Empathy in the Age of Trolls: A Conversation with Travis Nichols
Imagine, for a moment, an Internet troll who writes in complete sentences. Who melds the political fire of a revolutionary with the linguistic precision of a poet. Who peppers his rants with references to Norman Mailer, Buster Keaton, and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.
Do that and you might be able to anticipate the spectacular, deranged protagonist of Travis Nichols’ very funny second novel, The More You Ignore Me, out this month from Coffee House Press. Nichols’ narrative takes the form of an extended comment thread on the fictional culinary site DebbieCookingFun.com––a thread to which our lovable troll has been forced to retreat after being banned from a wedding blog for harassing a couple he does not know. You know––as you do.
I tracked down to Nichols to correspond about the Internet, empathy in the age of trolls, and the importance of always rooting for the underdog.
FANZINE: I am going to ignore my editor’s request to troll you for comedic effect––I’m not that funny––and instead simply ask you questions. From what I understand, the inspiration for this book comes from your experience at Harriet, The Poetry Foundation’s blog. Can you share with us a few details?
TRAVIS NICHOLS: Well, we had some pretty unique trolls over there, that’s for sure, but really the inspiration for the book’s narrator comes from being subjected to paranoid aggrieved masculinity for my entire life. You know, like everybody else! I know some people can just shrug it off, but I have always had an almost Charlize-Theron-in-Monster reaction to suffering the opera bouffe of bully bloviators, largely because I don’t just straight up tell them to fuck off like I should but instead usually react politely while trying to concentrate the entire effort of my soul into starting their faces on fire. Overbearing guys who believe their thoughts and opinions are nature’s gifts to humanity clearly predate Harriet, blogs, and the Internet, so the idea of this as a book of “The Internet” is only right about the form, not the content. Anyways, having protagonist who has a physical reaction to getting cornered and conversationally bullied by oblivious dumb dumbs seemed a little too emo (my first book had a pretty sensitive narrator), so I thought maybe I’d try to imagine what it might be like to have that OTHER kind of consciousness for a while. And it turns out I got really into it. So, now that I’m spelling it all out, this is clearly either a novel of radical empathy or pure, searing hatred. You tell me!
FZN: I want to come back to the notion that this kind of behavior, these kinds of psychologies (or psychopaths), predate the Internet, since I think it is an important theme in the book. I’m interested in what you’ve said about empathy. The comment thread troll is probably one of the most despised characters in the culture right now. For those of us who’ve had to deal with these people (even in the threads below our own work!), it is tempting to write them off––to think of them as something less than human. And yet part of what makes your narrator compelling is how fully imagined he is. We know some of his history, his particular trauma and suffering; we know his daily routines (he cooks everything he eats in a coffeemaker; he washes his face with astringent face wash); we understand that he has convinced at least himself that he means well. How important do you think it is to concede to these people their humanity? Or is that even possible on the Internet? Is that why we need the novel?
TN: We’re now at a point where it is extremely foolish to engage with any kind of empathy in comment threads, not in the least because companies pay people to sit at home and post talking points in political threads (ever wonder why there’s such a high percentage of climate-deniers in comment threads? Now you know!). But in the very recent past when not everyone had a social media strategy, it was possible fairly often to actually make empathetic connections with strangers online. I remember in high school being involved in chat rooms with people and making what felt like very genuine connections. I mean, those people may have all been gnarly old men from Vermont pretending to be Pearl Jam fans, but maybe that would make it even more remarkable. Anyways, I think we hit a turning point around 2009 when comment threads became performance spaces for a number of people, and while that may have been building for a while, it’s when you started seeing a lot more people saying, “Don’t read the comments!” It became sort of the mark of a reasonable person to say, “Oh I never read comments. Those people are crazy.” Which of course made the commenters even crazier because they weren’t being heard, damnit! And I tried very seriously to engage with people in earnest in public comment sections for a while, and I felt like was relentlessly trolled as a result. I mean, you can go back and look at some of those Harriet threads or any of Silliman’s old threads and see who’s performing and who’s trying to communicate directly. And so, for me, instead of engaging, I started just to imagine. It was much better that way. Trolling is endless, and, more crucially, it has nothing to do with anyone but the troll, so why not just make it up? I love the idea that the reason we would need literature as such is that it allows for more empathy than some online engagement, since there is a big countervailing wind from the online community that declares the internet contains everything, and so there’s no need for “novels” or “literature” as they have existed in the past. I think this narrator would definitely argue that novels are obsolete because he achieves a state of literature in his comments. I also have heard many people say that they think of their blogs or their Twitter feeds as literature, and I have no doubt that the potential is there, but I also think it’s not quite that easy.
FZN: There is a particular messianic quality to your narrator, it seems to me. Over and over again he claims to be a prophet––the only person in the world, for all we can tell, who is able to perceive reality as it really is. We learn eventually that his narcissism predates the Internet––the final half of the novel is devoted to his pre-Internet lunacy––but I wonder if there is something about the form that does produce such thinking more frequently. After all, we are both intensely connected to other people and yet very much alone in our physical bodies and localized environments when we’re on the net. I wonder if you think there’s something inherently schizophrenic about such a state, that, coupled with the anonymity, allows more easily for such monomaniacal delusions of grandeur?
TN: Great question. I have no idea. I know that with a lot of the troll dudes believe silence is consent rather than simply the world not wanting to deal with their cray cray. They respond to some post with a barbed witticism of the highest order (subjective), and then when no one responds they take it as a great moral victory instead of a failure to communicate effectively This narrator obviously operates this way, and yet despite so many (SO MANY) victories he remains disenfranchised and alone.
But obviously just punching down at a bunch of sad lonely trolls would not make a good novel, and I was trying to write a good novel, not an easy joke, so haha but hopefully also hmmm. It’s easy to look down on people who believe what seems to us to be patently false bullshit, but when your entire life has been spent dealing with people who lie to you, institutions that oppress you, and loud, blaring ads desperate to exploit you on all fronts, hearing only what you want to hear starts to seem a little more like a rational response than a paranoid chimerical nightmare villa. I very much applaud citizens of our colonized republic trying to undermine and subvert the dominant narratives by creating their own, and so part of what I wanted to do in this book was interrogate what happens when that strategy for sanity goes haywire. I mean, yes, “YOU ARE BEING LIED TO,” but that phrase used to serve as a call for critical thinking, and now it seems just an excuse for nihilistic self-involvement. I don’t like nihilisitic self-involvement.
A quick digression: One of the reasons I love moments like the 2007 Super Bowl and the 2011 NBA Finals is because in those weird commercial hours we get to watch dominant narratives unravel in real time. Having grown up an Iowa State fan, I almost always root for the underdog on principle. This usually leads to much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, but when the underdog wins, when you get to see a dominant group’s belief in itself unravel while a subdominant group’s believe in itself emerges, it’s a beautiful thing. I get very, very excited. I know it’s weird to feel that way about corporate sports where the hierarchies and power struggles are much wider than what happens on the field, but in that little fantasy hour, new stories replace old ones in a microcosm of the societies I want to see. Now only if Pussy Riot could beat the Miami Heat, I’d feel like we lived in a just world.
FZN: I think that sense of rooting for the underdog absolutely comes through in the novel. (I always root for the underdog too, incidentally, although it gets a little compulsive when I find myself urging on, say, the Heat when they’re down a game in the Finals. I have to remind myself: they are not the underdogs!) As crazy and self-deluded as our protagonist is, he is also eloquent, learned, occasionally insightful, perceptive, and so on. We can’t help but identify with him to some extent. As a reader of a certain (leftist) political orientation, I felt implicated when he aligned himself with the Sandinistas, for example. It’s harder to disassociate yourself from a lunatic when they’re shouting out your personal heroes!
Anyway, I wonder how you came to feel about this character, ultimately. It sounds like you began with sort of a desire to empathize and a desire to destroy. How did you feel about him in the end?
TN: Empathize to destroy. I wasn’t able to simply walk away or turn my thoughts off, having no shortage of obsessive thought behaviors, so I needed some way to obsess without directly engaging. I guess you could say I retreated into my imagination, but for most writers and artists, the imagination is no safer than reality. If you fuck up in your imaginary world the results are often more devastating than if you fuck up in the real world. To lose a thread or have an idea vanish or dry up on you can be crippling. I made a number of errors and false starts with this novel, ranging into really weird and unproductive territory before coming back and revising it into what I hope is a somewhat readable experimental novel. I wanted to capture a spirit of free improvisatory riffing but in order to do that I had to be pretty formal and disciplined, or at the very least not fall in love with my cleverness at the expense of anyone giving a fuck. But yeah, anyways, I love this narrator. How could I not? We created each other.
FZN: Just one more question and I’ll let you go. It’s been great to talk to you!
This is your second novel but I think of you primarily as a poet––you have two collections of poetry out and you did your MFA in poetry. What drew you, or continues to draw you, you to fiction? Are there different intellectual and emotional muscles involved when writing fiction than when writing poetry? Do you find places where they overlap? And which might we expect from you next?
TN: Thanks, Alex! You’ve been my ideal reader here, insightful and deft. Thank you for digging in with the book, and of course for reaching out to do the interview.
That last question is like the exact dream of every pompous artiste jackass of time immemorial, so I thank you from the bottom of my shriveled self-involved heart for asking it. I remember walking around Seattle after working on some of the early drafts of this novel, deep, deep in my own head, and performing a few mock interviews with myself that got into some pretty heavy territory. I think they all ended this way. Unfortunately that does NOT mean I have a good answer for what’s next, other than probably some poorly done housework and passive aggressive tweets from @MeExplain. My main goal since I realized I would continue writing even if no one ever read what I wrote or gave me an “attaboy” has been to do things that allow me to keep being creative, and to live consciously with the people I love. So when I was an undergrad and wrote a lot of essays and music criticism, I started to realize those formulas can be deadly, so I lurched over into poetry (also, I had great teachers who encouraged me). After about ten years of that, the excitement I had initially felt for poetry started to wane because of what I perceived as its petty tribalism and academic wankery, so I thought maybe there’s more room for fun in fiction. For a while there has been. Luckily, I don’t really hang out with fiction writers or have any sort of deep-seated rivalry with anyone except Philip Roth (FUCK YOU, ROTH!), so all of the petty insider stuff doesn’t get to me. Also, I have a lot of other shit to do right now that allows me to be creative in service of, I hope, staving off planetary devastation by the corporate right. Full time job, turns out. But Lord knows we need more creative activism, so please, please if any of the four of you reading this have any ideas, email me. Like the French, I love to collaborate (JOKE!). Anyways, I haven’t been reading as much poetry as I’d like to, so I think that contributes to why every time I write a poem now it ends up being a really blown out no-margin Spiro Gyro explosion of voices and glottal clusters. They’ve been okay for readings, but I can’t totally imagine putting them together for a book. As I become an ancient old crab, I realize having time to write isn’t all that difficult but having time to edit and revise is a real killer, largely because writing is its own reward and revision is like preventative bone marrow scrapery.
END OF INTERVIEW LIST OF BOOKS ON MY DESK: The Flamethrowers, A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency, Full Body Burden, Ethical Consciousness, World War Z, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Mercury.
The More You Ignore Me is available from Coffee House Press.