Philip Roth saw it coming in 2010, when he expressed concern that the “multiple screens” vying against the novel were causing its decline: “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore.” So did Michiko Kakutani, who wrote at length about the subject in her seminal essay “Texts Without Contexts,” that same year, exploring how “most emailed” lists and social media shares were causing writers to pander to audiences. Kakutani posed the question, “Are literary-minded novelists increasingly taking into account what their readers want or expect?”
Even Mortimer Adler intuited the internet’s detrimental effect on the novel— before it was invented. In his 1972 classic How to Read a Book, Adler compares the “artificial props” of television and radio to drug addiction: “We grow used to them, and we continuously need more and more of them. Eventually, they have little or no effect. Then, if we lack resources within ourselves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually. And we when cease to grow, we begin to die.” Were Adler writing in the digital age, one wonders just how stunted he might consider the modern reader.
But that discussion is now moot. The internet is a permanent fixture in modern life, and that it influences the way we read, write and think is simply fact. So instead of lamenting how digital ubiquity is nibbling away at the novel’s purview, what if a novel were to pull a fast one and swallow the internet whole? What if, rather than putting novels online, we downloaded the internet into a novel? What if there was a character so drawn in by the internet’s gravitational pull that her every send, post, cut and paste determined her trajectory, and her page views informed the plotline? This is a character whose native tongue is the online vernacular of IP addresses, URLs and animated GIFs, a character who is shackled to her Smartphone, who brings her laptop to the bathroom. In other words, perhaps a novel should depict the place where so many real people live today: online.
Enter Alex Lyons, the protagonist of Jessica Grose’s Sad Desk Salad and a writer for the fictitious women’s website Chick Habit. Alex works from the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her boyfriend, ostensibly off the F train. From sunup to sundown, she scours the internet for gossip and scandal, pumping out 10 posts a day while being harangued over Gchat by her boss Moria, whom she rarely sees in person. Glued to the computer, Alex cannot even run to the bodega without her iPhone for her pathetic lunch of wilted romaine (which she’ll eat at her desk, obviously) for fear of missing a crucial dispatch from her editor. Sure, it’s not an ideal gig. But the intelligent and earnest Alex, who graduated from Wesleyan and totes around a Paris Review canvas bag, didn’t even hear back about internships from Mother Jones or The Nation, where she thought she’d write and report on groundbreaking topics. (Oh Alex, didn’t we all think that?) Instead, Alexdoes what she must do to live the dream, in all its compromised glory, by churning out clickable snark instead of actual stories.
One could call Alex’s situation a journalistic cautionary tale, but it is also a prime example of what happens when place and character collide to create drama unique to a specific historical moment. By situating the novel in the internet and portraying it as an actual place (rather than just a portal to email and Google) Grose accurately depicts how one’s online existence can come to feel more authentic and important than life in the “real” world.
For Alex, being tethered online means perpetually filling her boss’s tall order of “empowering” women: “I’ve been working for her for six months and it still isn’t 100 percent clear to me what that word means to her, except that I am encouraged to express my deep hatred for Gwyneth Paltrow and write about period sex. What is clear is that the site is hitting a nerve,” she muses.
The site is hitting a nerve: therein lies the rub. Alex, like most writers, doesn’t want her words to dissolve into online ether. She wants to be heard. And when the strength of her voice is measured in “likes” and page views — she must meet a monthly quota — that nerve must get whacked again and again. Add in the peanut gallery of trolls and commentators inextricably linked to the success of a post — and a writer’s fragile self-concept —and writing what “matters” becomes less urgent than sending those decibels of online impact through the roof. But hey, nobody’s judging (well, maybe Michiko Kakutani). A girl has got to make a living, right?
Written in present tense, the novel unfolds in real time and possesses the immediacy of a scrolling Twitter feed. Page after page, Alex and her fellow Chick Habit chickies (who the reader get to know primarily through Gchat conversations spliced into the text) fully inhabit the now — not in the Eckhart Tolle sense of presence and mindfulness, but in the frenetic, must-keep-refreshing-the-page-to-see-how-many-likes-my-post-received sense. Despite her allegiance to her job, Alex is savvy enough to realize the spirit-crushing nature of it. In large part, that has to do with how her readers’ responses impact not only her work, but also her boundaries:
The positive ones are ego inflating, and the negative ones can be soul raping, but if you let them get to you too much, you start pandering to the audience. You write toothless, feel good posts about everything so you’ll be above the criticism […] I try not to think about these questions. It bogs down my posting schedule.
While pundits may intellectualize how the internet is shaping our neural pathways, through Alex readers get a visceral sense of its impact: she hardly changes her clothes or leaves the house for fear of missing the action online. Sensory details, the scaffolding that upholds the world of many novels, are mostly absent from Alex’s observations since the internet is bereft of them. In its place are Gchat conversations, text messages, and the cutting, pasting, clicking, and refreshing that define her day and take precedence over actual sights and smells. (What would the internet smell like? Does outdated html have the aroma of moldy lichen? Do overused pathways to viral videos reek of burnt toast?) Yet despite countless keystrokes, Alex remains stagnant. Sounds like it might make for a banal book, but a startling authenticity is revealed by the way life onscreen plays out on the page.
With so much of the novel spent chronicling Alex’s activity online, what remains in place of the textures, smells and movements of everyday life is a disquieting void. In the very first paragraph, Alex watches her MacBook “pinwheeling” awake. This tableau of the silent spinning rainbow, the first thing Alex sees in the morning, reads like overture of what’s to come: she lives in the liminal space of waiting for a page to load, an email to arrive, or a celebrity to die.
It is at the checkpoint between real life and online life that Sad Desk Salad enters familiar novel territory, exploring the boundaries between self and other, and public and private. When Alex scoops a story about a password-protected YouTube video featuring the prodigy daughter of a rising politico engaging in a little collegiate coke snorting, the question of how much private life is appropriate to make public comes into sharp relief. Despite reservations, Alex posts the video. Predictably, it goes viral. As a foil for her cutthroat behavior, a hate blogger is taking personal shots at Alex and Chick Habit, threatening to bring her down with some salacious dirt.
If hysterical realism’s shortcoming was trying to create depth and interiority by cobbling together a handful of external traits, then perhaps “digital realism” could be faulted for trying to replicate a three-dimensional real life in a flat virtual world. Yet perhaps that is the point: there is no longer a distinction between the two, and those willing to snort coke on a “private” video had better be equally comfortable with it appearing on Facebook the following day.
Alex is left reeling when she realizes she can dish it, but can’t quite take it. By the end, she is left contemplating the same issue the book demands its readers consider: “What privacy means now is an ever-shifting line — the old universal standards have yet to be replaced by a new code of conduct, and we’re all just muddling through. So all I have to go on are my own moral standards.”
But what are these moral standards, for Alex and for the rest of us? Where is the line between a sexy, attention-grabbing profile picture and an “accidental” nip slip? When is a nude photo shameful, and when is it social leverage? Where does revelation end and violation begin? Like putting on makeup before going out just to look good in Facebook photos, how much of our real life behavior should be shaped by how it will be perceived online? And how, amid the deafening din, does one make oneself heard without sounding like an irascible banshee?
This is the novel’s dangling chad, and it’s a dilemma that by the end has Alex sobbing to her mother about the compromises of writing in the internet age: “I don’t even know if I want to be a writer anymore, I add through the tears. I’m afraid that having a job like this is the only route to being a working writer these days, and I don’t know that I can take it for the long haul.”
Alex is lamenting the fact that for writers living in the age of the internet, standing out requires not just hard work, talent, determination, or even luck, but the ability to squawk the loudest or Tweet the most. To an extent, self-promotion has always been crucial to success, but the internet magnifies it times a thousand. Readers can watch Alex flounder her way through trying to be the shallow and soulless type each time her boss tells her to “grow a pair” and stop worrying about others’ feelings. But that doesn’t exactly work for her. So in all earnestness, what should Alex – or any writer — do?
It’s not an easy question, but that is precisely what makes it ripe for examination through the prism of the novel, the genre that possesses the uncanny ability to make our lives — fractured, insular and internet-obsessed as they may be — feel more authentic and whole. So while the internet might be ushering in the novel’s slow demise, perhaps it is also breathing new life into it. The internet gives writers a new arena to explore questions about the nature of the self and distinction between our public personas and our inner lives – the type of inquiries that are right in the novel’s wheelhouse. Perhaps if there were more novels that address what our lack of concentration, focus and solitude is doing to writing, we’d be inclined to look past the “multiple screens” for silence we secretly crave.
Maybe privacy is the price we pay for living in real time. I wondered this during this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, where I sat in on a panel about fiction and the internet. Knowing that I would be writing this essay, I sent a few sound bytes via tweets from the panel (which Jessica Grose happened to be speaking on) and I was hyper-aware who would see my tweets and how I was coming across. I obsessed over one tweet so long that an entire five minutes went by before I sent it, an eternity in real time. I couldn’t get past the simple fact that I was trying sound like the best version of me, and yet there was no way for my presence online to be authentic when I was clearly being so contrived. Maybe there’s another novel that addresses this question. In the meantime, I’ve got other posts and tweets to write. If I stop, I may cease to exist.