Illustration by John Kazior

Fiction Detective | On Literary Citation and Search Engine Sleuthing

Sophie Haigney

At the end of Miranda Popkey’s novel Topics of Conversation, there is a short section titled “Works (Not) Cited.”1 She writes, “This manuscript emerged in part from an engagement with and in some cases refers elliptically to the following texts, televisions shows, films, web series, works of art, songs, e-mail newsletters, and podcasts.” The list of these works is roughly four pages long. I read it like a sleuth, trying to piece together the novel I had just finished with these newly suggested influences, many of which I had also read or watched or listened to, and plenty of which I had not.

Sometimes the connections were obvious, the traditional scaffoldings of research, as in “‘Fresno’s Ugly Divide,’ a multi-part series published by The Atlantic and written by Rachel Cassandra, Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, Briana Flin, Alexandria Fuller, Margaret Katcher, Mary Newman, and Reis Thebault.” The novel’s narrator at one point settles in Fresno, and it’s clear how the descriptions in this investigative series filter into Popkey’s fictional world. Case closed. Then there were literary influences that were legible to me — two novels from Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (though why not all three, I wondered?), Anne Carson’s “Glass Essay,” Katherine Angel’s book Unmastered, the TV show Fleabag. I could see the traces of these influences in the text, some formal or thematic overlap. Many of the works (not) cited engage with women’s desire and sexuality and trauma, as Topics of Conversation does. I couldn’t help but read this collection of texts against the backdrop of the social and cultural moment that followed the allegations against Harvey Weinstein in 2017. Indeed, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s New York Times reporting on sexual harassment was a work (not) cited; so was the “Shitty Men in Media” spreadsheet. It was strange to think of this as source material rather than the water we were all swimming in and perhaps are still swimming in. But then what are all these sources other than a kind of water from which a novel is produced?

The connections between the novel and other listed works — The English Patient, the movies Goodfellas and Casino, the first three seasons of The West Wing, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland — were less clear to me, but that might be my fault for reading inattentively. Or perhaps some were a more literal kind of background noise. Popkey includes the song “Push,” written by Mat Serleic and Rob Thomas, performed by Matchbox Twenty — is there something in the incandescent rage of this song that influenced her thinking? Or was she just listening to it while typing?

“Works (Not) Cited” seemed to be at once an intimate window into something like process, a methodological mode of documenting research and reading, and a record of a specific cultural zeitgeist, of what we — or at least some of us — were listening to and watching and consuming somewhere in between 2017 and 2019. I became fascinated by this list, and its conception, its connections with the text, the overlap and the omissions I could imagine. It seemed to me at once overfull and inadequate, which of course it was, because how could it not be? A works (not) cited list in its platonic form would be both systematic and infinite, a kind of web that connects experience and history and literature and podcasts and the walk the writer took down the street at night during a particularly hard period of working through a draft, at which time perhaps she saw a red traffic light.

In law school, I have learned, students are given something called The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, an actually blue book that purports to demonstrate how to cite any kind of legal source. It is a striking document for its technicality and its confidence, its presentation of a world that might be explicable through a series of correctly ordered citations that fall into categories like “The Internet” and “Services” and “Foreign Materials.” The entire legal universe appears, in this telling, to be constructed as a long conversation between the past and the present, all written in the correct typeface, although, The Bluebook warns us, “choice of font may vary (e.g., Times New Roman, Courier, etc.).”2 Other disciplines have their blue books, though perhaps none quite so authoritative. No such document could or should exist for writers of fiction, though I find it interesting to fantasize about a universe in which every act of allusion and appropriation is mapped, so that the novel itself becomes exposed as a kind of network. For this reason, perhaps, search engines tantalize me, seeming to promise that such a thing is within reach. 

 

Information has never been more accessible or less reliable. So we are advised to check our sources carefully. There is so much talk of “fake news” that the term has entirely lost meaning. At school, we are taught to avoid Wikipedia, or at the very least never admit to using it in our citations. And most sources on the world wide web have been built without the standardized attributions that scaffold other forms of knowledge-dissemination; they are therefore seen as degraded, even as they illuminate. 

But it was only relatively recently that academic disciplines designed rigid systems for categorizing and organizing source material at all. Historian Anthony Grafton traces the genealogy of the footnote in an excellent book, which reveals many origin stories.3 It turns out that footnotes are related to early systems of marginalia, glosses, and annotation that existed in theology, early histories, and Medieval law. The footnote in something like its modern form seems to have been devised in the seventeenth century, and has proliferated since, with increasing standardization and rigor. And yet, Grafton writes, “appearances of uniformity are deceptive. To the inexpert, footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed; to the connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity.”

The purpose of citation, broadly speaking, is to give others credit, but it does much more than that. Famously, citations can be the sources of great enmity — a quick dismissal of a rival argument with a “cf.” They can serve a social purpose, as sly thank-yous to friends and mentors. They can perform a kind of box-checking of requisite major works. (As Grafton points out, the omission of these works can itself be a statement.) Attribution, significantly, allows others to check your work, or at least gives the illusion that they could, following a web of sources back to the origins. But perhaps above all else, citations serve a dual purpose that seems at once complementary and conflicting; they acknowledge a debt to a larger body of work while also conferring on oneself a certain kind of erudition and expertise. 

Like many systems that appear meticulous, the writing of citations is a subjective art. Never more so than in fiction, where citation is an entirely other kind of animal, not required or even expected, except in the “acknowledgments” page, which is often a who’s who of the publishing world. (Also a good way to find out who is married to whom.) But in the last two decades, bibliographies and sources cited pages have increasingly cropped up in the backs of novels. Kate Elizabeth Russell, author of the novel My Dark Vanessa, published a reading list on her website that she describes as an “inevitably incomplete, continuously curated list; this collection of texts is simply a reflection of my influences and interests over the years I spent writing My Dark Vanessa.4 (In a twist, one of the authors on this list intimated that Russell had plagiarized her memoir, forcing Russell to come forward to say that My Dark Vanessa drew from her own experiences as a teenager.)5 At the end of The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner included a short essay on the images, films, and research that made their way into the novel, starting with a photo of a woman with tape over her mouth that “spark[ed] inspiration” for the book and that would end up on its cover.6 Norman Mailer’s 2007 novel The Castle in the Forest includes 126 alphabetized citations, in MLA style, of authors and titles whose books “enriched” the fiction. Those with particular historical or thematic relevance are noted with an asterisk. 7

“It’s terribly off-putting,” James Wood said of this fad in 2006. It would be very odd if Thomas Hardy had put at the end of all his books, ‘I’m thankful to the Dorset County Chronicle for dialect books from the 18th century.’ We expect authors to do that work, and I don’t see why we should praise them for that work.”8 Wood has a point, or had one — at their worst, citations in fiction are annoying, driven by an author’s anxiety to show off what he has read, to check the right boxes. 

Perhaps poking some fun at the trend toward citation, Michel Houellebecq writes, in the acknowledgments page for The Map and the Territory, “I don’t normally thank anyone, because I gather little information, very little in comparison with, say, an American author.”9 He thanks some police officers who helped him with research. And, as the consummate contrarian, Houellebecq thumbs his nose at the sanctimonious Americans and cites the uncitable: “I also thank Wikipedia (http://fr.wikipedia.org) and its contributors, whose entries I have occasionally used as a source of inspiration, notably those concerning the housefly, the town of Beauvais, and Frédéric Nihous.” Then, he inserts the requisite disclaimer: he’s modified facts at will; after all, this is fiction.

 

The writer can thank whomever he wants, and list 126 citations in perfect MLA, but then he hands the book to a reader who presumably, like me, has an internet connection. Near the beginning of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, the narrator eats a plate of baby octopus. They are not just any octopus, but those on the menu at an expensive restaurant in Chelsea, which has them flown in from Portugal and massaged 500 times, “gently but relentlessly with unrefined salt until their biological functions cease.”10 The meal is celebratory: his agent has told him that he is likely to get a big advance on a forthcoming novel. As he eats the tender, now-dead invertebrae and ponders his future wealth (probably $270,000 after taxes and his agent’s cut), he compares his novel’s advance to the prices of other commodities; it is equivalent, apparently, to four Hummer SUVs, twenty-five years of a Mexican migrant’s labor, two first editions of Leaves of Grass. He swallows the octopus.

10:04 is often cited, along with works by Karl Ove Knausgård and Sheila Heti, as an exemplar of a boom in what is called “autofiction,” which I tend to think of as a marketing category more than anything else. Lerner’s narrator is also named Ben, and he shares a good deal of biographical information with Ben Lerner (college in Providence, a fellowship in Spain, a childhood in Kansas). Okay, fine. But if you want to cut to the chase, Google “ben lerner octopus” and you will find an interview in which Lerner says he really did eat an expensive octopus at a Japanese restaurant. (He feels guilty, but it was delicious.) A little more googling and you can locate an actual restaurant called 15 East where the octopus is flown from Spain (not Portugal) and massaged 500 times before being served. (This last piece of information is courtesy of a New York Times restaurant review by Frank Bruni titled “Does the Squid Get a Mani-Pedi?”)11

You might accuse me of being a bad reader, a haphazard detective, overly nosy, addicted to the internet. All true. But the oft-discussed interchange between art and life is less interesting to me than the actual act of googling, and how it has become built into the act of reading. The whole landscape of citation and appropriation from life and texts has an additional dimension; every text has an infinite intertextual relationship with the internet, whether or not authors know or like or acknowledge it. This is true especially when readers assume that authors and narrators are one and the same. The novelist Jessica Winter wrote about this recently, including the experience of a stranger walking up to her at a party, and assuming that, like the protagonist of her first novel, she had undergone I.V.F. treatment. “I could not begrudge the assumption she had made, even if I was disoriented by the way she had expressed it,” Winter writes. “I, too, assume that much of the contemporary fiction I read is autobiographical.”12

Lerner is, I think, self-consciously engaged with this development in the wide accessibility of authors’ personal information. “It was an act made to be googled,” Lerner writes in a Harper’s essay on the Salvage Art Institute, referring to an instance of performance-art-vandalism; we might say his novel too was “made to be googled,” both for its intertextual and personal sources.13 Throughout his work, Lerner recycles his anecdotes and figures of speech. His narrators’ father in all three of his novels had a first marriage to a woman named Rachel. His narrator’s parents in The Topeka School visit the same Bastien-Lepage painting that Ben visits in 10:04. Lines and excerpts of his poetry are absorbed into his prose. The repeated, self-referential entanglements are easiest to decode online. Scholar Marta Figlerowicz writes, “In a way that implicitly depends on the wide online accessibility of his personal information, Lerner’s novels thus create the impression that little separates the limited fictional worlds they represent from an expansive real world that provides seemingly valid and infinite additional contexts for everything we read about in them.”14

It is really up to us, then, to delimit these seemingly valid additional contexts. Even as the reader is nudged toward clearly delineated sources of influence and information, she might go in another direction entirely, looking for the author’s wedding website on The Knot, or perusing Wikipedia for his parents’ professions. The author may not think these contexts are valid; “Don’t google my life,” I like to imagine a curmudgeonly writer saying, in the tone of that memeified photo of the garage graffiti that reads, “Don’t email my wife!!!” But then this mining for personal experience is really not so different from what we do to authors’ letters in university libraries after they are dead — it’s just more immediate. And all this googling might lead elsewhere anyway.

Take the last line of Lerner’s epigraph — “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different” — which appears as a kind of refrain throughout 10:04. In the opening, it is attributed to a Hasidic story. In a short afterward — his own less exhaustive “Works (Not) Cited” — Lerner notes that he encountered this line in Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community, but that it is “typically attributed to Walter Benjamin.” Benjamin, it turns out, heard it from Gershom Scholem and repeated it to Ernst Bloch, who retold it in Traces in slightly altered form.15 Lerner has also quoted this line before, in that 2012 Harper’s essay about the Salvage Art Institute, which he repurposes in the novel too, “just a little different,” as the Institute for Totaled Art. I found all of this out using Google, of course.

 

In 1919, T.S. Eliot wrote the essay “Tradition and The Individual Talent.” Eliot conceived of “tradition” not as a static body of knowledge that came before but as something vibrant, which could pulsate and flow through the contemporary poet’s work.16 He describes the “feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” Poetry, in ideal form, might then be “a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.” In Eliot’s imagination, accessing this tradition would entail a gargantuan task of reading and research. But what if the living whole of all the other poetry that has ever been written were simply out there, accessible to read and search at will?

The Waste Land is dense with allusions and fragments culled from sources ranging from nursery rhymes to Ecclesiastes. Eliot published a later edition of the poem with “Notes,” which is its own kind of journey, one I undertook halfheartedly in the second half of a survey course called “Major English Poets,” the kind of class built around an idea of tradition that, like Eliot’s, was extremely limited and specific and honestly pretty strange. These notes charted allusion, even when it was untraceable — of the lines, “O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter/ And on her daughter/ They wash their feet in soda water,” Eliot writes, ”I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines are taken: it was reported to me from Sydney, Australia.” I am as intrigued by this vagueness, by this acknowledgment of not knowing, as I am by the authoritative references to specific lines in Paradise Lost. Eliot later soured on this whole annotation exercise, claiming that they only came to be because the poem was too short to be printed as a book. He described his “Notes” as a “remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view to-day.” He lamented that the annotations could “never be unstuck” from the poem, once attached. But neither can the poem anymore be unstuck from the internet, where I can google as I see fit, finding my way even to the origins of the mysterious ballad from Sydney, Australia.17

W.G. Sebald, whose 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn Popkey not-cites, also weaves unmarked allusion and quotation into his fictions, braiding photographs and histories and faked histories and byzantine literary references into his worlds. Is it embarrassing to admit googling constantly while I read — “sir thomas browne,” “empress tzu hsi,” “silk production in England” “when did wg sebald die,” “was wg sebald married.” His references are made more opaque by the fact that some are invented; as one critic writes, Sebald himself adopted a “posture of indifference” to whether readers understood his sources. Certainly I miss most of it. Yet I am not indifferent: I persist, trying to decode, in a mode of reading that feels the opposite of close, boomeranging me into other contexts, valid or invalid though they may be.

When I google writers — when I googled Popkey, for instance — I find journalistic articles about them and their work. I got to learn things about Popkey, like who her best friend is, and the city where she lives, which is not so far from where I used to live. These facts create contexts for reading her work that are entirely apart from Works (Not) Cited, that may not be the influences she names, but that influence the way we (I) read her. The writer is a person, and so is the reader, and so we find ourselves in dialogue not only through the words on the page, but through these additional lenses. 

I wonder what it might have been like to read Sebald — or, for that matter, Eliot or Popkey — without a search engine on hand; would it have been better to encounter their texts as hermetically sealed objects, or would a shallower understanding of source material make for a comparatively impoverished reading experience? Without access to Google, would I be more like the walking compendiums of knowledge that I imagine twentieth-century readers were, that Eliot and Sebald probably were, able to pluck quotations from my mind at will, all of literary history and tradition flowing through me? Or would I just spend a lot of time looking things up in the library? In any case, I’ll never know what it would be like to read Sebald or anyone else without the internet, having learned to read about a year after Google was incorporated, having for better or worse (and probably worse) a sense of my knowledge as constantly expanding, infinite, coming from nowhere and everywhere.

 

Journalism, of which I am a practitioner, has for all intents and purposes no practices of citation at all. There is, online, the hyperlink, which has become relatively standard as a way of crediting someone who reported something first, usually in local news, which is then ripped off by national news, which everybody reads instead. There is also the quote, a bizarre artifact from a single conversation, often with an “expert” who is caught in the act, so to speak, of expressing a point of view and then frozen strangely verbatim in the midst of an article.18 But despite the profession’s obsession with “facts,” for the larger assumptions, for conventional ideas, for critical analysis and work, there is very little in the way of attribution — not even a page for works (not) cited.19

The lack of citation in journalism justifiably annoys a lot of people, especially scholars, who find their work absorbed into widely read 800-word opinion pieces with no referents. An English professor recently complained that a long magazine piece on Thoreau had failed to engage with decades of scholarship while irrelevantly citing Robert Louis Stevenson. This generated some discussion online, by which I mean on my algorithmically curated Twitter feed, which continued to serve the discussion back to me. Someone else made the point that maybe journalists and scholars are just having different conversations, and the fact that scholarship hasn’t permeated into the mainstream is more an indictment of academia than anything else.20 >18 As someone whose university library access has been terminated, who is therefore largely looking in through foggy windows at “scholarly conversation,” I sympathize to some extent with that point of view. Still, I tend to agree more with the first commentator, whose gripes with the magazine article point toward what I see as one of journalism’s most enduring myths: that each article is a blank slate, something genuinely new. (We call it “news,” after all).

Journalists often believe they can generate fresh knowledge out of the ether. But this is an obvious fallacy; even in the world of “breaking news,” which is supposed to be more or less a transcript of a real-world events, the journalist is drawing on all kinds of sources: from the police, from observations at the scene, from their own experience of sitting by the phone in a newsroom that has made a semi-arbitrary decision to cover a certain event. Or the author of that article on Thoreau, who might have had a conversation with someone about Thoreau that set her down the path of wondering about him, and then reading whatever arbitrary collection of things she chose to read. These articles are thrown up online, where they will live — new sources glowing with potential, citable both in academic papers and on Wikipedia, proliferating through the anthills of knowledge.

 

Here is how I wrote this essay: I made an academic bibliography about a year ago, and I found the exercise extremely odd, this attempt to decide what I had read that influenced me and didn’t. I made a note in a TextEdit document called “ideas” that read — “essay on bibliographies?” My editor asked me if I had any ideas and I consulted this document and told her about my half-formed idea. I googled “history of the bibliography” and talked on the phone with my editor. I did some searches on JSTOR and read some articles. I thought about Topics of Conversation, and the Works (Not) Cited page. I picked up 10:04 again, and then Leaving the Atocha Station and googled Ben Lerner and read his Wikipedia page and looked at some pictures of him. I read various critical works about Lerner, and went down a rabbit hole of his poetry that didn’t lead anywhere. I came across the paper by Figlerowicz and asked a friend with university library access to pull it for me. I read Jonathan Lethem’s “Ecstasy of Influence.” I tweeted, to access the strange hive of my proximate internet, which has often led me to helpful sources but in this case did not. One friend I know from the internet recommended a book on the history of the footnote. At some point, I sat next to another friend, who is in law school and happened to have the Blue Book with him, post-it-noted. I listened, ad nauseum, to the song “Sugar Magnolia.”

I sat at my computer and thought, and got distracted, and then I googled, and then I ordered the book on the history of the footnote, and I read and wrote and googled and tweeted. I talked on the phone with my editor and her co-editor again. I messaged some smarter and better-read writer friends with whom I share a Slack, asking for their thoughts, and one of them mentioned Sebald. So I thought about Sebald, which made me think about a time when I was incongruously reading The Rings of Saturn on a beach vacation. I searched my old emails to see what I had been writing to someone at the time — they were not very useful. I’d described the book as occasionally gripping but sometimes “a drag,” which is funny because I’d mostly read it to impress this person, but also because I later came to love Sebald, too late for it to be impressive to this person (boy), whom as it happens I once wrote into a short story about two people sending each other a lot of emails, except things didn’t turn out in the story the way they turned out in life — still badly, just differently. 

I read a paper about intertextuality in Sebald. I tweeted again and no one even liked it. I googled some more: “what is the point of citation” and “bibliographies in fiction.” I read the recommended book The Footnote: A History, which was lively, made me laugh out loud, and taught me a lot, not all of it relevant. I chased some of the book’s footnotes down to various other articles that I skimmed. I missed a million things I “should have read,” and felt bad, as I always do, about everything I don’t know and will never know. I did some writing, and meanwhile other things happened in my life that may have been more relevant than anything I have described above. The whole time I remained plugged in, connected to a web that was vibrating, distracting, and feeding into my writing and everything else.

Sophie Haigney is a journalist and critic who often writes about visual art and technology.

Copyright © The Drift 2021