IN CASE THIS IS the first article you’ve come across about the relationship between the internet, novels, and their authors, here’s a quick recap of the last few years: the internet is eroding attention spans and triggering the novel’s demise, click by deleterious click.
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, Alex doe...read more