Working On My Novel by Cory Arcangel

Working On My Novel BY Cory Arcangel. Penguin Global. Paperback, 144 pages. $10.
The cover of Working On My Novel

All artists steal, but some art makes a subject of the theft. In the early 1980s, Sherrie Levine tore twenty pages from a book of watercolors by J. M. W. Turner, signed them, framed them, and showed them in a London gallery. Levine’s earlier series, “After Walker Evans,” which resides in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, consists of copies of prints made from Evans’s negatives. It comes down to medium and quantity; you start with materials that are worthless and easily obtainable, and you end with something solid, scarce, signed. Put another way, you could not print a Twitter feed and sell it. But a book of retweets, out from a legitimate publishing house, with a few simple drawings thrown in—that you might pull off.

This, more or less, was the process behind Cory Arcangel’s Working On My Novel, a piece of digital performance art that has been in progress since 2011, and that recently ended with the appearance of a book by the same name. The original project was a Twitter feed maintained, in good appropriationist fashion, by a web crawler. In March of 2011, Artforum invited Arcangel to describe the work on its website. The performance, Arcangel wrote, was no more than “a Twitter search for the phrase ‘working on my novel.’” Part of the fun was that “if you’re twittering about how you’re working on your novel, you’re probably not working on your novel! I love these situations.”

Setting aside the dubiousness of this observation (a lot of people tweet while they write), Arcangel deserves credit for explaining his project in the basic terms it calls for. It’s a joke—quickly grasped, moderately clever.

Three years later, the joke’s over. Repackaged as a paperback, this once-free performance now costs you ten dollars, and claims to be “about the act of creation and the gap between the different ways we express ourselves.” So the jacket copy assures us, striking the tone of an artist’s statement composed by Arcangel, which it very likely is. In fact, the press materials aver, the whole thing is a “novel” with a plot: “the story of what it means to be a creative person, and why we keep on trying.” Now the humor comes from the spectacle of people trying to create art, against the odds, in the face of modern distraction and the ever-present threat of total failure. I love these situations.

The transposition of the piece from a mean-spirited joke on its subjects to a meditation about creation had two results: It gave buyers permission to consume it without feeling guilty, and it transformed the project from a near-forgotten work of net art into an au courant literary object, one that demanded solemn consideration from critics. The websites of the New Yorker and the Paris Review devoted a few thousand words to reviewing it, and other outlets followed their lead. Vice, Vogue, NPRonce you begin web crawling, it seems that everyone has come away with a favorable impression of this little book. Meanwhile, Artforum ignores it.

What is clever about publishing retweets on paper is not simply that their absurdity deepens upon repetition, which is already what happens when you publish retweets on Twitter. (The Buzzfeed editor Katie Notopolous has long specialized in this sort of “found schadenfreude,” facetiously aggregating embarrassments on social media.) Arcangel’s cleverness is in his solicitation of a new target audience. A funny one-line item in an art magazine has become a “litmus test” (as the Paris Review Daily had it) for people who are preoccupied with the future of the novel. That Arcangel has always worked with Jurassic technology, like old video games, only increases the irony: First Nintendo went obsolete, then ordering Domino’s pizza with a command-line utility, then . . . the novel? With Working, Arcangel has created a kind of Archimedean point of literary anxiety: over the viability of the form, the threat from aspirants, the pointlessness of the craft in general—whatever you’re worried about, Arcangel means that. All without doing any work himself.

The practice of making art without working to make art has recently concerned certain art critics. In a 2010 essay in e-flux, artist Anton Vidokle addressed curator Roger Buergel, who had invited the chef Ferran Adría to participate in that year’s Documenta, an art fair. Vidokle found the inclusion troubling. His complaint was that Adría’s place at the exhibition depended not on any artistic activity on his part, but on the desire of a curator for provocative juxtapositions. Vidokle cautioned against artists becoming “props for illustrating curatorial concepts,” adding that “we should also be very careful to avoid assigning any kind of meta-artistic capacity to curatorial practice.” The thesis of the e-flux piece was subsequently inverted by a writer at dis magazine, who warned of “artists without art,” meaning people who maintain the online presences of artists but don’t make anything you’d normally think of artists making.

The idea of the “curatorial concept” may be useful in dealing with Arcangel, because this book was curated more than it was made. And though he may have been the curator, I’d take a healthy wager that it was the publishing house instead. It’s easy to imagine a savvy, ambitious assistant editor scrolling through his Twitter feed and realizing that he is looking at something saleable. A few emails, a contract, a modest first printing, the hope of a spot at the Urban Outfitters table. The rationale isn’t necessarily cynical; to move up in publishing, you have to bring in money. Nor does it imply that Arcangel is unnecessary to the project. In fact the opposite is true: The book’s success depends on Arcangel’s institutional credibility, his validation by critics and museums.

The authors of the tweets in Working have none of these things. And this, despite the reluctance of critics to admit it, has been the joke all along. The premise is no more “what does it mean to be a creative person” than it was “you’re probably not working on your novel.” To paraphrase a recent remark by Eileen Myles, the premise is closer to “What if a lower- or middle-class person wanted to write a novel?”

The coding in Working is mass-market all the way: We’re eating Bagel Bites while listening to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack while reading Nicholas Sparks. Meanwhile, we’re trying to write our novel. Arcangel told Vice that he selected these tweets from a spreadsheet containing more than a thousand, so it seems fair to ascribe a measure of intention to the references. He knows what’s funny about what he’s doing.

“My love life consists of Nicholas Sparks movie marathons and working on my novel,” reads one tweet. Another reports, “Sitting at McDonald’s working on my novel while Stu does some more electrical work on the RV.” The dissonance between the implied class position of the authors of the tweets and that of the consumers of the tweets, especially reviewers and critics, is stark. What was funny was always the spectacle of people who consume mass-market things like McDonald’s thinking that they could produce fancy-pants things like novels, which Modernism severed from their history as pop entertainment. When the New York Times book critic Dwight Garner wrote disapprovingly of Harper Lee’s McDonald’s habit, it was exactly this class dissonance that was troubling him. (His disapproval rightly became a bit of found schadenfreude on Twitter.)

Television, radio, the Broadway musical, movies, Top 40—every sort of entertainment appears in the tweets in Working. Everything except books. The only author whose name appears, Nicholas Sparks, is mentioned as a moviemaker, not a writer. Fifty Shades of Grey makes a cameo, and East of Eden. And that’s all, over the course of more than a hundred tweets. Here is a universe of people who want to write books but do not read them, who want to produce what they do not know how to consume. For them, novel-writing has become what novel-reading was from the nineteenth through the middle twentieth century: a way to recapture a little private mind-space while living in a system that seeks constantly to invade it. “I’ve been working on my novel all day—in between helping customers of course.”

What separates Arcangel, or Penguin, or whoever conceived this thing, from the authors of the tweets that provided the material, is that Arcangel and Penguin are in on a joke whose interpretation depends on class sophistication. The possessive pronoun in the phrase “working on my novel” is not, as the New Yorker’s Mark O’Connell reads it, an admirable expression of the struggle to “bring into fruition a particular opus that is theirs alone.” It’s just how you say it when you don’t know you’re not supposed to say it that way. “I’m working on a novel” is a fine statement to make at a New York literary party. “I’m working on my novel” is too sincere by half.

If these people want to spend their leisure time trying to produce something they probably won’t be able to sell, who can blame them? Arcangel’s leisure, in the case of this book, has failed to produce something meaningful, even if selling it isn’t his problem. But then, anything sells. To make an object worthy of your uncommodified hours, someone, somewhere, has to do some fucking work.

Jesse Barron is an assistant editor at Harper's.