Fiction in the Age of Social Media
Alix Ohlin | December 2016
The first time I gave a reading, I shared the stage with a writer who introduced herself as “the inventor of the email novel.” Someone in the audience laughed, and she frowned. “It’s just like an epistolary novel,” she explained. “But with email.”
The writer’s tone, proud and defensive, implied that the email novel was a genre with both literary precedent and a bright future of its own. To my knowledge, few people today refer to it as such, but emails, along with texts and Facebook statuses, are now regular features of contemporary fiction, because they are regular features of contemporary life. As people increasingly interact via social media, writers of fiction—a form fundamentally concerned with the nature of social interaction—find themselves grappling, implicitly or explicitly, with the presence of technology. The constructed narratives of fiction unfold in a world where almost everyone constructs a narrative of his or her life on Facebook or LinkedIn. Novels and stories chart the intersection between private and public life at a time when those boundaries are shifting, even dissolving. And they deal with questions of emotional connection, affect, and personhood amidst an internet culture of liking, sharing, and self-exposure. E.M. Forster’s phrase “only connect,” so often evoked by and about literature, seems more complicated and yet more timely than ever.
To dramatize the experience of social media in a novel is to try to hit a moving target. Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel Super Sad Love Story stands as a document at once historical and prescient about technology’s movement to the center of our lives. In the book, characters carry around devices called äppäräts, which allow them to communicate and shop and rate and be rated. At one low point, Shteyngart’s sad sack character Lenny notes, “My äppärät isn’t connecting. I can’t connect.” The implication is clear—the apparatus and the human being have become one and the same—and the allusion to Forster seems clear as well.
In the years since Super Sad Love Story was published, the reach of social media has only grown. It infuses our lives at the level of the sentence; almost anyone who writes, or reads, or speaks is influenced by its now-familiar cadences, causing shifts in diction and syntax with inevitable consequences for writers of prose. The word like will never read the same way on the page; ditto follow, hover, curate, virus, and cloud. Namwali Serpell’s story “The Book of Faces” grapples with both the language and experience of social media. It begins by quoting Facebook’s own prompt (“What’s on your mind”?), then goes on:
In the beginning, Jordan Shell joins and you think well, that’s good, and so you like this. Then you get his friend request. Do you want to be his friend? Don’t you want to be his friend? You remember that weird crush and the creepiness, but in a fit of generosity you accept.
Serpell’s story uses the present tense sentence structure of Facebook to pave a surface of emphatic declarations beneath which uncertainty roils. Satirical versions of Facebook polls are collaged with the narrative activities of liking, posting, and direct messaging behind the “scenes” of more-public status updates. Serpell’s use of the second person heightens the involvement of the reader, and since the story itself was published online in n+1, the experience of reading it physically matches the experience of scrolling through Facebook.
Serpell’s story feels fresh and of the moment. At the same time, its major concern—the gap between inside and outside, between the version of yourself that you present online and what goes on behind the scenes, or in your inbox—is rooted in long-established fictional territory. Our selves have always been constructed and fractured; there has always been a space between public and private that fiction is suited to dramatize.
Perhaps what’s unique in our era is the degree to which the activity of constructing a public self consumes us, its encompassing status as a hobby, passion, or chore. Online selves can feel both public and intimate, emotionally intense but carefully curated, and you can’t always tell where the artifice and omission lie. These vexing qualities of contemporary selfhood are at the heart of a number of recent autobiographical novels. Books like Tao Lin’s Taipei and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station court confusion between reality and fiction, writer self and character self, perhaps because the boundary between the two feels more arbitrary and fluid than it ever has before.
In these autofictions, the experience of living in a socially mediated world leads to emotional exhaustion; the self feels not so much artificial as affectless, detached in a way that’s pinned to our particular moment. In Leaving the Atocha Station, there is an 11-page section in which the narrator’s friend Cyrus tells him, over instant messaging, about a horrifying experience he had with his girlfriend, of watching a woman drown:
CYRUS: Yeah but I had this sense—this sense that the whole point of the trip for her—to Mexico—was for something like this, something this “real” to happen. I don’t really believe that, but I felt it, and I said something about how she had got some good material for her novel
ME: is she writing a novel
CYRUS: Who knows
ME: and she responded how
CYRUS: She’s probably writing a novel now
CYRUS: She was quiet. I’m sure she was angry/hurt. Then she said something about how this just is the world, that things like this happen, that one can be as cautious as one wants, can waste one’s life being cautious but that there is no avoiding the reality of death. I remember laughing at the phrase “reality of death” to show I thought it was an embarrassing cliché
ME: have you two made up
Here the notion of using “material” for a novel is mocked within an instant message conversation that is using the same material—and is also taking place within an actual novel. The characters are negotiating sincere feelings and perceptions while also feeling self-conscious about those feelings and perceptions, policing them. It’s hard to gauge the narrator’s reactions to Cyrus’s story. Reading this conversation, the question arises: is it instant messaging that makes the narrator sound so disengaged, or does he choose to communicate via instant message because he is so disengaged to begin with?
Disengagement isn’t always a bad thing. In Justin Taylor’s short story “So You’re Just What, Gone?” the young protagonist, Charity, sexts with an older guy she has met on a plane. As he gets more aggressive, she checks out, letting the phone battery die. The next day she plugs the phone in and reads his disturbing messages in order, on her own time. Less threatened than curious, Charity uses the texts to safely access adult experience: “texting Mark was like peeking in the doorway of a bar or the teachers’ lounge—someplace you could get in trouble for going into but were curious to glimpse the inside of, just to be able to say that you knew what was in there.”
In Taylor’s story, the experience of the body is not separate from technology but contiguous with it. Alejandro Zambra’s story “Memories of a Personal Computer,” charts a similar physicality: the lifespan of a computer is sketched alongside that of a romantic relationship. As the story opens, the protagonist, Max, connects the cables to a brand-new CPU; his new girlfriend uses the computer too. At the height of their romantic connection, “Windows always started successfully.” Then the girlfriend buys another device, and Max writes long emails to friends: “melancholic texts, sensationalist, wistful, the kind of messages whose replies are put off indefinitely.” After they break up, Max lugs the now-decrepit machine on a nine-hour bus ride and gives it to his son, who lives with his mother and already has a better computer, so that he laughs at his father’s unwanted gift, and stores it in the basement. The endurance of the obsolete machine is affecting and perverse, almost more poignant than the death of the romance.
Zambra depicts the computer not as an accessory to our emotional lives but as a participant in them, an embrace of technology that goes back to Forster. In an essay, Zadie Smith wrote about talks Forster delivered “over the wireless,” a relatively new medium that he welcomed. “Radio,” Smith notes, “presented him with the opportunity of mass connection. It went against his grain to put any obstacle between his listeners and himself.” Radio changed the world; so did the technologies that succeeded it, giving rise to new stories about age-old themes.
Alix Ohlin’s most recent books are the novel Inside and the story collection Signs and Wonders. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-Required Reading, and many other places.