Interview: Jarett Kobek “I Hate the Internet”

©Jarett Kobek / cover

Jarett Kobek’s novel I hate the Internet is a critique on big Silicon Valley cooperations. We met the author for an interview

Jarett Kobek’s name has been wandering through the media for weeks now, but ever since his astounding success at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2016 he can be found at the front of the feuilletons. The American author, whose second book I Hate the Internet appeared in German translation at Fischer Verlag this month, is now justifiably referred to as a “literary wrecking ball”. The genre-bending novel centers around Adeline, a comic book artist from San Francisco who said the wrong thing at the wrong place and the wrong time. After a silly comment about Beyonce and Rihanna, she falls victim to a wrongful modern day witch hunt, disputed online via social media.

And along the way, Kobek sings a swansong for the digital age – underpinned with hard facts and complex criticism or, as he himself puts it in the preface, “trigger warning: 276 pages of mansplaining.” Frowning on the Californian tech scene and American pop culture as its virtual extension, I Hate the Internet holds the US accountable for its most recent failures.

Jessica Aimufua met the author for an interview and asked Kobek about the power of social media, male hubris, and the one thing that keeps him sane in light of all his complaints.

What prompted you to write I Hate the Internet?

I was living in San Francisco and it was the high water mark of gentrification. There was this restaurant at the corner, which created this enormous cluster fuck because it was impossible to look at that and not see gentrification. In San Francisco everything is a battle, everything is a fight. So people started being upset and circulating a petition and protests. They formed a kind of social network themselves: there was the Arab Spring and it felt like Twitter was essentially bringing freedom to the oppressed of the world and the restaurant became the flashpoint of gentrification. I had a really really unique perspective on all of this, by virtue by where I was living. I can say, living in the middle of a small class war is just hell and the endless tension of this drove me crazy. And when I moved away and got to Los Angeles, I just sort of sat down and started writing.

Have you sworn off the internet entirely, or is it just social media that troubles you?

I mean, it all troubles me. However, I have a twitter account that I just tweeted on like four times in 2009 and I keep that open because something about it just seems really funny. I still have to use Facebook. Not to update anything, but because I have a handful of friends that don’t know how to use email anymore. If I didn’t have Facebook, I just wouldn’t have any communication with them. And then mostly my experience is just constant email. Especially since the book took off, my life has just become about answering emails.

Basically the book could have been called I Hate Four Companies in San Francisco. Because, of course, there are some good things about the internet. On the one hand, there really is something quite beautiful about Twitter that gives marginalized groups a voice in the mainstream dialogue. But there is also something paradoxical about it…

That brings me to my next question. What do you think is the danger of giving away your intellectual property on the internet?

The American comic industry is actually a good metaphor to understand what’s happening on the internet in the 21st century. Back in the 1990s, the comic world was this beautiful flourishing industry of creativity. However, most people who got into it were poor, and today we can see their works have an enormous value.  Today, internet companies have turned us all into the equivalent of comic book artists: we’re creating content for companies that essentially own this content and will profit from it. The problem with it really is that when you create something you don’t actually know what that creation is. It takes time to reveal itself. It has to grow and then you’ll see its real value. And the problem with all of the stuff on the internet is just that because it’s being given away immediately and people don’t have any ownership over their work, they’re clearly being cheated out of recompense.

Your book could just as easily be a non-fictional critique of digital capitalism. Why did you write a novel instead?

Actually, I don’t think anyone would have read it. There’s a really small number of people who want to read non-fiction books about the internet. Fundamentally, I’m a novelist because you don’t have to be objective in a novel – in any way. There’s a certain assumption that a reader comes to a non-fiction book expecting to be presented the entirety of the picture. I, on the other hand, was really interested in having this rant as the nastiest possible take on the topic, so I just jumped right in. Later on, I sent the manuscript to a good friend of mine and he hated it. However, he prefers “good novels”. In the traditional sense.

And what should a new “good novel” be like? In the non-traditional sense?

I can tell you exactly. The most interesting book published in the US in the last two decades is this novel by Sister Souljah called The Coldest Winter Ever. Most people only know her because Bill Clinton mentioned her in a speech in 1992. Her book was one of the best-selling literary novels of the last 25 years. She’s outsold Franzen in the US. It’s a really complex book that has sold really well to people who are primarily ignored by literary publishing, Latina women, black women etc. It created an entire genre for a little while that was called “Ghetto Lit”, and then people started to realize that there was more money in it if they euphemized it to “Urban Literature”. That book is really interesting and she has an idea of the novel as a tool of moral instruction, which is an idea in mainstream fiction no one has really believed in since the 1920s. It points to a way forward.

Talking about women readers, in a recent interview you stated that you particularly want women to read your book. Why is that?

I just don’t think men read novels. At least in the US there is a clear gender division. Also I think men are kind of terrible. I don’t really need to have a conversation with the male intelligentsia of New York or Los Angeles. I’m not sure the world really needs a certain kind of urban guy to just read my book and say “Well, I was right all along.” I don’t need to do a book to have that – I can walk out of my door and have it.

Ultimately I think the goal of fiction, or any writing for that matter, should be communication. And it seems like it’s much better to try to communicate with people that are different than me. And also the reactions I’ve gotten from women have been way more interesting.

What is it you cherish most about living “offline” in real life?

I think if the book has a secret message at all, it’s about the virtue of friendship. Just actual, real friendship. The protagonist gets into a real fucked up situation and then the only real salvation is in her friends. Ultimately, that’s the best thing about actual life – and at the same time the incredible perversity of the internet. I think that’s the only thing that’s been keeping me sane through all of this.

Jarett Kobek

I hate the Internet, € 35,93 via Amazon

After spending a gap year in Paris, Jessica Aimufua set her heart on Berlin, starting her art history and cultural studies undergrad in 2012. As a keen observer and critical thinker she developed an urge to express herself inventively at an early age. In both English and German she writes about contemporary culture and modern aesthetics, with a focus on film, fashion and art . At hey woman! she writes, edits and translates.