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IN FEBRUARY OF THIS YEAR, the Twitter user @LouiseGluckPoet announced some sad news. “A great loss. Thomas Pynchon dies. He was one of my favorite authors. I have now received the news from my publisher. They want the news to remain secret for a few hours, I don’t know why. However Pynchon has left us and the mystery is useless. Bye my dearest!” The syntax was strange, and the purported impropriety even more so, but nevertheless the author’s bio was definitive: “Poet. Official account.” Her profile said she had joined in November 2020, shortly after Louise Glück had won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps as good a time as any to finally kick back and see what’s up on the World Wide Web. Besides, members of older generations are known for being a little weird online, as anyone who saw the August 2020 photo of Joyce Carol Oates’s blistered, purple foot can attest.

@LouiseGluckPoet’s tweet circulated immediately among the insular communities of people who would care about such a thing, many of whom were so eager to offer their 280-character musings on Pynchon’s top 280 characters that they didn’t seem to notice the announcement was obviously fake. Soon enough @LouiseGluckPoet was chastened by the minor calamity she had caused and followed up with, “Someone deceived me. Thomas Pynchon is alive and well. I apologize.” Many of the premature eulogizers deleted their tweets and quietly moved on. But the credulity of writers online has been measured many times before, most frequently by the Italian journalist Tommaso Debenedetti, who first came to the attention of Americans around 2010, when it became apparent that he’d fabricated interviews with luminaries—among them Philip Roth and John Grisham—in which they seem to criticize Barack Obama. (The interviews were published in Italian in conservative newspapers, so it’s conceivable that the injured parties might never have noticed.) For the past decade, he’s taken to making fake Twitter accounts, often in the names of writers and politicians as well as of entities that might have access to early information about such persons’ deaths; his projects are usually characterized by a “Welcome to my account! Twitter is good!” sort of thing followed by some big-deal breaking news, and the lies are eventually appended with an explanation I imagine spoken in a measured, slightly somber tone: “This account is hoax created by Italian journalist Tommaso Debenedetti.” (The absence of this disclaimer, both self-aggrandizing and somehow fair-minded, is the reason we don’t know whether @LouiseGluckPoet belongs to him, but it probably does.) During the pandemic, he aggravated German speakers with his announcement of the death of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which was picked up by a Swiss newspaper that sent out a push notification to its followers.

What’s important to note about these hoaxes is that they are absolutely terrible—totally artless, not believable at all, only really a “fool me once” situation if you were born or signed up for a Twitter account yesterday. Their relative success is even more embarrassing when you consider that the targets are supposed to be readers, people who approach language actively, if not critically. We live in a world in which people are constantly lying and cheating for no reward beyond fleeting attention, and in which Louise Glück does not write in ESL. You know this, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The literary world—full of gullible romantics, blinkered narcissists, and people who understand their preferences as inseparable from their souls and therefore never to be insulted—is easy to troll.

UNLIKE INTERNET TERMS that function as metaphors for the physical realm—“link,” “post”—“trolling” defines something that had previously not really had a name but has long been a feature of culture. (“Subtweet,” which refers to the passive-aggressive disparagement of someone without using their name, might also make a useful transition to broader application, so that in two hundred years someone can look up from their phone and say, “Did you know the word ‘subtweet’ originally came from a website? Yeah, it was called ‘Twitter’ . . . ”) A troll is not quite a schemer, or a scammer, or a prankster, or a performance artist; he is a creator of chaos and dissension. If we ignore the trolls who just scream at private citizens for tenuous reasons—and we should just ignore them, because the others are actually interesting—we can say a good troll often performs a critique; his work can be a satire, or merely an “intervention.” The closest preexisting term we had might be “provocateur”—what you become when you age out of “enfant terrible”—but that doesn’t necessarily convey the mischievousness of a troll; provocation is too distant and pretentious for what the troll is after, and indeed the troll seeks to collapse distance and puncture pretentiousness in particular. You might be wondering, “Collapse distance? But trolls are ironic, and irony is distancing. . . . That’s why it’s a scourge in our culture!” This is totally wrong, but I don’t have the space to explain why.

For a troll to work, a portion of the audience must not be in on the joke; trolling is almost always a form of mockery. This can happen directly—most commonly, an anonymous person says you suck in some creative way—or indirectly, by encouraging the trolled to engage in stupid behavior. Stupid behavior may take the form of public outrage or any strong feeling, eventually followed by private embarrassment masked by sputtering justifications. (Death is serious, and shouldn’t be faked!) The cycle repeats. A troll deplores nitpickers, point-missers, hand-raisers, pearl-clutchers, hypocrites, and denialists. He’s also completely willing to engage recklessly in precisely those tactics to get across his message: people are stupid, and they deserve to be mocked. A gross generalization, possibly even despicable—but there is some truth in it. If you don’t agree, you haven’t gotten out enough, and that deserves to be mocked, too.

In literature, there are a few different ways to do it. Debenedetti engages in performance trolling, a category that might also include the trolling interview (a specialty of Nabokov) and Austria’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, something of a trolling forum: the prize is judged over the course of a three-day event during which participants read previously unpublished work in front of a panel of judges who are often quite mean. The idea is to be memorable, because even if you don’t win, you can get a lot of attention; it has been criticized for being “megalomaniacal,” “a theatrical event,” and an insult to the memory of Bachmann. In 1983, Rainald Goetz cut his forehead with a razor blade and allowed his text to become covered in blood as he read; in 1991, a book called Babyfucker won recognition. Thomas Bernhard never participated, but his career-long performance of hatred deserves mention. Given how seriously he despised, it’s hard to determine if Bernhard should be grouped among literature’s trolls; accusing someone of “trolling” is a deflationary tactic that suggests one need not take anything a troll says seriously, because the troll has refused to come to the table, or he’s shown up to the table naked. Yet a desire to enrage is not unserious, and Bernhard capped his too-short career hating everything about the state of Austria by stipulating in his will that his work, “including letters and scraps of paper,” not be “produced, printed, or even just recited in the Austrian state,” which he didn’t “want to have anything to do with.”

Then there’s the justification for all this—the books themselves. Beyond those that simply pose upsetting ideas—for example, anything by Houellebecq—are those that troll through form. Henry Fielding’s 1741 novel An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (Shamela) is probably not the first instance of literary trolling, but it is an excellent example of how things haven’t really changed. The book satirizes Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded and what we might call its “virtue signaling” by claiming everything in the original book was a lie and Pamela, real name Shamela, is not virtuous at all, and it does so under the sign of a blatantly stupid pun and a pseudonym.

A few hundred years later, the internet poses a challenge to the novel form, so I’ve heard, but it has also enriched it, or could. The internet troll proves a great subject, as in Mary South’s story collection You Will Never Be Forgotten, for the questions he raises about motivation as well as the social dilemmas he can create, and the more traditional literary troll may borrow his online counterpart’s strategies in order to stay fresh. Jarett Kobek trolls throughout his 2016 novel I Hate the Internet, which begins with a “trigger warning” for a long list of topics, from “capitalism” to “historical anachronisms” to “threats of sexual violation,” and contains a wide variety of provocations; my personal favorite is: “Science fiction was a dying genre in which writers with no personal understanding of the human experience posited many theoretical futures of the species.” By 2016, I Hate the Internet’s politics (left, brashly stated), form (fragmented, meta, and a little bit auto), and style (ironic clarity both childish and scientific) were tolerated and sometimes celebrated in the mainstream; the kind of messy and unthinking approach to writing Kobek threatens with his “historical anachronisms,” designed to tease the sort of genteel reader already seen as passé, is now also pretty common. The better troll is that, early in the book, Kobek declares, “Almost all movies are better than books. Most books are quite bad. Like this one. This is a bad novel.” Online, this kind of move is called playing multidimensional chess: when you do something stupid enough to engage your opponent in a set of strategic maneuvers designed to frustrate and confuse them. If the reader thinks this novel is bad, she can’t actually say so: that’s part of the point. Meanwhile anyone who praises it also looks pretty stupid, because it really isn’t good.

Tricking people into exposing their own bad taste is the subject of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, in which an unsuccessful Black author of highly complex texts writes a parody of pandering ghetto novels called Ma Pafology, for which he is taken and compensated seriously. More recently, Nell Zink and Ottessa Moshfegh have given interviews suggesting that they consider at least some of their popular, ostensibly literary works to be total crap they wrote for money. “People are writing commercial, relatively simple novels that read to me like young-adult fiction,” Zink told Bomb. “Because it’s debased and corrupt, it was very important to me that I get in there and take part in the spoils of decadence.” Attempts to take advantage of the system while you criticize it could be seen as a cowardly play to have it both ways; of course, this is infuriating, too.

The antagonistic relationship between writers and critics has produced a rich literature of trolling; critics’ necessary self-regard makes them perfect targets, and authors’ general belief that one should never acknowledge negative reviews of one’s book—out of self-preservation, if not respect for the process—is exactly the kind of challenge trolls gleefully accept. In Mona by Pola Oloixarac, published in English this year, the titular cynic has a stable of “fake Facebook identities—the avatars through which the troll hemisphere of her brain found free expression”—and she uses them to reply to mean comments about her novel. Mona is depressed and feeling insecure, so she hides behind fake accounts in a fairly straightforward way. But personas and fake identities, the foundation of the internet troll’s repertoire, are form and content in fiction, and they can also be used to disorient the reader until he falls into the trap of conflating authors with their characters. Writers at the peak of their powers aren’t afraid to sacrifice their public personas in order to “affront and affront and affront till there was no one on earth unaffronted,” as Philip Roth had it in Sabbath’s Theater; often, they emerge stronger than before. It was only fair that Roth fell prey to Debenedetti’s ventriloquizing—he impersonated himself for his entire career.

Why do they do it? Eliciting this question is part of the madness. It may be just because they can, and what seems to incense the haters is not only the specific affront to taste or good politics but the fact that trolls might survey the scene, find it desperately wanting, and, rather than just accept it, dare to assert themselves in it with intention and control. Self-parody, or erasure per Everett, or extinction per Bernhard, are high-stakes strategies in that project of expression; the result may be funny, but it’s not a joke. As André Gide writes in the afterword to Marshlands, an 1895 novel about a man writing a supremely boring, antisocial novel called Marshlands, “of all the intellectual compulsions in the world, one of the most annoying is the inability of readers to simply accept every sentence as it is given to him. He takes seriously the page on which you are joking, and when you are speaking in earnest he gives a subtle smile and says: ‘I can see that you are joking!’ . . . They do not admit that we are an indefinite mix of laughter and melancholy, like a partly cloudy day.” Receiving a confused response to what one thinks is a clear message—we are an indefinite mix of laughter and melancholy!—brings with it a painful uncertainty that the troll inflicts on his detractors in return. Why don’t you understand me? he asks, as a test. Is it my fault, or yours?

Also, Elena Ferrante is definitely a man.

Lauren Oyler is the author of the novel Fake Accounts (Catapult, 2021). Her last piece for Bookforum was about good people in fiction.