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Internet Famous

Novels that Capture the Essence of Online Life

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • March 19, 2021

Too Boring and Not Boring Enough

Over the last several decades, authors have discussed the challenges of writing about the internet. Many have worried that the internet might actually destroy their livelihood. In a 2012 essay, author Toby Litt muses that "the human race is no longer sufficiently bored with life to be distracted by an art form as boring as the novel." (We fervently hope that this isn't the case and btw, have you been tuning in for our annual social media event, Novel Knockout? It's like March Madness, but with books and you choose the winners!)

Poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood's debut novel No One is Talking About This is the newest take on an "Extremely Online" life, both its joys and limitations. Lockwood herself is a darling of the Twittersphere, drawing attention for her clever wit and succinct poetic style. Similarly, her narrator is beloved for her pithy social media posts and utterly absorbed in her life online. That is, until a family tragedy forces her to disengage. The novel is written in short, loosely connected paragraphs, a style that mimics the experience of the internet. As a writer, Lockwood displays an eclectic style, from hilarious and raunchy to wise and transcendent.

A Reading Experience Like Twitter

In her new novel Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler's protagonist says, "Why would I want to make my book like Twitter? If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn't write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter." But beyond Lockwood, here are examples of a few other authors employing this fragmentary style:

Weather by Jenny Offill is the story of a Brooklyn librarian who takes a job responding to mail for her former mentor's popular climate change podcast. The loose, wandering style mirrors the experience of the protagonist as a woman pulled in too many directions and inundated by a copious flow of information.

In Crudo by Olivia Laing, Kathy, a writer, is getting married. It's the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart. Fast-paced and frantic, this story grapples with issues of identity and authenticity, which brings us to another dominant theme in the internet novel.

Identity and Authenticity

One's ability to pretend to be someone else online is a topic rich with possibilities. Some of the more juicy plotlines for internet novels explore the medium's issues with fakery, anonymity, and image. And while we're on the subject, Cyrano de Bergerac goes down as the OG catfish, right?

In Olivia Sudjic's Sympathy, Alice is a young woman who becomes obsessed with Mizuko Himura, a Japanese writer who she calls her "internet twin." As she spends more and more time cyberstalking Mizuko, she becomes increasingly unsure of her own identity.

Follow Me Back by A.V. Geiger is a thriller involving an agoraphobic woman whose one escape is her online fandom of a pop star. When the adored celeb begins to feel threatened by her infatuation, he decides to take steps. Told through tweets, direct messages, and police transcripts, this thriller is tailor-made for the online generation.

Too Much and All the Time

One of the hardest things to capture about the internet, is its excessiveness and how all-encompassing it can be. Dystopian scenarios are often employed as a way of conveying this. But it speaks to a very real phenomenon many of us have experienced already, i.e. falling into a digital rabbit hole that can be hard to escape from.

The Circle by Dave Eggers is a dystopian thriller depicting a young woman hired by the world's most powerful internet company. Initially intrigued by this cultish community that seeks to know everything, she soon begins to sense a dark side. Adapted into a 2017 film starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.

In An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, twenty-three-year-old April finds herself at the center of viral firestorm after posting a video of a mysterious sculpture to YouTube. This book grapples with big themes, including how the internet is changing fame, rhetoric, and radicalization.

With the central character's hedonistic, globetrotting lifestyle in Taipei, author Tao Lin captures the excessive, distracted nature of the way we live in the internet age. His characters exist in a constant state of over-stimulation, clicking, swiping, typing, zoning out, and basically OD-ing on content.

Internet Relationships, the Good and the Bad

Finally, we address the way that the internet can bring people together, as well as tear them apart. Dating apps, social media, and instant messaging have changed the way we connect and interact with each other:

In Emma Lord's Tweet Cute, teens Pepper and Jack are having a Twitter battle as the social media reps of their families' competing eateries. But little do they know, while they're publicly duking it out with snarky memes and retweet battles, IRL they're falling for each other—on an anonymous chat app.

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter depicts Matthew Prior, a finance journalist who took a leap and quit his day job for an unlikely venture in web poetry. A few years later, he finds himself jobless, hobbled with debt, and spying on his wife's Facebook flirtation.

Narrated in diary entries, emails, and instant message chats, Gary Schteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is set in a near future world. Aspiring author Lenny Abramov is passionate about two things: "printed, bound media artifacts" (aka books) and Eunice Kim.

You may have noticed a bit of crossover between these sections. After all, these are simply the earmarks of a virtual world and its impact on life, relationships, and the very nature of humanity.

We're sure there are many other great examples when it comes to internet books and the way things are going, it seems that books and movies depicting digital culture will only become more prevalent as we continue to become increasingly entrenched in online life. Let us know if you have favorites!

And to get involved in this year's Novel Knockout, visit us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It's also a great source for daily book recommendations, literary tidbits, and more.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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