I saw the weakest minds of my occupation destroyed by blog comments, hate-eating hysterical shivering, dragging themselves through message boards at dawn looking for a troll to fight. I started writing professionally about eight years ago, just as comments became less a curiosity and more a given. But many of the journalists I met who'd been in the business before the arrival of comments could already become flushed with outrage about the very existence of reader feedback. Their faces would get red and they'd scream—and, yes, sometimes sob—about every mean thing someone left in the wide-open space below their stories.
Sure, sometimes a negative comment hooks into the meaty part of you. But it's not like the readership changed, that an imaginary army of cheering, adoring fans disappeared when the comment threads were installed, only to be replaced by a cantankerous mob of cretins. Now you get to instantaneously see how a small-but-vocal portion of your readers reacts to your work. Readers didn't have any unchallenged platform at all before, and now they do. Isn't that, on balance, really kind of cool?
When novelist and poet Travis Nichols worked for the Poetry Foundation, one of his jobs was to oversee a project in which comments were allowed on poetryfoundation.org. Perhaps the foundation expected an Athenian discourse about the nature of poetry and art in the digital age. And I'm sure the comment threads inspired some of that. But they also fomented a slew of bullies, off-topic comments, conspiracy theories, ax-grinding, and treatises on the sad state of American poetry. In an interview with Paul Killebrew, Nichols admitted that the negative comments made him feel "deeply, deeply bonkers for a few months, largely because I took a lot of the rote online bullying personally." The comment section was soon scrapped entirely, which caused several angry commenters to create their own sites accusing Nichols of fascism.
And now, finally, Nichols gets his revenge, in The More You Ignore Me (Coffee House Press, $15.95), a novel in the form of one ridiculously long blog comment posted by our narrator, known only as linksys181. He's recently been banned from a wedding blog (for a young couple he has never met) for excessive trolling, and he's taking one last opportunity, on an unrelated blog called BrendaCooking Fun.com in response to an unrelated comment from someone called cookiekitty7, to justify his online existence. In linksys181, Nichols has engaged in a flabbergasting act of literary ventriloquism, a voice that on the surface reads like a highly intelligent individual.
But once you scrape past the interestingly arranged big words, you poke into a throbbing, recoiling core of sociopathy. This is a man who calls the time he receives his first negative response on the wedding blog "one of the happiest days of my life," who explains, in grandiose and unbalanced language, the origins and philosophy of his trollery: "The true commenter takes nothing at face value but remains intractably, joyously skeptical of any purported reality."
The More You Ignore Me is a Notes from Underground by way of the Huffington Post, a Pale Fire as told by an assiduously mediocre narrator, and, in one subplot, a Cyrano de Bergerac story starring a creep. But it does, at times, try too hard to make linksys181 into too much of a monster; there's a reason I introduced the book as Nichols's "revenge." A dash of compassion would have made for something more memorable than this high-wire act.
After all, trolls try as hard as they can to deny their own humanity in order to get a rise out of others. But let me state the obvious fact that so many of my cohort managed to forget, back in the mid-aughts: Trolls are people, too. They don't possess any special powers, or omniscient perspective, or enlightened insight. Their words are worth no more than the pixels they're printed on, until you give those words power and allow the commenters to cast themselves as the digital monsters they want to be. Isn't creating this elaborate and often astonishing temple to an outcast who deserves to be an outcast due to his own shocking hideousness, after all, feeding the trolls?