October 4, 2013

The meta-narrative of Dave Eggers’ and Kate Losse’s books about female experience at powerful internet companies

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Kate Losse worked for a powerful internet company, and so does the protagonist in Dave Eggers’ new novel.

Last weekend, an excerpt from Dave Eggers’ new novel The Circle, about a young woman who goes to work at a powerful internet company, was published in the New York Times Magazine—the first piece of fiction ever to appear on the cover. Accompanying the excerpt was a “Behind the Cover Story” Q&A with Eggers, in which he is asked about his inspiration for the novel and if did any research during the writing process. He says:

I started taking notes for the book about three years ago, but it wasn’t prompted by any one event. It was more of a slow accumulation of material that finally coalesced when Mae Holland emerged as the protagonist. Once I could see the world of the Circle through her eyes, it began to come together… I’ve never visited any tech campus, and I don’t know anything in particular about how any given company is run…There were a handful of times when I looked something up, or asked the opinion of someone more tech-savvy than I am, but for the most part this was just a process of pure speculative fiction.

He explains his decision to “see the world of the Circle through her eyes” while remaining removed from anyone’s actual experience in another interview in McSweeneys about The Circle:

There was a point where I thought I should tour some of the tech campuses, but because I wanted this book to be free of any real-life corollaries, I decided not to. I’ve never been to Google, or Facebook or Twitter or any other internet campus, actually. I didn’t interview any employees of any of these companies, either, and didn’t read any books about them. I didn’t want to be influenced by any one extant company or any actual people.

One such actual person who lived and experienced the internet company culture that Eggers’ “Circle” may represent is Kate Losse, whose book The Boy Kings—a memoir of her experience working for Facebook —was published by Free Press last year (I worked on the book as a Marketing Manager there).  Losse’s book is significant in that she was the 51st employee to work for company, and she chronicles the initial years of Facebook’s rapid rise—from when she was hired in 2005 to work in the customer experience department, to her promotion to the real inner circle of Facebook as Mark Zuckerberg’s personal writer.

But Dave Eggers has never heard of her book, and neither has Wall Street Journal critic Dennis K. Bermann, who compares it to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in his review of The Circle. He notes that:

 “Readers will have to wait until Oct. 8 to buy the novel. The more relevant question is why they have had to wait so long for a work that fully challenges the orthodoxies of our information era.”

As the Atlantic Wire points out, “Losse could argue that that book, one that ‘fully challenges the orthodoxies’ of the present, is already available and that she wrote it.”

This type of fawning treatment of Eggers’ new novel and the parallel subject matter between the two books make it understandable that Losse would feel a sense of alarm when reading about fictional account of something she experienced first-hand. In a post on Medium and in an analysis of an excerpt from her book, she notes places where she feels Eggers could have been informed by The Boy Kings.

Having read the New York Times excerpt and Losse’s book, I too noticed the similarities.  If Eggers didn’t do any research, how would he know to include specific realities that show up in both Losse’s book and the excerpt—like that most of the first women hired at Facebook were trained to be customer service representatives answering endless emails from users, or that employees were instructed to memorize complicated passwords and never write them down, or the social pressure to bond with co-workers at Friday meetings. I certainly didn’t know any of those details about Facebook before reading Losse’s book.

But beyond the comparisons outlined in Katie J.M. Baker’s Jezebel piece, what’s even more interesting is the way that Eggers writes Mae and Losse writes herself. In The Boy Kings, Losse’s main character is a smart, confident protagonist who becomes critical of the way social media at Facebook reflects a highly male-constructed, visual, and metric world where liking and ranking becomes expressions of our humanity. Meanwhile Eggers’ Mae is a “eager-beaver newbie, driven by insecurity and a need to ingratiate, and she is keen to help her hubris-ridden bosses implement their cultural revolution,” as Michiko Kakutani writes in her New York Times review of The Circle.

As Nitasha Tiku, who has read both books, notes in a Gawker piece,

Eggers also seems unconcerned with the topics that fascinate Losse: the privileging of the hacker/engineer over all “non-technical” employees, the frat-like cliques perpetuated by hiring white males from a certain background. We don’t see a den of programmers until the end of the book. The Circle also only obliquely acknowledges social media’s voyeuristic appetite for women.

Losse’s The Boy Kings is about what it was like to work and ask critical questions in a world where the female perspective is too often ignored. So when her book—which is essential reading for all women who use the internet and social networks—is overlooked while a man’s fictional account is elevated, the former only becomes more poignant.

 

Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.

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