Social Media/Literature

I’m very happy to take suggestions and feedback on this course proposal as it is very much a work in progress! If anyone has experience teaching a similar course, I’d be curious to hear how it went. I’m envisioning here five units of 2-3 weeks each, depending on the length of the semester, so certain units could be expanded to include more critical theories of social media, knowledge work and/or digital humanities.

Social Media and Contemporary Literature

Social media is the first “new media” to imagine not merely new forms of representation but also new forms of sociality—reworked relations between producer and consumer, individual and community, self and other. As a result, modern literature’s central thematics of alienation and commodification have been reinvigorated in social media’s wake. Literary realism now approaches science fiction in its response to the culture of new technologies, and has thus reenergized a variety of genres and subgenres, including experimental and confessional forms. Contemporary authors from Margaret Atwood to Salman Rushdie have adopted blogging and microblogging platforms, the new technologies of cultural capital, in order to shore up access to global circuits of literary culture.

This course provides an opportunity to take up the challenges and possibilities posed by social media for contemporary literature. We will pay careful attention to new concepts of intellectual property and immaterial labor inasmuch as these pose challenges to the analysis of the “author” or “work” of literature. We will read literary works by established authors from Zadie Smith to Tom McCarthy, as well as emerging voices. In addition, we will examine the theory and practice of blogging and microblogging in the context of world literature: is it possible to do a “close reading” of Margaret Atwood’s tweets? How do we conceptualize the author’s “archive” and “oeuvre” at a moment of intensified archive fever? Finally, we will pay careful attention to the forms of literary expression that have emerged on and are unique to social media platforms themselves such as literary blogs and Twitter poetry.

These texts allow us to interrogate how real-time technologies of aggregation and curation have created new possibilities and forms for literary culture. At the same time, they demonstrate how the resources of literary writing can be of use in exploring the conditions of social life and cultural production after social media.


  • William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
  • Lauren Beukes, Moxyland
  • Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story
  • Tom McCarthy, C
  • Ellen Kennedy, Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs

Unit 1: New Realisms

It is perhaps no coincidence that the contemporary novel has turned towards realist styles at precisely the moment when social media has opened up new forms of sociality for the novel to investigate. We begin the course with a unit on the new realisms that have emerged in the novel of the 2000s by way of selections from Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, with their respective treatments of the MP3 revolution. Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel” and review of The Social Network will ground our discussion of the novel’s possibilities and limitations after social media.

Unit 2: Science Fiction and the Culture of Cool

Science fiction has long been the genre entrusted with the task of responding to and envisioning changes in the culture of technology. J.G. Ballard’s work provides an introduction to major themes of social media including microcelebrity, media saturation, and the waning of affect. We begin the unit with Ballard’s short story “Intensive Care Unit,” which imagines a family that only meets through video connection. We then read two science fiction novels that explicitly take up social media as a theme: William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, depicting the culture of “cool hunting” and viral video in the aftermath of 9/11, as well as Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland, set in a futuristic South Africa. These speculative depictions of social media may be read in conjunction with theories of knowledge work and immaterial labor, such as selections from Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool and Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude.

Unit 3: Literary Remix

Remix—as collage, pastiche or cut-up—has been a technique of literary writing at least since modernism. William S. Burroughs’s cut-up technique, pioneered with Brion Gysin, provides an introduction to our study of literary remix, with selections from Burroughs’s The Soft Machine and Burroughs and Gysin’s The Cut-Cups. We then read Tom McCarthy’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Remix” in order to raise questions about literary remix in the contemporary cultural economy. McCarthy’s novel, C, also treats viral media by way of its depiction of amateur radio at the turn of the 20th century. These texts, in conjunction with selections from critical work on remix and intellectual property such as by Lawrence Lessig, help us to understand the challenges that literary remix poses to our concepts of the “author” and “work” of literature.

Unit 4: Writer as Inventor

Here, we considering the changing role of the writer in relation to new technologies of cultural capital by focusing on an exciting output of literary works from self-described “media inventor” Robin Sloan, including his novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, short stories “Annabel Scheme” and “Last Beautiful,” along with creative apps for smart phone and tablet, such as “Fish.” We then examine the use of blogging and microblogging platforms by “global” authors such as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Hari Kunzru and others to shore up cultural capital in global circuits of literary production, consumption and distribution. Readings will include Margaret Atwood’s “How I learned to Love Twitter” along with Wai Chee Dimock’s PMLA article, “World Literature on Facebook.”

Unit 5: Self-Fashioning and Literary Blogs

Self-fashioning has constituted a significant function of literary writing, from the sonnet writing of Renaissance courtiers to Romantic and modernist conceptions of genius and contemporary literary celebrity. This unit examines practices of literary self-fashioning in relation to the renegotiated boundaries between private and public on social media platforms, particularly literary blogs. We begin with one of the first novels to take up explicitly themes of social media, Gary Shteyngart’s, Super Sad True Love Story. We then analyze the new confessional genres that have emerged on literary blogs through signature works such as Ellen Kennedy’s book of poetry Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs and Marie Calloway’s short stories “Adrian Brody” and “Jeremy Lin.” Finally, an analysis of Twitter poetry such as, among others, by Patricia Lockwood (Twitter’s so-called “poet laureate”), raises digital humanities question regarding distant reading, data mining and digital archiving of electronic texts.