In a few years, there will probably be many books coming out about Internet addiction and the way it warps our senses of self-validation and changes the ways we seek fulfillment. But the authors will lag behind Natasha Stagg, who has already written that book, in a spare and lasting way.
Stagg’s first novel, Surveys, published by Semiotext(e) in 2016, follows the rise of aimless, self-destructive Colleen into an ambiguous sort of online fame that leads to the kind of IRL fame now so familiar: Appearances at clubs and sponsored parties, a media-adjacent boyfriend met online, living out of hotels, and being miserable but putting on a glittery smile for the fans and cameras.
The particulars of Colleen’s relationship—the outlet through which she attained fame, even the online conversations and content—are excluded, which allows us to fill in the blanks with whatever we imagine social media and Internet fame to be. It also leaves space to consider the emotional and psychological impact of creating a faux persona that is better liked than your real one, and of the scrambling for more likes in order to keep that validation constant.
Delivered in careful prose, particularly while describing the sad manic spiral of a wild lost girl, Surveys manages to be both dramatic and even-toned, rising above the vapid, shallow nature of its subject. In May, I spoke with Natasha about obsession with celebrity, being around before social media and watching its rise, and how she managed to write about something so shiftless.
Rumpus: Where did the idea for Surveys come from?
Stagg: I’ve always unintentionally been obsessed with famous people, but mostly peripheral famous people. The kind of celebrity whose life is exposed and raw, a D-list celebrity, never invited to award shows.
What I didn’t understand when I started was this is the type of person that became a social media star. When I started writing this book, in 2010, I wasn’t aware of social media at all. It was around, but I was oblivious to it.
Once I was really trying to figure out who this character was, I became more aware of it. Those types of people are proliferating now more than ever, so this is accidentally very topical. But it started out feeling really niche.
Rumpus: Did you, like Colleen, do surveys in a mall?
Stagg: That part of the book is very autobiographical. In Arizona, I applied to every single store at the mall. I didn’t necessarily want to work at the mall, but I got hired to do surveys. The job was to hand out surveys to people walking around the mall, and get them to lie about the responses. That was the entire job. Getting people to do paid surveys about products and commercials and completely fake the answers for every single one—because the company was owned by a large corporation that would answer to clients.
It was this really funny thing that I totally fell into. While I was there, I felt like it would never affect anything else in my life. But once I left, I realized that’s actually where people get information on products. When people talk about market research, that’s what they’re talking about.
Rumpus: Truth is stranger than fiction.
Stagg: The place attracted weirdos because it paid $2 to do kind of nothing. Who’s going to do that? It wasn’t even homeless people; it was people who like figured out this thing that was kind of a scam and they were okay with it. It was lonely people. No one really wants to come to the mall for $2 because it probably cost $2 in gas to get there.
Rumpus: Surveys is quite a lampoon of the social media generation. Did you start out wanting to write a satire?
Stagg: I don’t think so. I would never lampoon any of those stars that had nervous breakdowns because it’s something I admire about them—to be able to handle it and show it in a glamorous way. There’s this staying true to a kind of recklessness that’s inherent to anybody who wants to be famous. Because it is reckless to want to be famous. People must know that now more than ever. The tragic star is always a thing.
The most iconic celebrity probably ever is Marilyn Monroe, and she died tragically. Everyone who wants to be just like her is fucked up for saying that because she died really young. Almost every ditzy star, when you ask who their idol is, says Marilyn Monroe. Like, are you saying you want to die? I think it’s really honest of the ones who say, Yeah, I do. I want to die young. Like Lana Del Rey—and she had to apologize. But that’s the most honest type of celebrity.
Rumpus: Colleen’s own fame is very ambiguous. With social media, some writers go for screen grabs or specifics of this and that. Why did you leave it vague?
Stagg: It was definitely a conscious decision to not include a social media outlet or even conversations. A lot of the dialogue between Colleen and Jim is left out. I wrote a lot more than what’s there.
I was pretty confident when I started [writing] and I became less and less confident. I’d never done anything this long, so I’d go back and read it a year later and be like, I can’t believe I thought this was good. It became about more editing it to the very essence of this personality. I don’t think any of the characters are super developed because that’s part of the ambiguity of it. You can fill them in with whoever you’re obsessed with right now. And that’s gonna change over time; it’s very different for everybody. I hope that the person you imagine is the person you’re maybe obsessed with but not gonna talk about very often. It’s like your secret obsession.
Rumpus: I could tell it was written in the early blog era, but if you didn’t work in magazines at that time maybe you won’t know that. Which allows you to fill their fame in with any social media outlet you want.
Stagg: It would be dated by now, if I had specified. Instagram didn’t exist when I started writing this book, which is crazy. I was not aware of YouTube celebrities. I was aware of people that were sort of peripheral to my social circle that were getting big, and that’s who I had in my mind when I was writing this.
The departure was what I was focusing on. It became obsessive. Because it was the first glimpse of what would happen next, culturally. We were on the cusp—the millennial cuspers, or whatever you want to call us. We saw that huge shift. The way I react to my friends as we become different, or the way I react to people in general as we become different.
Rumpus: Similar to how we’re losing our attention spans.
Stagg: I remember being in college and meeting random people, and finding out something really cool about them—whether they were friends with a celebrity or the daughter of a celebrity. I would constantly think about it; there’s a center of celebrity-ness that I’m this close to but am never going to actually be inside of. And meeting more and more people that were closer to it made you feel ever more outside of it. Like there was a solid wall between you and them. I think that has been completely teased out even more because of social media. I have these memories of it as being a physical interaction that made me feel that jealousy, and now I’m trying to relate to people who have had that on their phone, whenever, all the time. That’s a really sad sort of pressure to have, constantly and on your own.
Rumpus: There is that seeking-desire-validation feedback loop that goes around in Surveys. Which is so how our relationships feel now. By leaving out the specifics you allow us to really focus on the emotional impact of wanting that validation and constantly going after it.
Stagg: When I started writing the book, I had in mind this parallel I wanted to set up between falling for someone, falling in love, having a crush, and this other obsession with a sordid sort of society. You know it’s corrupt and not worth it but you want it anyway. And that’s sort of the same feeling, to me, as having a crush on somebody who might not be perfect for you. Having a crush feels like nothing else matters. I wanted to explain that parallel. As I was writing, I found that it was really more about jealousy than about seeking approval.
All this was something that was on everyone’s mind, and I hadn’t really seen it written about before. The decision to leave out specifics was intentional for that reason, too. I really didn’t want to alienate anybody. Because this is such a universal feeling and that was kind of the whole point of the book. It’s a crushing existence when you have all these things you’ve set up around you that are unreachable.
Rumpus: Worse even when they’re attached to a self that’s constructed. Half of the things people think about her aren’t true. There’s no Instagram in this book, but that’s so much of the Instagram generation. You’re envying complete constructs.
Stagg: It’s dystopian. It’s what we learned about as kids, this replacing religion. Be careful; don’t be too materialistic. And now that’s your only option. Materialism is the only way you’ll get a job.
Rumpus: There’s a line in this book: “What if we had to live in a way TV never described?” It’s such a fantastic way to think about the dissatisfaction all of us experience. We try to find a way to project that we’re actually not dissatisfied, because ultimately what we thought existed doesn’t exist.
Stagg: I feel bad for kids! I didn’t when I was writing the book as much as I do now. Just talking about [social media] more makes me realize I’m not as informed about it as I thought. I don’t really understand the depths of the jealousy or not-jealousy. Maybe it’s worse for me because I saw it on either side of things, you know? From what I can tell, when I talk to people who are younger than me, they have this more natural way about speaking about social media, because they’re that young. It surprises me. I keep thinking I know everything about it and I actually don’t. The jealousy thing stands out to me. The way people don’t have the option to ignore something [on social media] that pissed them off. That part is shocking to me sometimes.
Rumpus: Because we remember when it didn’t exist.
Stagg: Right. And personally, I can ignore a lot because of that.
Rumpus: Perhaps we don’t think it matters as much as they do. Even if we do think it matters a lot, we try to remember that it doesn’t matter.
Stagg: It matters to them because it’s their world. It’s a setup that’s different from TV or anything that’s ever existed because huge corporations take it more seriously than anything else. They’re mining youth for their ideas and their agility and their presence. So having that kind of pressure from big media is not something we ever had. Nobody from TV corporations was trying to understand us as viewers. Ever. We were not the target; the baby boomers were. We were the least important generation for media.
Rumpus: It affects communication. When Colleen writes those emails to Lucinda, it’s the realest she actually gets in the book. She writes these letters of, This is how all women feel, to try to relate to Lucinda. But you don’t really show social media interactions.
Stagg: If you write an email, it stills feels less contrived than writing a Facebook message or status. It feels more like a real letter. So I wanted her to try, for once, to be completely real outside of her created personae. And she couldn’t do it, because part of the jealousy and their whole relationship is based on that. If her persona was the thing that was jealous, her real self couldn’t ignore it. Maybe that’s reading too much into it. But that’s also the reason why you can’t show social media interactions on paper. There are too many layers to each thing.
Rumpus: The subtext goes far too deep.
Stagg: Even if you screen grab something, you would have to have Post-It notes all over to describe who these people are, what they mean to each other, their entire histories online and offline. That’s what meme culture is getting at. Flattening it in a funny way to be like, you don’t get this, so here’s an inside joke for you to look at. It’s going to be gone tomorrow and it won’t be funny. It’s deeper. I like that, as a concept.
Rumpus: When you’re talking about Colleen and Jim’s relationship, Colleen doesn’t give any particulars on how it came together. She says, “Anyway, you can look it up.” Which was great. If you can’t follow how that’s like real life, you’re not going to get this book.
Stagg: You should fill in the blanks however you want.
Rumpus: But a certain age, a person might not be able to fill them in at all.
Stagg: My dad tries to, which is really cute. He’s seventy-six and has never been on social media, but he loves to talk to me about it because it’s a fantasy in his life. He’s read my book and is like, “I think I get it. I’ve heard of the Kardashians, is that what you’re talking about?” And I’m like, “Sure, it could be that.” Actually definitely not, but it could be for you, if you want it to be! I was just really happy he tried, because then I felt it worked. People are trying it themselves.
Rumpus: I loved the ending. The whole thing is a loop, in the same way social media feedback is a loop—Colleen continuing on with this life, and not learning from what happened. Did you plan that from the beginning?
Stagg: No. I really didn’t know how it was going to end. A lot of writers do; I don’t know how. I’ve been talking to more writers lately, and they all have different ways of doing it. I just keep writing and trying. I wrote this in non-chronological order and just pieced it together eventually. But I wrote the end at the end, and I knew I couldn’t end in a nice way. This person would never just stop.
I think it’s really funny whenever I see a celebrity say, I quit social media, but announce that on social media. It’s like, your social media is your press! You’ll never not have social media, or Page Six or whatever, for the rest of your life. And they always go back! No one has ever stayed away once they say they’re quitting. One of the Kardashians quit and got on, like, a week later. When I read about that, it wasn’t like, “She’s such an idiot for doing this,” it was like, “Well, she gave it a shot, a little break.” I think people in general can’t go off the grid, but celebrities definitely can’t. Then they’re giving up control.
Rumpus: Do you have plans for another book?
Stagg: Kind of. I’m trying to compile essays, which I’ve been writing for a few years for a bunch of different places. I think I want to do something with them. I’m just always working. I don’t know how anyone does anything unless they’re in grad school. That’s the only time I did any serious writing ever.
Author photograph © Gregory Aune.