Self-indulgence and the literature of the internet

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • December 4, 2013

How is the internet affecting literature? To some extent, it has turned everyone into writers; with their sheer convenience, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and others tempt us to chronicle the most insignificant details of our lives through the written word. Every time we scroll through our newsfeeds, we are inundated with a new genre of writing.

Blogger and poet Megan Boyle seeks to extract real human expression from social media’s waves of tedium in her poetry collection selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee. Originally published in 2011, the book and its author have since gained something of a cult following, and Muumuu House, a small publisher specializing in internet-related creative writing, released a new edition last month.

Throughout the book’s titular blog posts, which fall somewhere between the genres of prose poetry and personal essay, Boyle displays a keen awareness of the complex identity issues that social media raises. Online profiles have provided a new and easy way for people to recreate themselves. Everyone who uses social media does this to some degree, whether you remove your tag from an embarrassing photo on Facebook or use Twitter to masquerade as a 25-year-old model from Bali. Regardless of the circumstances, putting yourself on social media always involves some kind of dislocation from the self, and notions of personal authenticity are suddenly called into question. 

Even the title of Boyle’s book seems to gesture toward this notion. selected unpublished blog posts is full of weird, haunting descriptions that convey a sense of detachment from the human body. “from the perspective of my tongue my mouth feels infinitely huge / if i close my eyes and someone touches my skin the touch feels somehow enormous,” Boyle writes in a blog post dated Aug. 14, 2009. Elsewhere, she draws attention to subtle, existential details of life, such as the eeriness of laughing alone. Any of these examples could be read as a metaphor for the anxiety of living a world that encourages us to wear a mask for every occasion.

Boyle sometimes sounds like she’s trying too hard to be what Lena Dunham’s character on Girls would call “the voice of a generation.” But Boyle’s voice is weirdly captivating, whether she is shopping at Whole Foods under the influence of Xanax or ranting about Dave Eggers (whose new novel The Circle has garnered critical attention for its apparent demonization of the social networks that make writing like Boyle’s (possible). Her observations are bizarre, funny, and slightly unsettling, as in the blog post dated Nov. 25 2009, in which she writes, “i’ve been having regular sex with this guy / he hits my cats on their heads and they look insulted.” Even life’s minutiae take on a quirky flavor in her writing: “whenever i smell wasabi peas I think ‘brine shrimp’ and feel kind of uneasy, but i still enjoy eating them.” 

As its quirky title might suggest, selected unpublished blog posts is a polarizing work, chronicling banalities and anxieties of the author’s life in spare, deadpan language. Boyle writes about her cats, meals, snacking, alcohol consumption, drug use, sex life, social awkwardness, and bowel movements with such dry humor and uncomfortable frankness that readers might be tempted to put the book down after a few pages and groan, “Too much information!”

But Boyle also anticipates these would-be critics in a post called “every thought i had while walking to school,” writing, “i like reading things other people might describe as ‘self-indulgent.’ what other people define as ‘self-indulgence’ just seems like honesty to me. i feel a need to inventory my thoughts and experiences, it makes it seem like they had a purpose.” It’s an observation worth thinking about the next time one of your Facebook friends posts a picture of what they had for dinner.

In a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review, novelist Marisha Pessl commented, “The writer’s mandate is to dig deeper inside our wired world to find the mystery, the darkness and dislocation. The good news is that the core realities of our world have not changed: People are still impossible and strange.” selected unpublished blog posts isn’t Pulitzer Prize material, but it admirably takes up this new literary challenge, unearthing the humanity beneath today’s technological tangle.