Surface Question 2: “Most Influential Author?”

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, comment or email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will then receive a free copy of the book.

Surface Question 2: When writing this book was there any one author whose works influenced you the most? Also, what are the odds of a lolcat translation of your book being released?

I’ll tackle the second question first: The lolcat translation is being polished as we speak. The finest translators in the land are squinting through their monocles, smoking their corn cob pipes, and scrupulously parsing page after page of fine-grained papyrus. It’s long, thankless labor, but somebody has to do it.

Now to the first question: the short answer is “no,” but that’s too easy. I suppose that the author who really inspired this whole shebang, the first to make me want to write about technology and media and selfhood in the first place, was Zadie Smith. I was a second-semester freshman when I read her essay “Generation Why?” in a large, silent Bobst Library reading room, for my Intro to Fiction and Poetry class. I credit this piece with single-handedly turning my attention from criticism to essay. It begins as a review of The Social Network — and it’s a damn fine review, I must add: Smith describes how “muscles seem outlined by a fine pen” and how “water splashes up in individual droplets as if painted by Caravaggio” — before morphing into a broader critique of Facebook, what it’s doing to selfhood, what it’s doing to my generation. What starts as the critique of a specific film blossoms into full-blown cultural critique, grounded in philosophy and literature. But its not just transformation that makes the essay work: ideas weave their way throughout the entire piece like musical motifs. I thought it was magnificent. It is magnificent.

But I instantly knew that it wasn’t sufficient. It introduced the provocative and definitely-true idea that the technological systems we live within form our sense of what a self can be, what a self should be, and therefore shape and even denude ourselves in critical ways. But, as I wrote in my final essay for that writing class in early 2012, “more often than ever before, I see people trying to break through Facebook’s interface in order to start meaningful, nuanced, and thought-provoking discussions… More often than ever, I see people using Facebook to link to interfaces where being ‘liked’ isn’t the epitome of online existence.” I brought up a point that I heard Alissa Wilkinson — who ended up writing the foreword for Surface Tensions — make about idols and icons. I paraphrased:

Idols are mere commodities, things that have no influence beyond their own existence. Icons are things that point to something beyond themselves, things that link to things beyond their own hollow existence. In Wilkinson’s argument, Facebook can be an icon. It serves the function of linking. It links to literal Internet links, it links to actual friendships, and it links to actual forums designed to destroy the idol of merely being liked for simplistic, 2-dimentional reasons…
…People can choose to use Facebook to link to substance and make connections that actually matter. The possibility for devolution and mindlessness will always be available, but society can always have the potential to­­ — like Zadie Smith — see the shallowness of these sort of “connections” and consciously choose to transcend Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms. Online, with cleverness and popular preferences, it is possible for me to be my own Final Club president; I can be readily liked. As the programmers in The Social Network suggest, there is an “algorithm” for that. But is that really the sort of person I want to choose to be? Can’t I choose to link to something greater?

The prose looks only okay to me now, formally speaking. (I took a class with Zadie Smith a couple years later. She helped my writing improve significantly.) But this essay is definitely Surface Tensions 1.0. My basic argument (this isn’t a spoiler; I make this point in the Introduction) is all here: modern media can diminish myself, can “curve myself inward,” as Martin Luther would put it, but it can also form a bridge, an intervening substance, between myself and things beyond it, things that matter. The rest of Surface Tensions is a Memory Lab in which I test the contextual viability of this theory. It looks at occasions when meaningful linking did or didn’t occur in my life, though a variety of mediums. It brings this idea down to earth.


I suppose I have one more short response to this question. There is another Zadie Smith essay in which she says, regarding novel writing:

“Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. I want to hear every member of the orchestra — I’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if my sentences are baggy, too baroque, I cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If I’m disappearing up my own aesthete’s arse, I’ll stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say, and pick up Dostoyevsky, the patron saint of substance over style; a reminder to us all that good writing is more than elegant sentences. The only rule is quality.”

I’m not quite so methodical. But, while writing Surface Tensions, I subscribed to the swimming-in-sensibility routine. I spent half of my average workday reading, not writing, filling my brain with other people’s words and other people’s thoughts. I read Gary Shteyngart and Leslie Jameson and Ralph Ellison and Emily Nussbaum and AO Scott and Phillip Larkin and Lauren Winner and David Foster Wallace. (I even took a class on Infinite Jest at the very end of my undergrad career just so I could swim in Wallace’s massive, churning, crazy great hot tub of a novel right before writing my own book.) I would occasionally pluck particular elements from a particular writer’s sensibility for a particular purpose: an equally silly and useful dash-made neologism straight outta Wallace over here, a bit of Joan Didion’s sentence structure for a descriptive segment on the California desert over there. But more often than not, I would indiscriminately swim in these great writers’ great prose and let it all soak in and sporadically spurt back out when needed. You can probably find bits and pieces of these writers all over my work, if you search hard enough.

And, of course, the great thing about writing a memoir-meets-essay is that I could quote directly from the articles and essays and books I was reading, thinking about, working through. My summer writing diet is imprinted into the book itself.

So although “Generation Why?” quite clearly made a difference on my way of thinking, there wasn’t really one author that made a bigger influence on my writing than others. I tried to inhale the whole chorus and exhale it through my own sensibility — creating, I hope, something inspired by others and unique in its own right.

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