| Don’t Write Alone
Interviews Lauren Oyler Is Interested in the “Patheticness” of Our Online Lives
As part of our Social Media Week series, editor Kendall Storey chats with ‘Fake Accounts’ author Lauren Oyler.
When we—the editors of Catapult magazine—got together to plan our Social Media Week package for Don’t Write Alone, we wanted to bring in a Catapult book author to talk about how they have incorporated social media into their work—be it in their book itself, in their writing process, or in both. Who better to think critically about how we live online than the writer who wrote the marquee book on the intersections of real lives and fake accounts?
Lauren Oyler is known to many in the literary corners of our virtual world, one in which she spends a lot of time, as she describes in this interview. As a critic, Oyler’s sharp and incisive essays and reviews have appeared in publications like The New Yorker , the London Review of Books , and Harper’s . In turn, her debut novel Fake Accounts , published by Catapult in 2021, follows an unnamed narrator who, just as she’s contemplating breaking up with her boyfriend, finds that he’s been running a secret Instagram account that peddles conspiracy theories—spoiler!—just before he allegedly dies.
The book became a national bestseller, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and one of The Washington Post ’s 2021 Notable Works of Fiction because, in our views, Oyler’s fiction presents a thought-provoking portrait of a terminally online person grappling with how much time we spend on the internet and what that does to our sense of self—a mirror, in short, for the twenty-first century.
Below, Oyler is interviewed over email by Kendall Storey, our colleague, the senior editor at Catapult, Oyler’s book editor, and the person who shepherded Fake Accounts through the publication process. They talk about how observations from and about social media made their way into the book, the term “internet novel,” and how German readers have responded to the new translation of Fake Accounts . Surprise: They seem to be more sensitive to loneliness in contemporary literature.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kendall Storey: There is a line from Fake Accounts that haunts me: “You’d be surprised how much time you can spend on Twitter and still have some left over to write a book.”
Have you ever actually tracked how much time you spend on Twitter each day and how much time you spend writing or doing other things? I ask because our experience of time is so different from how it actually operates, as you point out in the novel.
Lauren Oyler: When I wrote that line I think I was annoyed by the prevailing idea that there was necessarily an opposition between spending a lot of time on social media and producing serious work. There was a book of collected tweets by Cory Arcangel, Working on My Novel , which was very effective in pointing out that opposition. I spent a lot of my twenties being sort of . . . distraught, I guess . . . about how long things take—both in terms of the obvious career stuff as well as very basic tasks like making coffee in the morning—and feeling sort of frantic about how little I ever accomplished, and so I felt almost duped when I realized that I could be basically addicted to social media while also producing not just this novel but the work-for-hire stuff that was paying my bills. Not saying being addicted to social media is a good way to be, but in general it works by insinuating itself into your life, so that you can do it while you’re doing other things.
Anyway, I’ve never tracked how much time I spend on social media (or doing anything else), no. I’m sure my cell phone has that information on it, but I have no habits or routines. First because I just lack discipline—and justify the lack of discipline by saying the impulse to schedule and therefore optimize your life is “neoliberal” or whatever—and second because I am very spiritually aware of how much time I waste and obviously don’t want to be quantitatively aware of it, because there’s nothing you can do about it once it’s passed, it’s never coming back. I often fantasize about having some kind of rough schedule that would be something like those “writers’ daily routines” that make the rounds online, but it’s just not for me, it’s so boring. Maybe I would feel more capable and less anxious if I did do something like that—I think routines are basically for peace of mind as much as seeing results—but I’m just not going to. I’m young, I don’t have kids or a job, so I don’t need to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day. What if I missed a fun party because I was like, “Actually I have to go home because I want to get up early to write”?! What if someone said something unbelievable and ridiculous at this party that I needed to transcribe to put in a novel?
Social media also allows you to partially surveil other people’s work habits, or make assumptions about them based on what you can see online, so it’s interesting to observe what I’d consider more extreme cases than myself. Especially now, I’m on it much less than I used to be, for various reasons. I can think of a few writers who publish a lot, more than I do, yet they seem to be online sixteen hours a day, if not more. The reverse is also fascinating: the people who say they’re constantly “working” and then produce, like, one or two things a year. Absolutely baffling. What are you doing! The uncomfortable fact is that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between how much time you spend on a piece of writing and its quality.
KS: I love that you touch on two types of writerly voyeurism: watching people online and spying on people at parties! I wonder what meaningful differences you find between these two modes, if any, and how they’ve influenced your work. How much did observing people on social media inform the writing of Fake Accounts ?
LO: I think the main difference between these two modes is in how you narrate or transform what you’ve observed. Since Fake Accounts is sort of about observing and being observed, I always wanted to make sure the context was very clear—not only because the context helps generate the meaning. But the issue with observing people on social media is that it seems tawdry, and relaying what happens there can become confusing, or just turn off someone who thinks that a serious person shouldn’t be talking about what happens on social media. That happens when you’re relaying “normal” gossip too, but on social media so many of the connections are tenuous and extremely elaborate, so you get caught up in how pathetic it is that you know all this stuff about people you’ve never met. I’m very interested in that patheticness, or pettiness, and what the instinct to reject whatever happens online as insignificant says about people, but nevertheless you don’t want your book to seem tawdry or insignificant.
Anyway, to answer your question, I often took details or incidents directly from social media and put them in the book, but they were usually secondary incidents. For developing the main characters’ behavior, I often translated behaviors from social media and put them in an offline context, in part to avoid the pathetic problem, and in part to assert the fluidity between the two.
KS: It seems like writers often shy away from elements they fear might become anachronisms in the future, but something I love about Fake Accounts is that it explores the internet as a dimension in which people live rather than as “new technology” or whatever. What do you make of the term “internet novel”?
LO: I don’t really know about the term “internet novel.” Has anyone defined it? Or done so well? On the one hand, if it means “a novel that engages with the internet as a formal element”—that’s interesting to me, and both Fake Accounts and No One Is Talking About This would qualify. If it means “a novel that is about the internet,” that seems categorically worthless. I tend to be disappointed in criticism that focuses mainly on the content of fiction—and lately I’ve been specifically annoyed about comparisons made between writers that focus purely on the fact that they write about the same thing—though to be clear I don’t think Patricia Lockwood and I are compared because we both wrote about the internet, but because we both wrote about the internet in very different and often complementary or opposing ways—and I do sense that most of the uses of “internet novel” seem to fall into the latter usage.
I will sometimes talk about “bad boyfriend novels” or whatever in that way, but when I say something like that, I don’t mean to be coining a serious critical term, I mean to be making a joke. But terms don’t tend to retain stable meanings in mainstream criticism anyway . . .
KS: I particularly enjoyed your coinage of the genre “sad girls in Europe” ( Harper’s Magazine , January 2021), to which Fake Accounts also belongs, of course . . .
Speaking of Europe, you’re living in Berlin now and Fake Accounts just came out in German translation! How has it been engaging with the reception there? Have German readers or critics responded to the book in different ways from American readers and critics that you can tell?
LO: I mean, this is sort of a cliché, but yes, they tend to read more deeply and intelligently, I think, though in my experience they complain about what they perceive as their shallow literary culture as much as we complain about ours. But, you know, one interviewer asked me about Heidegger, so my sense that things are different over here isn’t totally off base.
Most critics have mentioned some details that I’ve always thought were quite important to the book but that few anglophone reviewers discussed; I’m thinking of the fact that no characters besides the narrator and Felix remain in the narrative, or her life, for very long, for instance. If I could stand to read the book again, reading the translation would be a great way to level up my German, since I already know everything that happens, but unfortunately I don’t think I can bear it.
KS: It doesn’t surprise me that German readers have latched on a bit more to the novel’s loneliness. I do remember how gratifying it was when Katie Kitamura wrote in the New York Times Book Review , “Oyler is such a funny writer that it can be easy to overlook the fact that the underlying tone of her book is extreme disquiet.”
Your mention of Heidegger reminds me of something else Katie said in her review that stuck with me, that the novel “adroitly maps the dwindling gap between the individual and the world. However much time the narrator spends alone, in her head and online, she is formed by what is happening outside.” I wonder what you make of this idea that, in the internet age, the gap between the world and the individual is actually narrowing?
LO: I have no idea, because I’ve only really been alive during the internet age. I see the internet as a technology that can increase the speed and quantity of our links to others, but not really the quality; the internet may be a temptation to behave more superficially or whatever, but I believe that’s ultimately a problem of individual will.
So my impulse is to question the suggestion that it’s necessarily remarkable that whatever is going on in the narrator’s head is shaped by what’s going on outside. Most people aren’t Thoreau—that doesn’t have much to do with the internet. We’ve now arrived at the topic of “authentic experience,” which I think can be approached asymptotically, but isn’t, you know, possible in the sense of an essential soul encountering an essential phenomenon or whatever. I think this is where Heidegger comes in . . .
KS: Right, and writers and literary critics have obviously been concerned with this idea of authenticity, and the distance between the self and the culture, long before the internet existed . . . This is so great. I wish we could keep going for longer, but I think we probably ought to wrap things up, so I’ll ask one last question. You’re writing an essay collection at the moment. Are there things you miss—or don’t miss—about working within the form and constraints of the novel?
LO: It has been great! Thank you for the excellent questions! I also just love correspondence . . .
I don’t think of the novel form as having many constraints. You can pretty much do anything in a novel, as long as you do it well. You can put an essay in one, certainly. It’s so open. Whereas the process of writing an essay feels like I’m frantically searching for the correct path through a really dense forest, or something. At some point I have a moment of horrible frustration and am like, Wait, why I am in this fucking forest? And it’s always just because some editor sent me there!