THE INTERNET?!??!?! IN A NOVEL?!?!

I intended to wait to send out a new newsletter until a critical mass of my forthcoming pieces had been published, but various magazines and journals have been sitting on them so long that I’ve become impatient. Absolutely nothing is happening—quarantine is dragging on, and it’s so cold and icy here that there are some days when I don’t even make it out of my house for my demoralizing daily walk—and I am craving an EVENT. A newsletter will have to suffice! Expect an unprecedentedly high volume of newsletters in coming weeks as the 4ish further pieces I have coming out make their way online.

First, housekeeping. The things I wrote:

I wrote about Patricia Lockwood for The Baffler: https://thebaffler.com/latest/live-laugh-log-off-rothfeld.

I also wrote about Zizek for the TLS (prompting a deranged man to write an angry blog post accusing me of conservatism—but sorry, deranged man, Z quotes Wikipedia too extensively for me to give this one a pass even if Z is right, as I grant he is, about the badness of capitalism): https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/pandemic-slavoj-zizek-review-becca-rothfeld/

Now for a rant re Lockwood, that doubles as a bit of a tirade about how I understand the relationship between politics and aesthetics. To respond to some critiques I saw of this piece deep on someone’s replies on Twitter—because yes, I am always watching, even though I deleted my Twitter in a failed bid to stop watching—I did not intend this to be commendation of ahistorical criticism. I wrote:

“Indeed, the more I read the phrase “internet novel,” the more it seems to me to verge on pabulum. Is there really something distinctive about a book that mimics or mentions or in some way involves a medium that is as much a part of the modern landscape as the shower head? There is a reason we do not speak of “phone novels” or “flag semaphore novels” or “novels in which people talk”: these novels do have something in common—as do novels containing the word “the” or novels with blue covers—but what they have in common is not especially meaningful. Even epistolary novels are not about letters as such so much as what the letters in question say. A medium bears on but does not constitute a message. Like every worthwhile piece of fiction, a so-called internet novel must be, at heart, about human interactions, facilitated or hindered as they are by new forms of communication.”

By this, what I meant is not that literature is never bound up with the age-specific media that inform it, but rather that merely gesturing at the existence of these media without exploring their effect on actual human communication is not enough to sustain a novel. Good novels are not about media in isolation—a letter lying on a table, say, or a free-floating website—but about how people use and are changed by media. To put the point less euphemistically: I will not like your “internet novel” if it has no plot or characters and is just about the internet as such; I will only like your “internet novel” if it is about the effects of the internet on people, because the people using the internet are what make the internet an object of interest in the first place. I think the same is true of novels featuring other media: “phone novels” (Vox? Memento Mori?) are certainly about the effects of media on the content of what we say, but focusing on media itself and not on how it influences those who use it is, in my view, a mistake (one made in neither Vox nor Memento Mori). This is of course fully compatible with writing historical novels and historical criticism. Some of the novels I read while researching this piece were sort of of equivalent to someone tweeting “INTERNET!!!!!!” and nothing else, and that’s all I meant to be hating on.

More broadly, and now I am moving away from the critiques of this piece I glimpsed on Twitter and into more abstract territory (read: these are not subtweets of anyone or responses to anyone, but general observations, and if they were subtweets, I would say so, since I’m evidently more of a supertweeter), I think that in disputes that pit ahistorical criticism against historical criticism or critique against postcritique (or whatever) the truth is almost always somewhere in the middle. Of course literature is always saturated with politics and history; of course it also often speaks to concerns universal enough that people in very different epochs and situations can still not only understand it but understand themselves in it. Of course books are political artifacts, produced in certain circumstances and by dint of certain material affordances and injustices; of course they are also artworks that demand aesthetic appreciation. That literature is so much at once—historical, perennial, aesthetic, political, personal, public—is what makes it so inexhaustible. 

The question is not whether politics or aesthetics, or history or humanism, prevails, since both are indispensable, but of where a critic chooses to put her emphasis. And the answer, in my view, is a function both of temperament and of the distribution of focus in a given community. There is no single right answer. We all win when we get to watch people with different fascinations taking different approaches, and we all win when we don’t limit ourselves to only discussing one aspect of a text or author. If every single piece you can find about X is about X’s political activism, why not write your piece about X’s formal peculiarities? Or if every single piece about X is solely about the aesthetics of X’s work, why not write your piece about how X’s social position informs X’s work? (Without, of course, blinding yourself to any important aspect of X.)

For whatever reason, I happen to be less interested in what changes from one period to another than I am in what remains common across eras, which doesn’t mean that I think more historical criticism is less important, objectively, than less historical criticism. All it means is that I’m better suited to write more perennialist criticism. (Though, as noted, I think that all good criticism strives for both historical sensitivity and perennialist sensibility, if in different proportions, so I hope my essays take some stock of history. Also, I try to read at least a representative of sample of what has been written about the things I’m treating so that I can say something new about them, which means that if an author has been treated in more perennialist terms in the past, I will try to foray further into the historical, though it’s rarely my first inclination.) 

What kind of critic you should be also has something to do with the lacunae in your milieu. At this moment in history (ha) so many people are fixated so exclusively on the historical and political that there is a some need for counter-weight—not, I hasten to insist, because my less political/historical approach is better, but because we all benefit from a diversity of sensibilities and foci. Thus when I am critical of over-politicization, my complaint is not about the incorporation of history or politics into literary discussion, but about the exclusion of other emphases—in effect, about homogeneity. NB: I am not accusing the people who critiqued my article on Twitter of making this sort of mistake (I do not think those particular people do!) but simply making a broader point about tendencies in “the culture,” as I am won’t to do whenever there is the slightest whiff of occasion. This is really all an elaborate teaser for an article on this topic I have out in the next Liberties, but that’s one of the articles you’ll have to wait for.

The things I “consumed” and liked:

By far the most important thing that happened to me since I last wrote you all is that I saw the film Network, which I’d put off watching for a long time in the insane hope of seeing it in theaters (that won’t happen anytime soon….sob). They shouldn’t let you into the 21st century if you haven’t seen it. It’s perfect and it’s timely while having a sort of perennially relevant existential point. Watch it!

Merve Emre also on Lockwood, coming to different conclusions than I do (and she’s smarter than I am so probably more correct—and always, of course, well worth reading): https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/16/books/review/no-one-is-talking-about-this-patricia-lockwood.html

This short story by Namwali Serpell, one of the best pieces of “internet fiction” I encountered while thinking about the Lockwood piece; what’s good about it is that it’s about how the internet makes us obsessed with other people, not just about how the internet makes us annoyingly insular: https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/the-book-of-faces/

This piece by Sumana Roy, which I did not edit and thus am not biased about: https://thepointmag.com/criticism/beyond-the-guilt-tax/

This piece by Nicholas Russell, which I did edit and therefore am biased about: https://thepointmag.com/criticism/an-american-masquerade/

This thrilling essay about Leave the World Behind by Hannah Gold: https://www.thedriftmag.com/how-to-be-oblivious/

Ever wonderful Barbara McClay on the horrible repetitiveness of days in quarantine: https://hedgehogreview.com/blog/thr/posts/groundhog-daze

And four pieces in the latest Bookforum, not all of which are online yet:

This one, by Sarah Chihaya, about Bette Howland: https://www.bookforum.com/culture/i-you-we-they-24362

And Claire Jarvis on The Life of the Mind, Christian Lorentzen on Philip Roth, and A.S. Hamrah on Barry Sonnenfeld. All delights! I especially loved this from Christian: “Authorial image management now seeps into the writing of fiction itself. The more readers (and critics) are content to conflate alter egos with authors, the more authors are tempted to idealize their fictional selves: confessional literature cedes the field to the autofiction of self-flattery.”

In conclusion, here is a picture of me at age ten dressed as Agatha Christie, which I made my father dredge up and send me when I watched Murder on the Orient Express (Lumet kick) last week (my Poirot costume, which featured a mustache, was better, but my dad cannot find pictures):