The Triumph of Bookchat on the Internet

The day after the last Paris attacks, after viewing streams of dejection online, I received an email from BuzzFeed, a listicle featuring 31 books that promised to restore my faith in humanity. “Sometimes we read to escape,” it said, “sometimes we read to be inspired.” How about neither?

It was easy to imagine that the email was sent by a weirdly cynical and sentient algorithm bent on the exploitation of Western sadness, one that crawled the feeds of incredulity and produced this marvel of spurious abstraction about “literature” and “books.” How is Stephen King’s On Writing supposed to restore my faith in humanity, or even humanism? Luckily, I could turn to other works of criticism or critique. The listicle was just another harmless example of Internet bookchat.

What is going on with literary writing on the Internet? For the most part, we’re wrapped up in books, although by this I do not mean that we care exclusively about what is between their covers. Largely, I think, we’re engaged in what Gore Vidal used to call “bookchat,” which is to say that many of us have taken up the position, both fortunate and unfortunate, of “clerks” or “scriveners” of literature. The irony of Vidal’s position, it’s worth noting up front, is that he admonished bookchat while reveling in it. Whatever we think of him, it’s true that as a novelist he set out to scandalize the chatters. As a television personality and essayist, though, he could be as chatty as anyone else.

Now, the shrewd and irritable will note straight away that bookchat, which we could define as conversational writing about books that is not itself contained in the pages of a book, is a longstanding epiphenomenon of book publishing. But I’m not interested overmuch (right now at least) in a long history of bookchat. I’m instead curious about how it came to dominate what we might call literary discourse, especially in the Internet age. In a pathetic way, I’m just asking: What’s going on right now? What’s happening to us?

Given its omnipresence, it’s easy to find instances of bookchat. (I could easily spit in my own direction and hit examples of it on this very site.) There are listicles of books or about books: there was even one recently about “The Top Ten Squirrels in Literature.” There are interviews and aspirational how-tos. There are publicity statements, which are circulated and regurgitated into light critical opinion — as much as any book review. There is the relatively new phenomenon of the author self-testimonial: upon publication of his novel, the author will write a piece about writing the novel. There are pieces, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes not, about who or how we should read and why. There are even takes on the shallowness of other people’s pieces about who they will read and why. There are write-ups of events where people chat about books they’ve written. There are celebrity author lists of favorite books on a given theme. Add to that makeshift syllabi. When scandals occur outside of books, say, at an event or reading, there are substantial and insubstantial debates about these scandals. Even our ruling newspaper “bookends” our week with actual chats between authors, in articles whose headlines challenge the integrity of Betteridge’s Law. There are posts about books that rely on embedded bookchat tweets. And there is Twitter itself: the fountainhead of much bookchatter.

Any narrative about the triumph of bookchat will fall back on two explanations: “publicity” and “the Internet.” My response: of course. But, for the most part, publicity changes with technology, which is why we should stop at the intersection of “literature and the Internet” to consider the rise of bookchat. At this stoplight, you might begin to think, “I’ve been here before, there is nothing new to notice.” But it seems to me that we actually live here, and we often fail to notice what is in our own yard.

In the introduction to a new book titled In the Flow, the philosopher Boris Groys considers art in the age of the Internet, and he comes to the conclusion that because of its unheard-of capacity to document events and artworks (or books) — the Internet has made over contemporary art in its image. One could say that the primary concern of contemporary art is the production of information about art events:

But the production of art events is even more characteristic of contemporary art, with its culture of performance and participation. Today’s artistic events cannot be preserved and contemplated like traditional artworks. However, they can be documented, ‘covered’, narrated and commented on. Traditional art produced art objects. Contemporary art produces information about art events.

At its core, what is bookchat but the documentation of books and literary events? If contemporary art concerns itself with the production of information about artworks and art events, it could be argued that contemporary literature is primarily about the production of information about literature and literary events. Contemporary literature produces bookchat.

Just the same, bookchat needs willing participants. In a later essay, (“Art on the Internet”), Groys makes it clear that the Internet’s relative porousness and accessibility as an archive brings chatters into a member-free club. “Obviously,” he writes, “many cultural workers experience this shift towards the Internet as liberating, because the Internet is not selective – or at least it is much less selective than the museum or traditional publishing house.” There is then a democratizing component to bookchat: authors or potential authors can exert themselves in the field of literature without having access to the instruments of big publishing.

This is perhaps the pride of bookchat: writers who would normally be counted out of the “critical” or “literary” discussion about how books should be read, or which books should be canonized, can now challenge literature at its doorstep. Certainly there are more pieces than ever devoted to esteemed writers (even lists do this), but there are also more interventions, more arguments about who should be published in the first place, or what identities or persuasions are being left out of contemporary literature. This is democracy as I understand it: disagreement, dissensus, the challenging of titles of governance. This is to say that bookchat isn’t always banal or superfluous, even if I wish it relied more on the substance of actual works of literature.

Otherwise, bookchat tends toward superfluity because it is beholden to the bad democracies of reputational economy and monetization. In the case of the former: it’s plain to anyone who observes literary Twitter that aimless, anti-critical, abstracted pro-“book” propaganda — the most annoying form of bookchat — is one of its prevailing modes. For every 1,000 writers in broader America who author books that get no attention, there is a single cosmopolitan “book person” whose reputation is curiously bulwarked by his parasitic relation to famous authors. Of course, this state of affairs is relatively unchanging and benign. Even though we often overstate the financial struggles of big publishing, it still needs its unflagging advocates. And because it takes a long time to write a book, authors can’t always do this themselves. Publishing relies in part on the surplus value produced by these “book people” on Twitter and elsewhere.

Anyway, the reputational economy of these bookchatters is premised on what Groys has called “the monetization of hermeneutics.” To put it crudely: we used to consider the personality or identity of the author as a function of the book she produced. A reader, to “find the author,” would be asked to interpret a novel or poem.

Now, though, in an era when literature and the Internet have merged, authors are required to reveal themselves on Twitter and elsewhere as personalities independent of their offline work. The old hermeneutics has given way to a “means of additional economic exploitation of the subjects who operate in the Internet,” Groys writes. “The subject not only does or produces something on the Internet but also reveals himself or herself as a human being with certain interests, desires and needs.” In fact, if an author chooses to opt out of the reputational economy of bookchat, she risks being ignored by the “reading public.”

This expression of “certain interests, desires and needs” on Twitter and elsewhere, by authors and book people, promotes a narrative addiction. Readers now crave what Joshua Cohen — whose Book of Numbers is in part a brilliant excoriation of “literature and the Internet” — calls “the story behind the story.” When asked why his novel includes “so much material about the publishing industry,” he explains:

We’re living in the reality show version of reality, is why — and we’ve been living in it for a while now. The story behind the story has become the only tale to tell. It’s about transparency, and disabuse: the democratization of the hero, or the hero’s devaluation into celebrity, this seemingly American sense that there’s a system in place, an equal opportunity system by which anyone can claim the world’s attention. Art is now concerned with figuring that out — with laying bare or appearing to lay bare the processes by which the people we read about or watch or listen to become “themselves,” so that we can have what they have too — everyone gets a turn, in this strange collaboration between insatiability and fairness.

Cohen’s point is well taken. The “reality show” version of authors’ lives — what they do behind the scenes: “their interests, desires and needs” — is what we often see in bookchat, whether it’s through someone else’s words or their own. It’s also invading the novel. One way to read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard is as a six-volume notebook about a novel he never wrote: a reality show in prose, a monumental act of bookchat.

As if to take this argument to its logical extreme, Cohen produced a novel (PCKWCK) in real time for online viewers, who watched him change shirts and chain-smoke as he wrote. They had plenty to say about it, too, in the sidebar chat room.

One effect of Cohen’s online novel event, and, in fact, of most bookchat, is that it erases the novel as an artifact. When I was watching Cohen write PCKWCK, I thought more about how he composed his sentences than the story being written (much less the final book). The same goes for authors’ tweets, or listicles, or most of the above examples of bookchat. As publicity items for a final product, they yield diminishing returns, which is why they are needed in constant supply — which is why they are streaming.

To my mind, this has something to do with the Internet’s exertion on writing. If it is anything, the Internet is a decontextualizing force — it removes the book object and instead focuses on associations and links: on information. (Google rips the covers off of books when it scans them.) For Groys, who is primarily concerned with contemporary visual art, this is fine: there is usually an artwork in the real world to return to. Visual art and its documentation are in different languages.

But literature and bookchat are produced mostly in the medium of written language, which means they bleed together. More and more, contemporary literature, if we understand it as the sum of its works and discourses, does not just produce “information about books” or “the story behind the story”; more and more, literature is these things. Is this a piece of bookchat? Maybe. When literature becomes its own chatter, who can tell the difference?