Page refresh: how the internet is transforming the novel


Towards the end of 2020, a year spent supine on my sofa consuming endless internet like a force-fed goose, I managed to finish a beautifully written debut novel: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, which comes out next month. And yet despite the entrancing descriptions, I could barely turn two pages before my hand moved reflexively toward the cracked screen of my phone. Each time I returned to the novel I felt ashamed, and the shame only grew as I realised that, somehow, though the story was set in the present, and involved an often long-distance romance between two young people with phones, it contained not one single reference to what by then I considered a hallmark of present-day humanity: mindless scrolling through social media.

There was something sepia-toned about the book thanks to this absence, recalling love stories from previous eras even as it spoke powerfully to more urgent contemporary issues. Azumah Nelson’s narrator mentions phones in the context of calls and private text messages, but the characters are never sullied by association with Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Was this because they were too sensible, ethical or self-assured to use such things, or is the omnipresence of these platforms now so implicit, in literature as in life, that they hardly seemed worth mentioning?

After an initial froideur, followed by some adolescent fumblings, fiction’s embrace of social media has now fully come of age. The success of outliers such as Tao Lin’s Taipei (in which the internet is perhaps the most potent of all the many drugs its protagonists ingest) and Dave Eggers’s The Circle (a dystopian exploration of big tech’s assault on privacy), both published in 2013, paved the way for Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the Internet, which riffed on the way the internet perplexes the literary novel, 2017’s Sympathy (my debut, about the ways our identity and actions are shaped by surveillance in the internet age), 2018’s Twitter refreshing Crudo by Olivia Laing, and Matthew Sperling’s aptly named 2020 novel Viral, a satirical takedown of a social media startup.

It’s clear that the digital colonisation of the literary world has not resulted in its predicted death, but an exciting evolution. We are hungry for writers who can parse our present, whether in essay form, in works such as Jia Tolentino’s collection Trick Mirror (2019) and Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020) or the fiction about to hit our shelves (or Kindle screens) that put social media front and centre.

The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt, adapted from the Dave Eggers novel. Photograph: Frank Masi/Allstar/Lionsgate/StudioCanal

Characters in today’s novels are more likely to surprise us if they don’t use social media. This is often put down to their age, or pious superiority, or eccentricity, or something very sinister in their past. In Raven Leilani’s debut Luster, the narrator’s older love interest (met via online dating) uses “retired internet slang”, and is “not even on Twitter”. Unlike with men her own age, she cannot track his “formative development online”, and this adds to his allure.

Similarly, in Lauren Oyler’s forthcoming Fake Accounts, the narrator’s boyfriend appears to have minimal internet presence (suspicious), then turns out to have a secret online avatar with a considerable Instagram following. A famous author in Rebecca Watson’s little scratch who is not on social media is described as seeming like “a dead writer”. Meanwhile, in Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel No One Is Talking About This (published next month) the protagonist knows only two living people without a digital trail – a former school friend, who seems to have escaped into a parallel universe offline, and her own newborn niece. It’s a book Lockwood described (on Twitter) as “about being very inside the internet and then being very outside of it”.

Working on my novel about social media (which I started in 2014), I remember receiving numerous comments to the effect that such superficial features of what I considered to be “real life” would render it unserious and obsolete. Now, social media has taken over our lives to the extent that references to it in fiction furnish contemporary characters with plausibility, even humanity.

While the internet and mobile phones initially posed problems for fiction writers – not least for their potential to destroy traditional plots of desire and obstruction (chance encounters, missed connections, quests), the dangers of such instant gratification increasingly appear to spark the plot itself (as in Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, where a careless tweet sets off a dangerous train of events) and offer novels a natural home, so long as they’re game for a little renovation. As Watson wrote recently: “When I started writing … incorporating this digital compulsion was one of the first issues I ran into. I was writing a book that aimed to follow the mind of a woman in her 20s, non-stop, so ignoring it would be a plot hole. But quickly, I found that it opened up my protagonist, created a portal to others while still keeping her isolated. It inspired me to shake up form; the pressures of an age of distraction making me break up prose into columns and fragments.”

As with all renovations-in-progress, (and perhaps I use this metaphor as it seems to be a burgeoning genre on Instagram) alterations afford us a glimpse of how the novel works – which pipes go where, which walls are load-bearing – as both the structural elements and stylistic choices are rendered visible. Reading Watson’s little scratch the reader must clamber over and around London Underground announcements, texts, TripAdvisor reviews, scraps of other people’s writing, emails, snippets of conversation, unspoken thoughts, sounds and sensory impressions scattered across the page with little in the way of signposting.

Jia Tolentino.
Jia Tolentino. Photograph: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

With no predetermined way to navigate the text, the novel could be compared to the endless tabs and incongruous juxtapositions of digital life, or it could just be like living now, as writers such as Virginia Woolf (referenced repeatedly in both Oyler and Lockwood’s novels) used a stream of consciousness to convey the experience of 20th-century living. These days, and especially post 2020, there is little meaningful distinction between digital life and life anyway. As Lockwood’s narrator notes: “This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?”

That terms such as “real life” and “digital life” still exist in tension, despite the extent to which they overlap, is indicative of social media’s contradictions. Connection and isolation, homogeneity and fragmentation, exposure and concealment, the order and simultaneous incoherence of the timeline … the list is both familiar and endless. And yet our familiarity with social media can preclude critical understanding of it. Novels, by contrast, allow us to step outside our habitual experience and reflect on what it means that “real life” has been so swiftly overtaken by the virtual. Lockwood, for example, calls it “the portal” rather than the internet, to purposefully estrange the reader: “It was in this place where we were on the verge of losing our bodies that bodies became the most important. You were zoomed in on the grain, you were out in space, it was the brotherhood of man, and in some ways you had never been flung further from each other.”

In Watson’s novel, such dualities are woven together in a helix, pointing to the nature of trauma as much as digital experience, but where the once separate worlds of work and home, say, might have permitted a way to compartmentalise and so navigate certain dangerous triggers, the breaching of stable boundaries (exemplified by the narrator’s rape), make it harder to escape intrusive thoughts. The membrane that suggests a separate outer and inner life is her skin, which she scratches compulsively until it’s raw and bleeding. The urge to scratch, like the urge to scroll, provides temporary relief (opening a new tab to find a dog on Twitter wearing a backpack is at least a means of distraction, not dissimilar to picking a scab), before worsening the condition.

As in Lockwood and Oyler’s novels, the claustrophobia of being trapped in one’s own head alternates with the agoraphobia and disorientation of being (trapped) online, immersed in the collective mind of everyone else. No equilibrium can be reached when the two scales are so vastly mismatched. Oyler’s narrator is always conscious of performing for “an audience that might as well have been everyone in the world for all your brain could comprehend”. Lockwood’s protagonist lies “every morning under an avalanche of details, the world pressing closer and closer, the spiderweb of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk”. Oyler’s narrator suffers from the panic of sleep paralysis (mirroring her waking experience of scrolling). Even when she is awake, it is as though the body has become two dimensional. The husband of Lockwood’s protagonist comes up behind her “while she was repeating the words no, no, no or help, help, help under her breath. ‘Are you locked in?’ he would ask, and she would nod, and then do the thing that always broke her out somehow which was to google beautiful brown pictures of roast chickens – maybe because that’s what women used to do with their days.”

These are scenes that do not typically lend themselves to fictional description or plot: a character who is outwardly inert, invisibly experiencing a kind of overload. Lockwood’s protagonist’s face has a “totally dead look”, as her husband describes it, when engaged in “mortal combat with someone online, despite the fact moments like this are when she feels most alive”. That her husband has such a different impression of this scene is emblematic of how characters in these novels, to varying, often darkly comic degrees, struggle to communicate and sustain intimacy. No other person, not even a husband, can ever know you as well as your phone. Your phone, in fact, knows you better than you know yourself and alerts you whenever “YOU HAVE A NEW MEMORY”. It’s not much of a stretch to say the phone could just as easily be the narrator.

Lauren Oyler.
Lauren Oyler. Photograph: Maria Spann/The Observer

Social media inflected novels are overwhelmingly narrated in the first person or the close third with relentless self-awareness, in the style of confessional essays and blogs. Their protagonists scrutinise themselves through the eyes of imagined strangers, pre-empting critique so that such hyper-connection actually breeds a particular brand of interiority. This is true at the thriller end of the spectrum also: husband and wife duo Ellery Lloyd’s People Like Her, a cautionary tale of influencer culture, relies partly on multiple first person perspectives to drive the plot.

In terms of form, social media has shaped contemporary fiction, even in novels that make scant mention of it. The dominant trend is to tell a story through fragments. Sometimes these make a point of concision – only a paragraph, or even one line, which of course makes social media comparison easy, while others may be the length of a blog. Each fragment possesses no obvious bearing on the next, juxtaposing random facts with news articles, wry observation of a stranger on a commute followed by an unrelated emotional confession, in the manner of one individual’s Twitter timeline. It’s that first person voice that has to do the work of holding these fragments together, but it also makes allowances for internet-eroded concentration spans, our inability to stick to linear paths of thought.

Oyler’s narrator calls this “trendy style melodramatic, insinuating utmost meaning where there was only hollow prose in its attempts to reflect the world as a sequence of distinct and clearly formed ideas, it ran counter to how reality actually worked.” She later switches to parodying the style herself, which did, at least, make it easier for me to check my phone between paragraphs. The other trend does not, demanding you read its long, run-on sentences without even stopping to breathe. This is a tightly controlled art form in Luster, which reminded me of the knowingly tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) variety of Instagram caption.

Lockwood’s narrator also uses and self-consciously notes the prevalence of this style: “Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.” This uniform way of speaking, as recognisable as those clapping emoji hands between words, illustrates how, as Lockwood writes, if the internet was once “the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually it had become the place where we sounded like each other, through some erosion of wind or water on a self not nearly as firm as stone.” Add to this homogenisation the sociological phenomenon of “context collapse” (sharing everything online with everyone and without distinction), and the capacity to “break the internet” by going viral, and we are ourselves broken into pieces, flattened out, sprayed through an atomiser, losing our own specificity, our own voices.

Emmy, the influencer at the centre of People Like Her, is accused by a formerly loyal friend of having become “2D” like her photos. Not a person anymore, “just a phony caption and a posed photo. A fucking invention.” Emmy has crafted a persona, or a personal brand, that is the “perfectly imperfect” Instagram mother, “Mamabare”, aiming for relatability rather than reality. It’s a Faustian pact she has made, selling her own soul as well as those of her friends and family, so that when an Instagram “role player” begins to steal photos of her daughter and use them to craft their own fantasy life online, Emmy has little in the way of a moral high ground, or recourse. Even Emmy’s furious husband admits this is a trap of his wife’s own making, and that the role-player presents “a pretty convincing pastiche of the way that all Instamums, my wife included, write. The mangled metaphors, the breathless over-enthusiasm. The ingenuous clunkiness. The alliteration.” Emmy has become so successful at influencing people to be like her, they have literally started to usurp her.

Plenty of social media novels explore the possibilities of pretending to be someone else, devising personas or even knowingly assuming someone else’s identity, as in 2018’s Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton. This kind of thing is still considered extreme behaviour, but more recent novels such as People Like Her highlight how much that “personality” we think of as our own is being determined by algorithm and then harvested for data. As Lockwood’s narrator puts it, this is “the stream-of-consciousness that is not entirely your own, that you participate in but also acts upon you”. Participating involves a metastasis whereby “a person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth.”

Our offline lives turn out to be just as much of a lie as our online ones. Having discovered her boyfriend’s deception online, Oyler’s narrator agrees “manipulative insincerity was a fair response to the way the world was”. She sets up a plan involving dating apps as “a purposeful critique of the system. I could be anyone I wanted (or did not want, as the case may be) and my deception would not be selfish, cruelly manipulative of innocents looking for love, but a rebellion against an entire mode of thinking, which was not really thinking at all, just accepting whatever was advertised to you.” Because there is no way out, the characters of these novels usually decide it’s better to be an agent of their own techno-dystopian futures than simply a victim of them. It’s enough to make you put down your phone and read a book.

Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99).



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