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Image: Kenny Eliason, Unsplash

In 1963, if you wanted to learn about the assassination of John F Kennedy, you had two options. You could watch the nightly news or read the morning paper. In 2022, if you’d like to learn about the assassination of John F Kennedy, you can Google the phrase, ‘assassination of John F Kennedy,’ and in 0.82 seconds you’ll receive over 53 million results.

This diffusion of information—not to mention the rampant spread of misinformation—has been discussed ad infinitum since the election of Donald Trump. In a world with 53 million people offering 53 million different stories, traditional media outlets have lost their monopoly on intellectual authority. Even the basic facts of historical events shift from subculture to subculture, depending on their associated media diet.

This narrative is nothing new. Writing it out, after years of op-eds and longreads on the topic, feels increasingly trite. What surprises me, nearly three decades on from the explosion of the World Wide Web, are the ways in which the literary world has (and has not) confronted these concepts in the budding genre of the so-called ‘internet novel.’

Since the back-to-back publications of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts in February 2021, article after article has been written attempting to analyse these two texts and place them within the canon of 21st century fiction. Rather than adding another entry to the endless criticism and praise dumped onto these two books, I’d instead like to consider their relationship to information and intellectual authority.

I’m curious to see how internet fiction might attempt to mirror the diffusion of information by undercutting the authorial voice.

Both novels reproduce the disorienting cacophony that is scrolling through social media, showing a single mind engage with a million disparate bits of content. But each do so from the perspective of a first-person narrator, experiencing strangers online solely as an amalgam of posts. A monolithic wall of content. Though I appreciate the respective goals of these two projects, I’m curious to see how internet fiction going forward might attempt to mirror the oft-discussed diffusion of information by undercutting the centrality of the authorial voice. Especially because the novel is such a famously flexible and polyphonic medium.


In 1929, Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin introduced the concept of narrative ‘polyphony’—a type of musical texture with simultaneous melodies—in his discourses on the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky. ‘A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels.’ What he found so fascinating about the work of the 19th century novelist was its lack of any central authority. In fact, he bristled at other critics who read Dostoevsky and attributed a particular character’s philosophical rant to the author himself. ‘What unfolds in his works is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses…combined but not merged in the unity of the event.’ I find myself taken aback by this passage, considering its implications for the novel in the 21st century. I think of the ways in which national news stories develop, through a constellation of articles, posts, comments, images, and videos. The experience of the internet—and of any event through the lens of the event—is an experience of independent and unmerged voices, a plurality of consciousnesses without a single objective narrative underneath.

From the very first line of Fake Accounts, however, the narrator presents a single, unified perspective on the state of the modern society: ‘Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon…’ For the reader, the question arises: a consensus among whom? The answer, revealed over the course of the novel, turns out to be her particular corner of Twitter. This is ironic, because in the age of an algorithmised internet, the bubbles we inhabit on any social media site are simply reflections of our own interests, attitudes, and opinions. Hence the consensus. To suggest the possibility of a universally shared sentiment on the internet is to assume the absoluteness of one’s own bubble, to collapse a million disparate minds together in the flat space of the screen.

In No One Is Talking About This, the cacophony of voices online is reduced to the catch-all term, the portal, which seems at times to equate to the internet as a whole, but more often signifies a similar bubble on Twitter. ‘Capitalism!’ writes Lockwood. ‘It was important to hate it, even though it was how you got money.’ The subject-less construction of the sentence—It was important to—implies that this is the opinion of the portal as a whole, as opposed to one person or subculture. In other sections, the prose shifts into the first-person plural: ‘Our mothers could not stop using horny emojis.’ Whose mothers? the reader wonders. With pronouns alone, the narrator’s personal experience is projected out over the entire population of the portal.

By privileging the perspective of a particular user, both Fake Accounts and No One Is Talking About This create a vantage point against which to measure the world. Other voices pop into the narrator’s head (or fly across their screens), but each are merged in the mind of the isolated protagonist.

By privileging the perspective of a particular user, both Fake Accounts and No One Is Talking About This create a vantage point against which to measure the world.

I’d like to reiterate: this is not a criticism of Oyler or Lockwood. Neither of their novels are interested in producing a plurality of different internet voices. In fact, I believe a sort of digital solipsism is at the heart of both projects. Each are successful in unpacking the flattened experience of scrolling and clicking and scrolling and clicking without end. Both, too, disrupt the monotony of life online with serious offline events. There is no right or wrong way to approach the internet novel, but I do see untapped potential in Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony.


In 1988, if you wanted to write a novel about the assassination of John F Kennedy, you might try to imagine one feasible explanation for what happened behind the scenes. You might also, over the course of your research, find significance in Lee Harvey Oswald’s astrological sign and call the book Libra. In 2022, however, if you wanted to write a novel about the assassination of John F Kennedy, it might strike modern readers as absurd to attempt a single account, without including any contradictory counternarratives. Ultimately, the book might look more like an earlier example of internet fiction—namely, Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts, which took on themes of online misinformation and fake news eleven years before the election of Donald Trump.

In the first few pages of The Sluts, the reader comes to understand the difficulty of finding truth within a cacophony of online voices. The novel opens inside of an internet forum, with a series of reviews for a young prostitute named Brad. After a handful of posts, different reviewers start to contradict each other, casting doubt on any account from the website. Accusations are made, implying that multiple posts have been written by the same person, specifically intended to deceive the community. One character is deathly ill in certain entries, then healthier in others. At one point, Brad is declared dead, only to be revived in the very next entry. The only tool to help the reader parse fact from fiction is a truth-seeking web moderator, a narrative crutch that feels archaic in 2022.

Perhaps due to the graphic and disturbing content of The Sluts, the book is rarely mentioned in articles on internet literature, but its insights only ring truer nearly two decades after its publication. Beyond YA ‘chat fiction’ and Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing, it remains one of the few networked stories that dissolves the concept of a centralised author.


All this relates to questions of alienation and hyper-connection, two contradictory cultural trends accelerated by the internet. Novels like No One Is Talking About This and Fake Accounts are more interested in the former, while The Sluts tracks an entire community, a chorus of interacting voices. I wonder why this aspect of life online—the sense of connection within the digital world—is so rarely explored in literary fiction. After all, there are real reasons why we’re drawn to the internet. Yes, users enjoy the basic entertainment value of their social media feeds like they enjoyed flipping channels on cable twenty years ago, but that’s not all there is. When people talk about the dopamine hits we receive from likes and comments, they often fail to mention that these are the same neurochemical responses triggered by in-person interactions. The desire to sit and stare at a screen for hours on end is, in its own bastardised way, a desire to commune with others. If the internet is all about feeling alone together, why does internet fiction focus so much more on the alone than the together?

If the internet is all about feeling alone together, why does internet fiction focus so much more on the alone than the together?

Where are the novels about World of Warcraft guilds embarking on epic missions in seamless collaboration? (Admittedly, genre novels like Ready Player One already broach these themes, but literary fiction writers have yet to explore such subject matter with any real depth.) Where are the stories about queer people in conservative countries who can only connect online under the shroud of anonymity? Sure, for some people, the internet is solely a nauseating scroll, received at an ironic distance, but others experience a genuine sense of kinship with those who frequent the same subreddits, who follow the same accounts, who riff on the same memes and watch the same videos. There are forum communities for bullied teens to share their stories. There are poets who posted their work on Tumblr long before finding peers IRL. For me, the nausea and the kinship are inextricably linked.

If the canon of internet novels consists largely of isolated narrators, unable to process the voices on their timeline as unique human beings, then the literary world is pushing a particular narrative, accepting the flatness of the other in the digital space. Though I don’t claim to offer any perfect answers, I wonder how new polyphonous forms of writing could counteract this flatness. Might we see a wave of collaborative novels in the coming decades? Could authors start licensing internet posts to incorporate guest writers in their stories, like featured artists in music? Whatever the method, I’m excited to see how writers going forward might produce a plurality of voices, exploring in depth the communal aspects of the internet, however disorienting and cacophonous they may be.

There is a natural counterargument to what I’ve written here, which is mentioned in a meta-literary moment of Fake Accounts: ‘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.’ This is a fair point. It forces aspiring novelists to grapple with the question, how can one write about life online in a style that feels true to the internet without simply reproducing it? In other words, how can we say something more than social media itself is already saying? How can we find truth within the confusion? Maybe the answer lies not solely in the forums themselves (à la The Sluts) or in the disoriented experience of the user (à la Lockwood and Oyler) but somewhere in the space between.

Nobody Is Talking About This, Fake Accounts and The Sluts are available now from your local independent bookseller.