Late in the first episode of the Showtime series Californication--the only show on television that actually glorifies the writing life, if for all the wrong reasons-- the writing-blocked novelist played by David Duchovny is having a blow-out fight with his ex, played by Natasha McElhone. Toward the end of their argument, McElhone hits a low blow: "Imagine my disappointment," she says, "when you turned out to be the biggest cliché of all--sitting there Googling yourself." Now, it's a bit hard to believe that Googling oneself is the "biggest cliché of all," "Googling" only having found its way into the lexicon in the past seven or eight years, and doing it to oneself only having been fruitful for somewhat shorter a time.
But I must confess: I Google myself. A lot. When I was applying for teaching jobs last fall, I Googled myself as many as five or six times a week. I'd like to excuse myself, chalk it up to prudence, to concern over what future employers might think if they found some awful link to someone with my name, but that wasn't why I did it- and do it still. I did it because wanted to see what came up. I wanted to see how it changed. I wanted, mainly, to be able to walk into a bookstore and see my name on a book's spine (which, incidentally, Duchovny's character does in the first twenty minutes of that same episode of Californication), and with my first novel not yet on shelves (no publisher has yet, you know, bought it) the self-Google was the next best thing. Here are the dirty facts of my Google: it runs about ten pages deep before it starts to turn up more Paul Torday (author of Salmon Fishing the in Yemen, I now know) than Daniel. It includes one somewhat embarrassing video of me playing mandolin in a bluegrass band. Its order changes day to day, but it tends to grow rather than recede.
Which is the opposite of what's happening to Sam, the main character in the story "His Google," from Keith Gessen's terrific story collection All the Sad Young Literary Men, to the best of my knowledge the first major contribution to Google-lit. Here's how that story starts: "His Google was shrinking. It was part of a larger failing, maybe, certainly, but to see it quantified... to see it numerically confirmed... it was cruel." Sam views his whole personality in terms of his shrinking Google: "He knew people with no Google at all, zero hits, and he even knew people like Mark, Mark Grossman, who had never published, who kept silent, but whose names drew up the hits of other Mark Grossmans, the urologist Grossman and the banker Grossman and Grossmans who had completed ten-kilometer runs."
In Gessen's book, Sam comes to learn something about the narcissism of his self-Googling from an incident involving a girl he dates. But in reality, there's something telling in Sam's initial self-Googling concerns. For one thing, Gessen takes as a given the fact that Sam self-Googles; he never even has to mention the onanism of it all. It's just a thing to do, a way both to procrastinate and to self-evaluate. For the non-Updike, non-Oates, non-Roths we all are early in our writing lives, we don't get to walk into bookstores for a sense of our work. Now maybe we shouldn't have such desires to begin with. Maybe we should eschew self-quantifying like Chekhov would most surely ask us to ("since none of us can escape death," Chekhov once wrote his brother, "I attach no serious importance to my works, my name, or my literary errors. I advise you do the same"), like Tolstoy would want, like most self-effacing novelists and short story writers would expect. But it's hard to know what their self-assessment was like before all this self-Googling. For those of us who sometimes are duped by something less than our better angels, often subject to our demons, we might need a little kick. A little bookshelf gazing. A little self-Googling now and again.
This was originally posted at The Kenyon Review Online.