What We’re Getting Wrong About So-Called Internet Literature

Shya Scanlon on Oyler, Lockwood, Wilder, Boyle, and More

The term “Internet Literature” seems perfectly designed to divide us, but we’re getting it all wrong. In a somewhat recent tweet, novelist Christian TeBordo only half-jokingly suggested that “a true internet novel would be one in which most sentences don’t have a subject, there are at least a dozen typos per page, and the punctuation is ridiculous. also the characters would not behave remotely like humans.” By contrast, the late Tyrant Books publisher Giancarlo DiTrapano had an uncynical perspective on the influence of the Internet on literature—or the Internet as literature. In a 2013 interview with author Brad Listi, he described his fondness for Twitter as the ability to read “the thoughts closest to me that aren’t my own.”

Despite strong opinions for and against, however, there seems to be a basic misunderstanding about what Internet Literature actually is. This misunderstanding commonly takes the form of an identification of subject matter. In her Wired review of recent genre entries Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler and No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, Kate Knibbs suggests that what the two very different novels have in common is authors intent on “capturing what the internet does to people.”

Indeed, both of those novels spend considerable word count on recounting (and inventing) the rapid proliferation of memes across social media, and on describing what it feels like to contribute to and keep track of it all. Driven as much by the desire to be part of the group as by the fear of missing out, the self-worth of both Lockwood’s and Oyler’s narrators is tied to their online personas. But that alone does not make their work Internet Literature. One could easily conceive of a novel about that subject written in a magic realist or modernist mode. What makes it Internet Literature is that the value of the novels themselves is formally tied to the online personas of their authors.

The way Internet Literature treats its relationship to the world—and the anxiety of that treatment—is what distinguishes it as a form, and that goes straight to the heart of what distinguishes the Internet itself as a technology: the link. Internet Literature links out to the world, and from those links draws power and meaning. But it’s a dangerous arrangement. As Oyler’s narrator suggests while observing images of Princess Leia at the 2017 Women’s March in DC, “if you don’t know something is a reference, you don’t fully understand it. That’s the humiliation of allusion.”

The term “Internet Literature” seems perfectly designed to divide us, but we’re getting it all wrong.

Though New Criticism peaked in the 1970s and has since been replaced by a healthily heterogenous grab bag of critical methods, there are still strong echoes of the idea that a text can and should contain all information necessary for its own interpretation. This was even a prominent line of critique in the MFA program at Brown University—a decidedly safe place for experimental writing—but it can be felt in submission guidelines for literary magazines that accept novel excerpts provided said excerpts are able to “stand alone.” How one determines whether or not a text stands alone is never quite articulated, but surely the implication is that it can act as “a whole,” without reference to information external to the text.

Of course, there’ve always been writers on the fringes who make generous use of referentiality both obvious and obscure: the late writing of David Markson, for example, whose work reached its apotheosis in a form characterized by quotes, anecdotes and scholarly observations that he pointedly did not support with citation. But nowhere is this practice so widespread or consistently deployed as it is Internet Literature. And despite a different set of referents, nowhere does it seem so central to the basic project of the work. Internet Literature delights in the play of reference, the participation in a network in which meaning is actively being made, a network in which only those who participate “get it.”

In his 2012 book Missing Out, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes that “groups of people tend to be defined, or to define themselves, by the things they all get” (emphasis mine.) There seems to be a spectrum of what “getting it” means within Internet Literature, on one side of which is an active critique of both those who are not “getting it” and the need for “getting it” generally, and on the other a free-wheeling abandonment of the need for explanation.

Returning to Oyler’s narrator’s account of her experience at the Women’s March, we see evidence of the critical side of this spectrum: foolish gestures lacking self-awareness. In passage after passage, Oyler’s narrator is extremely skeptical of how the Internet prizes conflict, spontaneity and speed over consistency, rationality and thoroughness. Yet her narrator’s attempt to remain aloof from the social media ecosystem is undercut by Oyler’s liberal use of reference to her own online reputation to buttress her story.

Another example is Oyler’s ongoing reference to the Twitter account @HelenofTroyWI (which though described as having upwards of 7k followers is in reality a private account followed by just 28). The account was created in December of 2020, indicating that perhaps Oyler made it in advance of her publication date. Was it an inside joke between her close friends, a cameo seen by many but appreciated by few? Whatever the intention, it’s certain that she expected her readers to look it up. It’s not necessarily what is found that matters; it’s the gesture itself that describes the form.

Internet Literature delights in the play of reference, the participation in a network in which meaning is actively being made, a network in which only those who participate “get it.”

Somewhere toward the middle of this spectrum we find Patricia Lockwood, whose novel No One Is Talking About This is neatly divided into two parts, the first in which the referentiality of Internet Literature, though embraced quizzically, is ultimately celebrated, and the second in which the “real world” has intruded, displacing a healthy portion of the first part’s referentiality with plot and character. Gleefully recounting meme after meme, Lockwood delights in the frothy, creative spontaneity of Internet culture—even, in fact especially, when those memes bind her to an in-group. “Her most secret pleasures,” she admits, “were sentences that only half of a percent of people on earth would understand.”

Like her novel’s narrator, Lockwood’s career involves not just writing about being online, but trying to explain it. And perhaps because Lockwood herself is called on to speak for the Internet to audiences composed, one presumes, of out of touch but curious noobs, her novel includes an ongoing attempt to frame her references, to provide some context for their mattering. But in her eyes, these attempts are doomed to failure because the subject is always evolving faster than any attempt to understand it. The central project is to keep the memes alive, protected from death-by-self-serious scrutiny.

Farther along the spectrum we find works that abandon most or all attempts to frame, explain, or excuse Internet culture vis a vis some kind of teachable moment. A few of these works were curated by Internet Literature booster Giancarlo DiTrapano and published by Tyrant Books, including Darcie Wilder’s slim 2017 novel literally show me a healthy person.

Wilder’s book thrusts the reader directly into the stream and swirl of action in media res, and does little to bring the reader up to speed. The narrator of Wilder’s book, named Dar, is coming to terms with a death in her family—two deaths, really—and like No One Is Talking About This and Fake Accounts, the novel traffics in a rapid-fire Internet culture referentiality, but unlike Lockwood or Oyler, Wilder does not comment on or critique the references or conversations in which she participates. She does not attempt to frame their meaning. So when coming across a line like, “that picture of the dead rat on Instagram,” it’s left alone on the page, the onus being on the reader to either investigate, ignore, or as I’m sure is the case with many of her readers and fans (she has more than 100k Twitter followers), already get. Explanation is unnecessary because the point is not the object to which is being referred. As with @HelenofTroyWI, the point is the gesture itself, the act of referring. One has the distinct impression that, even more so than Lockwood, Wilder sees her novel as part of a larger ongoing project, something she can link her Twitter followers to as she might a picture on Instagram.

In his Bookforum review of Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth, Christian Lorentzen issued a pronouncement that “the dominant literary style in America is careerism.” Within a couple weeks of publication, a panel was assembled to debate, debunk, or unpack that analysis. Some panelists rightly pointed out that calling someone careerist usually suggested that they lacked natural talent sufficient for the success they either pursued or had achieved. Tracking its deployment by gatekeepers is a worthy project, but to my mind Lorentzen seemed less interested in judging talent than in describing the increasingly vocal, present, active roles authors have in shaping the conversation around their work vis a vis their public personas.

Farther along the spectrum we find works that abandon most or all attempts to frame, explain, or excuse Internet culture vis a vis some kind of teachable moment.

We know what to thank for that. The Internet gives authors a platform for speaking to readers (or one another), and it gives readers a way to easily reach (or follow) the authors they admire (or hate). The result is an expanding porousness between the author and her work that some writers decry, and others delight in and encourage. If the project of New Criticism, in moving beyond the author’s intent, was to distance the work from the person who wrote it, many authors today seem intent on bridging that distance, on “owning” their role as author, and if not outright overseeing the interpretation of their work, than at least actively participating, as Roth did, in the conversation.

The rise of autofiction would seem to be another authorial response to this porousness between author and text (or between “formal” and “informal” text). The work of usual suspects like Tao Lin, Teju Cole, Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk lean on the familiarity they presume their readers will have with figures, events and conversations happening outside the text, most notably with themselves as writers.

Unlike Lin and Cole, neither Lerner nor Cusk have much (if any) social media presence to speak of, but the work of all four authors bristles at being self-contained, at comfortably (passively?) remaining between the covers. In a recent interview on Bookworm, Cusk agreed with Michael Silverblatt’s observation that her new novel Second Place, in addition to shedding, as her previous trilogy had, traditionally novelistic elements like character and plot, was now actually assuming a supporting role to another novel, a story outside itself. Her own book came to occupy, as it were, “second place.”

Cusk’s novel belongs to more than one tradition, of course, including that of novels “about” other works or their characters, e.g. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. But that literature usually exists in the shadow of work so broadly read it’s become part of the fabric of the very language the new work inhabits. Cusk’s book refers to something not many have read, and in doing so seems to prompt, like much Internet Literature, its readers to track down that referenced work, to move outside and beyond, to follow the link.

It seems reasonable that Internet Literature would make such organic and generous use of autofiction’s thinly veiled author-narrators, buttressed in many cases by frequent and pointed metafictional comparisons between same. The author is the most direct, or at least most dominant, reference the text can produce. It’s the big call-to-action at the side of the page, blinking and flashing, offering a reward for all who click. That reward, of course, is the little jolt of recognition, the hit of dopamine that comes with “getting it.”

The rise of autofiction would seem to be another authorial response to this porousness between author and text (or between “formal” and “informal” text).

As is the case with autofiction, this also means that the most successful Internet Literature is going to be written by people about whom readers already know something, authors that are a known quantity. Without that, the dopamine hit lacks punch. The network lacks critical infrastructure; the most vitalizing frame of reference fizzles.

Another notable Internet Novel published by Tyrant Books is 2018’s Liveblog by Megan Boyle. In her review of Liveblog, a novel written over and about a six month-period of Boyle’s life, Lauren Oyler concludes with the observation that “as the book goes on you identify with her”—meaning Boyle herself—suggesting that part of the success of Boyle’s novel lies with its ability to make the reader form an emotional attachment with the author.

Though Liveblog exists at one extreme of the autofiction spectrum—strong emphasis on “auto”—a similar measure of success seems pertinent to autofiction in general. The question is not just whether we can read Taipei, or Open City, or Leaving the Atocha Station, without building, or building on, an emotional relationship to their authors, the question is who would want to? The same question can be asked of Internet Literature, but in this case many readers have already established that relationship through social media, and those who haven’t can do something akin to extending the text by following the authors on Twitter.

The issue of Bookforum in which Lorentzen’s comment on careerism appears also features a review of Lockwood’s debut. It is a sincere rave, but reviewer Audrey Wollen does wonder early on what reading it would be like “if I didn’t understand most of the references.” She goes on to suggest that such is the way with all novels, that she “can read about a place I have never been, while others are reading about their hometown.” I don’t think the comparison is disingenuous, but I do think it misses the point. A realist novel will artfully construct that town in a way that seeks to build a picture in the reader’s mind. An Internet novel will expect you to Google the town, and will either lampoon, refute, or embellish the facts contained by those external sources. Reading Internet Literature involves multiple screens.

As is the case with autofiction, this also means that the most successful Internet Literature is going to be written by people about whom readers already know something, authors that are a known quantity.

Of course, just as the Internet itself is evolving, Internet Literature is an unstable form. Lockwood’s narrator acknowledges as much—and the anxiety that can induce in those trying to write about it—in a conversation she’s having with an Internet-famous peer: “They’re getting it all wrong, aren’t they? Already when people are writing about it, they’re getting it all wrong.” Fortunately, that’s part of the fun. As Adam Phillips points out, “We can get pleasure from a joke only when we understand it, but we don’t always understand our understanding.” In other words, it’s never an entirely closed system, and the process of discovery is one that continually opens outward. Part of “getting it” is letting it go.

Although this is likely not the only defining formal element of Internet Literature, it appears to be an essential one. A novel can be written about the Internet without it being an Internet novel, but Internet Literature will always reflect the Internet’s expansiveness and seek to reproduce its fundamental incompleteness. Authors of Internet Literature will expect that all readers have access to the tools necessary to know what it means, even if they don’t fully know themselves, and they will expect that their core readership already gets it. Most importantly, Internet Literature will formally point to contemporary externalities, frustrating the expectation that a book should stand alone.

Shya Scanlon
Shya Scanlon
Shya Scanlon is the author of Forecast and Guild of Saint Cooper. Follow him on Twitter @shyascanlon.





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