Instagram Has Not Killed the Novel

Debut novelist Caitlin Barasch reflects on the intersection of literature and social media

In 2007 I set up a Facebook account, my first time on a social media platform. Status updates back then began with the word “is,” so my fourteen-year-old self frequently chose to write: Katie is “chillaxing” or “riding” or “hanging with friends” or the ever mysterious “out.” I wanted my classmates (and camp friends) to imagine my life comprised of a series of verbs, full of action and excitement.

That one little preposition (“is”) prophesied, in a sense, our societal impulse toward digital performance, our need to broadcast. Nowadays, we curate our social media presence to signify a desirable identity or, more accurately, to craft the life we’d prefer to be living while also gathering information on other people’s Instagram profiles.

When so many personal details are readily (and perhaps dangerously) available, what is still unknown, still mysterious, about another person? What stories lie beneath or beyond what we choose to post? It’s our responsibility, as writers, to poke at those stories, to expose them.

In nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels, plots often hinged upon pivotal information — with the potential to upend a character’s life — withheld and then revealed at the most opportune moment in the narrative. Now, with so much personal data available online, the million-dollar question is: how have authors sustained narrative tension and suspense when certain traditional plots can be easily dismantled by the Internet?

Because I’m fascinated by how quickly we’ve all adapted to this new status quo, social media appears in every writing project I’ve completed since 2012 — including my darkly comic debut novel, A Novel Obsession. If a contemporary novel doesn’t engage at all with social media, then it fails to capture or reflect the world we live in now — that is, a world dominated by hashtags and filters, with an array of cultural and psychological preoccupations that have arisen as a result.

Social media is capable of driving characterization and plot. For example, if a character isn’t on social media at all, that requires more of an explanation — are they exceedingly private, smugly contrarian, or freakishly monkish?

Just as characters in many classic novels (Jane Austen’s, for example) sent handwritten letters as a strategy for constructing how one wished to be perceived, and/or as a desperate entreaty, contemporary characters attempt the same in their social media posts. The intricacies of human psychology haven’t changed much — we just have new devices to explore all its facets.

My fascination with literature in the age of social media led me to ask fellow author A. Natasha Joukovsky about her use of Instagram. In Joukovsky’s novel The Portrait of a Mirror, Instagram is similarly utilized as a way for characters to construct themselves, asserting control over the narrative they’re performing to the world via self-portrait.

As she tells me, “The myth of Narcissus has been around for millennia, but social media is a key reason it seemed so ripe to me for retelling. Ovid’s pretty boy stumbles upon a Stygian pool in the woods; today we all carry Stygian pools with us in our pockets. I chose to feature Instagram most prominently in the novel for the same reason I’ve found it the most bewitching platform in real life: in giving primacy to the photo — and in particular, the selfie — it is the most mirror-like.”

An entire section of her book is written in a way that mimes Instagram captions, allowing the narrative intrigue to unfold in the comments section underneath as various characters tag one another in a cheeky jousting match. In doing so, Joukovsky’s seamless integration of Instagram posts furthers the plot and character development, while cementing the book’s perspicacious, arch style.

How have authors sustained narrative tension and suspense when certain traditional plots can be easily dismantled by the Internet?

The Portrait of a Mirror is just one example of how literature incorporates social media to achieve propulsive, twisty, and carefully crafted fictional worlds. In my own novel, A Novel Obsession, I took advantage of online life to allow my protagonist, Naomi, to stumble upon new knowledge. Interestingly, the commonly-used plot involving scam artists and impostors — à la Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley — can actually be elevated by Internet anonymity, as Naomi so unnervingly demonstrates.

Instagram geo-tags, too, provide Naomi with unfettered access to the geographical movements of her new muse, Rosemary (who also happens to be Naomi’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend.) How else would Naomi know where she could find and observe Rosemary in the wild? Geo-tags serve as the breadcrumbs for a digital wild-goose chase, furthering the plot of a thriller, a mystery, or even (like mine) a literary novel about dysfunctional relationships.

In addition to broadcasting our exact whereabouts, it amazes me how nonchalantly we share intimate financial details on apps like Venmo. (This also becomes a plot point in my novel.) Recently scanning my Venmo timeline, I saw these transactions: “sorry for subjecting you to so many shots,” “dog raffle” and “impulse shopping at CVS,” (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?) as well as plenty of boring rent transactions, tipping me off as to who lives together.

There’s something deeply unsettling about it, especially since everyone could easily toggle their transactions to private if they preferred. Why haven’t they? What is to be gained? Is it a way to broadcast a social life, a particular status? What I do know is that it’s ripe for becoming material in a novel. Potential mysteries abound.

Some fatalists continue to shout “The novel is dead!” but I believe the novel is alive as ever, thrumming with new narrative possibilities.

However, some writers intentionally set their novels in the recent past to avoid social media altogether. I spoke to Sara Davis, author of The Scapegoat, about this decision. She wanted to avoid text messaging and even smartphones because her book involves a man setting out on an amateur investigation of his father’s death. “If it were happening in the present, I’m sure he would just do a lot of Googling,” Davis tells me, “but that is just not something I can bring myself to write about.”

It’s true that describing a Google search might feel uninspired when the physical and figurative search itself is so central to the plot. For many of us, the “real world” happens off-screen. Davis’s response reminded me of a quote from Anais Mitchell in No Depression, The Journal of Roots Music: “In the real world, you got lost. Inconvenience and randomness ruled the day, but the other side of the coin was something mystical and hard to come by… when you made a discovery…it felt cosmic and hard-won and there was an unnatural devotion to it.”

In A Novel Obsession, Naomi is obsessed with serendipity, and would likely agree with many of Anais’s assertions. Naomi met her boyfriend Caleb on a dating app, rather than in real life, as Rosemary and Caleb did, so she can’t help idealizing their past relationship as “cosmic,” as worthier of “unnatural devotion.” To console herself, Naomi instead chooses to ruminate on how technology sometimes has the potential to surprise us: “Out of millions of single people looking for…love and intimacy in New York, the probability of Caleb and me stumbling upon each other’s Tinder profiles paralleled the probability of bumping into each other on some random street corner.”

Indeed, an algorithm can involve a certain amount of mysticism, too. This is why I chose optimism. Some fatalists continue to shout “The novel is dead!” but I believe the novel is alive as ever, thrumming with new narrative possibilities. Now, if only I could log off Instagram long enough to write my next one!

Caitlin Barasch’s debut novel, A Novel Obsession, is ON SALE NOW (!) in the U.S. and Canada from Dutton/Penguin Random House, and forthcoming from Eksmo in Russia and Clube do Autor in Portugal.

Born and raised in New York, Caitlin earned her BA from Colorado College and her MFA from New York University, where she also taught creative writing. Her work has appeared in over a dozen publications and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions.

A former bookseller, Caitlin is currently a creative writing instructor at The Writers Circle.

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Caitlin (Katie) Barasch

Caitlin (Katie) Barasch

Author of A NOVEL OBSESSION, forthcoming from Dutton in ’22. NYU MFA alum. Co-founder of THE NEST, a creative writing workshop for teens.