- Joseph Anton's Digital Doppelgänger:Salman Rushdie and the Rhetoric of Self-Fashioning
@SalmanRushdie―who are you? why are you pretending to be me? Release this username. you are a phoney. all followers please note.Salman Rushdie, 15 Sept. 2011, 5:50 p.m. Tweet.
In September 2015, Salman Rushdie sat for an interview on PBS NewsHour to discuss his latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015). He discussed topics such as fiction's relationship to history, the need to preserve cultural artifacts, and the decline of political engagement in the face of atrocity, but the online article accompanying the interview displayed the following headline: "Why Salman Rushdie Is Probably Quitting Twitter" (Carlson and Segal). At first glance, these two versions of Rushdie―the respected novelist and the online celebrity―seem diametrically opposed. However, in light of how digital self-narration is shaping the way readers engage with literary celebrities and their works, this discrepancy invites a renewed discussion of how the performance of contemporary authorship is increasingly strained across genre and medium. Taking seriously the contradictory images of Rushdie's authorship presented here, I attribute this conflict [End Page 204] to how online social media forges a disjunctive rhetorical impact on Rushdie's other acts of narrating the self.
Rushdie's celebrity as a literary figure has been a site of interest for decades, such that his memoir Joseph Anton (2012) comprehensively recounts his consecration as a literary authority within the realm of postcolonial letters, his multiple Booker Award wins for Midnight's Children, and, of course, the global phenomenon of the Satanic Verses Affair.1 Missing is a parallel account of how Rushdie has become a vexing online presence, such that Benjamin Anastas jokingly claimed he decided to leave Twitter in response to Rushdie's tweet about the death of Whitney Houston (Anastas). Ankhi Mukherjee noted in "The Rushdie Canon" that this kind of online interaction in light of the author's other accomplishments "tragic-comically question[s] the ontology of 'the real Salman Rushdie.' Maverick trickster or long-suffering artist? High priest of the freedom of expression or incorrigible attention seeker? Visionary revisionist or troublemongerer?" (10). In light of how these dichotomies implicitly reinforce the opposition between gestures of high art and rogue expression, I contend that Rushdie's malleable brand of authorship is rooted in the problem of narrating contemporary authorship across genre.
Contemporary literature in the age of new media requires a multimodal literacy, drawing from traditional literary genres like fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and the novel to unpack the rhetorical effects of digital genres. On the surface, social media projects an environment of intimacy, confession, and autobiographical reporting; however, this image of realism is ultimately an illusion, similar to how the intimacy of first-person narration in a novel projects feelings of attachment or recognition in some readers.2 According to P. David Marshall, these acts of digital performance and online curation are especially important for celebrity and public figures, whose cultural relevance relies on their ability to balance intimacy and [End Page 205] distance (178). Thus my definition of digital self-fashioning is structured around the premise that online modes of self-narration are predicated on elements of autobiographical reportage and fictionalization, such that readers must toggle between different modes of literary reading when parsing these encounters.
By seriously considering Rushdie's Twitter presence since 2011 alongside Joseph Anton, this essay traces how Rushdie's efforts to craft his literary legacy are troubled by digital forms of self-fashioning. I argue that genres of self-fashioning online no longer operate separately from the traditional machinations of the contemporary literary marketplace. Rather, they have become incorporated into the collaborative and antagonistic realm of the digital literary marketplace, where positive reader response is harnessed for economic and cultural capital and the distance of critique between authors and their readers is collapsed. This model of contemporary authorship has become a problem for figures like Rushdie, who must invent new rhetorical modes to combat the loss of their discursive power in an increasingly democratic online literary marketplace.
The various rhetorical effects of Rushdie's authorship across different media can best...