together to create a Frankenstein’s Monster with an MFA and a MacBook Air. The Monster would produce very sensitive, well-wrought books (involving intricate water metaphors) about tea-time affairs taking place at artists’ colonies in upstate New York. (Did you know that marriage vows are oft broken by those who spoke them?)
One of the things that I Hate the Internet tries to deal with—and now I’m going to sound like Alex Jones—is that much of what we consider literary fiction was constructed as part of the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird. The Writer’s Workshop at Iowa was funded by the CIA. The CIA engineered Dr. Zhivago’s Nobel Prize. The Paris Review was funded by the CIA. It goes on and on.
The purpose of this funding was to try and create cultural artifacts celebratory of a very specific American lifestyle. In effect, propaganda. You could have characters who were tormented by their existential drama of living on Revolutionary Road, but the literature must avoid anyone thinking about the materialist circumstances which produced that drama. Basically, your characters could have mental breakdowns on hardwood floors but couldn’t ever question the complex social structures of labor and exploitation and environmental damage that produce hardwood floors. In the good novel, every medical abortion is ideology free!
The good novel was a weapon of the Cold War. Literary fiction is the novel of the state. Literary fiction is statist literature. But like half of the characters in John le Carre, it outlived its conflict and the iteration of the state it served.
Fifty years later and literary fiction is a genre that’s not only dying but inherently exclusive of diversity. By itself this is not a big deal—lots of forms and genres die out. When was the last time you jousted?
The problem arrives when you realize how much the genre has colonized the entire idea of serious fiction while being hopelessly unable to address the challenges of our present moment.
How many literary novels have you read which deal with police brutality? How many serious novels published by one of the majors in 2015 were written by someone who was working class? How many literary novels have you read not by an Islamophobic Frenchman which address something as simple as mass tourism? Basically, how many literary novels not in translation have you read that deal with anything except the melodrama of meaningless sex and death made meaningful only by the social class in which it occurs? That goes in there, that goes in there, that goes in there. Now pay the mortgage.
The most important American novel of the last 20 years—in terms of genuine merit and sales—is Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever. It’s almost perfect. It’s sold well over a million copies. Most of its sales have been to people who don’t give a fuck about literary fiction.
And in defiance of the unspoken thoughts we have about so-called mass market fiction, the book is stuffed with complex narrative devices and conceits. But how is the text talked about? As the progenitor of what people once called “ghetto lit” but have euphemised as “urban lit”? So what does that tell you about the interests of the serious writers and serious editors in serious America who are producing the good novel?
Here I betray my own naiveté, but I don’t think that meaningful writing needs to die its inglorious death and I don’t think that this supposed death is a result of too many people using the Internet or being addicted to Ritalin from birth or the spike in quality during the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who. I think it’s the result of most literary novels being hideously boring and addressed solely to the concerns of a very conscribed group of people. Basically, people don’t buy literary novels because they’re horrible books about incredibly boring, limited characters and very tedious social situations.
(And, yes, honestly, most films are better than most books. Have you tried to read these things?)
CH: You’ve written three novels as well as a more conceptual book, If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write?, which pairs transcripts from celebrity sex tapes with a list of crimes that celebrity has committed. The book seems to speak to the same themes that you write about in I Hate the Internet—do you think considering fame in regards to sex tapes and crimes informed the way you wrote about the Internet? Do you ever ask yourself, “Why should I write?” when you consider things like the visually obsessed culture of Instagram?
JK: There’s no way to write about the Internet without writing about celebrity. If you accept the idea that the Internet is an elaborate tool used to distract people from meaningful political and personal advancement, then it’s very hard not to see celebrity as a key mechanism of that distraction.
Celebrity on the Internet is a perfect trigger for the very American habits of directing one’s anger at the wrong targets (someone insulted Jordan Catalano! mass rage and hysteria!) and supplication before one’s socially imagined betters. Both habits deflate any energy that could be directed towards change.
I’m just old enough to remember when celebrity was still treated with suspicion, or at least when you weren’t required to pretend as if every complex social issue could be carried in the fragile vessel of a celebrity, and when there wasn’t a conflation between meaningful social action and the presence of a celebrity. Seriously, what the fuck was Amy Schumer doing at President Obama’s announcement on gun control? That shit’s bananas.
Here’s an idea which may serve as a tonic to celebrity culture: we need to start thinking about celebrity as a disease which, when contracted, can lead to dramatic DNA alteration. The effects are so severe that the sufferer ceases to be human, and all the criteria we use to bisect the human experience ceases to be applicable. An infected person, a celebrity, no longer adheres to any racial, sexual or gender identity. What is Jordan Catalano’s sexual identity? He’s not gay, he’s not straight, he’s not bi, he’s not fluid. He’s celebrity. What is Kim Kardashian’s race? Celebrity. What gender is Caitlyn Jenner? Celebrity.
Lots of people carry the disease without developing any symptoms and thus remain human. Agents, managers, directors. Even many famous people. Chris Rock has been famous forever and seems utterly unaffected.
The primary outward marker is that some time after infection, significant changes at the cellular level result in dramatic body and facial alterations. A swelling of the breasts, a hardened and exaggerated musculature, a permanent change in hair color, significant weight loss. An altered facial structure that, in more severe cases, manifests a distinct feline appearance. Heretofore we’ve assumed that these changes are the result of plastic surgery, but that’s a cover story. It’s really the disease altering the sufferer’s physical appearance.
If we think about the conflation of celebrity and politics, we start to understand this disease’s socially debilitating effects. We’re trying to use entities which are no longer human and thus no longer contained by our social constructs to have long and pointless discussions about major social issues defined, primarily, by those constructs.
It asks a very 21st-century question: is feminism about achieving equality regardless of gender or has it become the way by which we make sure Jennifer Lawrence can buy the biggest house in Pacific Palisades? Chris Pine will never lead you to the mountain top. All he can do is exhibit key symptoms and pretend that his next film will be the one where finally, at last, he can demonstrate his range.
Any conversation involving a celebrity, regardless of the context, is always about celebrity. It’s how the disease manifests. So good luck affecting material social change worrying over Jordan Catalano. You’re gonna need it.
(The above is a very round-the-way answer to the question of “why write?”)
CH: You weave real people and real events in with fictional characters and events throughout your books. I was especially interested in the inclusion of writers from the Bay Area that seemed likely to be your friends or acquaintances when you lived there—how does it affect or limit your writing to include real people versus completely fictional characters?
JK: Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. It started in I Hate the Internet because I love the writer Kevin Killian and thought if I were going to write about the Bay Area, it would be criminal not to mention Kevin. I dislike inventing when people and things exist and are perfectly serviceable, so after putting in Kevin, I decided, what the hell, why not? Let’s throw it all in. I tried to characterize people in the least uncharitable way.
I don’t use living people as major characters. The fictional Kevin never really says anything in the book. So I guess that’s a limit: I can’t write Kevin Killian fanfiction to its fullest thrust.
I’m not even sure what Kevin Killian fanfiction would be like. Endless descriptions of a man who looks like a late period Caesar wandering through San Francisco, taking pictures of people while being the nicest and most helpful person you can imagine and occasionally saying something very, very disquieting?
CH: Characters and names recur throughout your books. In BTW, the father character has the last name Karacehennem (Turkish for “Black Hell”), which appears again in I Hate the Internet in a different form, as “J. Karacehennem.” And the comic artists that play a major role in I Hate the Internet, J.W. Bloss and M. Abrahamovic Petrovitch, also appear in BTW. What causes you to decide to keep the same characters or names from book to book, and does it have anything to do with how you intend your books to be read as a whole?
JK: This was an accident which has come to define the last few years. There’s BTW, there’s I Hate the Internet, and there’s an unpublished manuscript called The Future Won’t Be Long. They’re all part of an unofficial series—the American Decadence series—which spans from 1986 until 2013. And may go further.
The Future Won’t Be Long is about NYC in 1986 through 1996. It’s about the club kids and independent comic book publishing and terrible science fiction and alcoholic parents and being Gen X and anonymous gay sex in Variety Photoplays. Basically, it’s about the characters Adeline and Baby (and others) who show up in I Hate the Internet, except instead of being dissolute adults with professional lives and baroque sexual interests, they’re kids with coursework and baroque sexual interests.
When I was doing the final draft on BTW, it was after I’d finished the first draft of The Future Won’t Be Long. There was a gap in the former manuscript. I’d excised a chapter. I needed something there for pacing, so I thought it might be interesting to have the protagonist (who is unnamed in BTW but, as you mention, shows up as J. Karacehennem in I Hate the Internet) interview Adeline.
It was supposed to be a one-off. But it worked well and it was interesting in that Adeline’s appearance had weight. Which of course it would. It’s a character I spent a year writing about. And I realized, oh, right, this is why people like Vampire Academy: no one wants to read a single book about characters without weight. People want the epic. They want Harry Potter. There’s an enormous amount of trust involved in reading a new book. (I literally have no idea why any woman would ever read a newly released book by a man. So thanks for reading mine, Chelsea.) The multi-volume series signals, in a way that a stand-alone does not, that this trust has the hope of being rewarded.
So when I started on I Hate the Internet, there was only one place I could start, and that was with Adeline getting called a slut on Twitter.
CH: I love this line from your novel, ATTA: “Loyalty is the world’s only currency and it depreciates constantly. Even those who remain true must be tested.” I thought of this when reading this part from I Hate the Internet: “It was the 21st century. It was the Internet… There was nothing left to buy. Fame was everything because traditional money had failed. Fame was everything because fame was the world’s last valid currency.” What role do you see technology playing in currency? What kind of currency is most crucial to you in your life?
JK: Like every writer, I live and die on the currency of reputation, which seems to be defined by three vectors. 1.) Competence. 2.) Personal Agreeability. 3.) Sales. I’ve got #1 down; #2, maybe, depending on which editor you ask—Hedi El Kholti from Semiotext(e) still likes me even though I drove him crazy. But #3? One of the more frustrating things about ATTA is that the book has done ridiculously well but no one knows it.
CH: I want to discuss this passage from I Hate the Internet:
The curious thing was that Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Blogspot, a media platform owned by Google, were the stomping grounds of self-styled intellectual and social radicals… It was where, they believed, the conversation was shifting. They were typing morality lectures into devices built by slaves on platforms of expression owned by the Patriarchy, and they were making money for the Patriarchy. Somehow this was destroying the Patriarchy. So there’s always hope.
I realize the “hope” here is sarcastic here, but I’m curious if you have hope for the future within the bleak cultural landscape depicted in I Hate the Internet. What’s left to believe in?
JK: The solution to life has been known since the ancient Greeks. There’s never been a smarter person than Epicurus, whose philosophy can be distilled, basically, to the idea that we should try and find five people it doesn’t make us sick to be around and live a life free of worry while talking to these friends. There’s other stuff in there, too, but the point is that culture will not save you. It never has. It never will. The only thing you can do is make friends and keep them for as long as possible. If there’s a sub-rosa message in I Hate the Internet, that’d be it. Only your friends will get you through life, so dick them about as little as possible.