Books are finally starting to come to grips with the rise of social media and how that means people live in multiple worlds with multiple personalities. There’s the physical realm, where we eat and sleep and have sex and study and drink coffee in cafes and read book reviews on our phones. But then there are all the different social medias, which everyone uses in their own idiosyncratic way on top of them all having slightly different purposes. Just in case someone reading this doesn’t know: Facebook has replaced the Christmas card as the lazy way of keeping in touch with people you don’t really like; Snapchat is for kids, or anything you don’t want to remember forever; Instagram is for gloating; TikTok is the craze for “The Harlem Shake” except with every audio recording you can imagine, used in every imaginable context, spiraling into every imaginable rabbit hole; and Twitter is for writing down your every passing thought for the world to interact with. And a subtweet is the kind of catty comment you make under your breath or out of someone’s earshot, except when done in text form must be crafted in such a way as to enable plausible deniability while being utterly transparent to anyone who knows what’s going on.
Vivek Shraya’s novel spends 137 pages building up to the subtweet, and almost every single one of those words is absolutely essential to feeling the true impact of its eight words and one hashtag. The book is set in Toronto, almost entirely in the struggling artist community, and almost entirely around the relationship between two singers with a different outlook on social media. Neela has been a gigging singer-songwriter for a long time; she has a solid local reputation, but she is jaded with the way white Canadian audiences treat her, so focuses on her songwriting and performing instead of nurturing an offstage relationship with her audience. Rukmini is a bored freelance journalist, a few years younger than Neela, who throws all her energies into her YouTube channel of song covers, performed on her laptop in her bedroom. When it comes to social media, they are opposites. Neela is not an intuitive tweeter and relies on her music to carry her message, while Rukmini is terrific on the socials and a skilled performer, but not a songwriter. The women meet on a panel about race and music; Neela is the compere while Rukmini is one of the speakers, and they impress each other, but for the wrong reasons. Shortly afterwards Rukmini covers one of Neela’s songs on her channel, it immediately goes viral, and the huge uptick in attention for them both means they agree to start hanging out in person:
That Saturday, she walked slowly to Rukmini’s house, inviting the muscular humidity, her summer companion, to encase her body. She tried to recall the last time she had made a friend. In grade school, her classmates always unravelled to be less interesting than she had imagined they were in her head. She eventually traded being allured by someone’s potential (and feeling the disappointment that ensued) for her own company. This had been the appeal of Twitter – a forum to engage with herself as often and as freely as she wanted and, even better, to document her thoughts. Often, when she began to write a song, she would pull up her Twitter page and pluck from her recent tweets as a lush garden of ideas.
In other words, Neela is an artist first, while Rukmini is better at PR and marketing. But their rapport is one of mutual interest and mutual need: Rukmini knows how to reach millions, while Neela has a mesmerising stage presence and the songwriting skills to match. Ms Shraya has a wonderful way, demonstrated above, of getting into the nuance of a thought process and of making its steps feel normal, organic and understandable, and she teases out the nuances of the relationship between the women and their differing ideas of success. But Rukmini, whose trans identity is mentioned only once in passing, also has a secret: while she was in uni, she and a friend, Malika, recorded an album of songs based on the work of various feminist writers including Audre Lorde and Gayatri Spivak. There was a single live performance of the work, “Hegemony,” before Malika died in a car crash. But once Rukmini’s cover of Neela’s song becomes a hit, one of Malika’s relatives leaks the album, and Rukmini is suddenly a success online and off. And Neela, watching in person and on social media, has some thoughts.
After [Neela] bookmarked the page, she noticed the start date for the tour and texted Rukmini.
Safe travels. PS I just saw that your first show is on Sunday. Don’t worry about calling. We can talk on Monday?
Ok Neel! Can’t wait to debrief! eee!
That Sunday, Neela woke up feeling bloated, nervous for Rukmini. She herself had toured many times but never on this scale – to that many cities and to that wide an audience. She patted her bedside table for her phone to send Rukmini a good luck text. She made the mistake of opening Instagram first.
Rukmini had posted a selfie with Kasi. With their hair braided, their heads were glued together with their tongues sticking out. Her caption said, If you don’t know @KasiOnKeys, you will! She’s joining me on the #HeyHeyHayleyTour
While we often are fully aware that people are putting on one kind of show or another, it can be tricky to know how to engage with someone whose public/social media persona is not what you see in your own interactions with them.
Finally, we have someone who understands from the inside how people engage with each other now and how social media affects the interactions we have in person. While we often are fully aware that people are putting on one kind of show or another, it can be tricky to know how to engage with someone whose public/social media persona is not what you see in your own interactions with them. And if someone you know makes a serious change in online popularity, it can’t help but affect how you think of them in the real world.
But the second half of the book makes the unusual choice to focus solely on one of the characters. Giving us only one side of the consequences of subtweet – which are major, both personally and professionally – is the same as erasing Malika from the equation of Rukmini’s student band. Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting if Malika was still alive and the girls had just fallen out of touch until Rukmini’s sudden fame? And didn’t both Neela and Rukmini deserve to have their reactions to the subtweet carefully parsed? Perhaps it was considered that the layers of online and offline interactions were complicated enough from only one point of view. This might be true, but we the readers deserved a little more credit, not least because in real life it’s rare for anyone to hold their silence; even ‘this bitch here’ from the infamous Zola series of tweets took to Reddit to defend herself.
Anyone who has ever found the profile of an ex’s new partner knows there is always some window into other people’s lives online, so to pretend otherwise is a strange cheat. Especially since the subtweet’s impact is permanent and unavoidable:
Of course students would be interested in social media drama. The group of students in the back row who had been zipping up their backpacks stopped rustling.
“Okay. Do you think, in a white supremacist society, it’s even possible to create art that doesn’t on some level pander to white people? And where are the lines between owning your own culture in your art versus pandering if white people are often the main consumers?”
I exhaled and the sound seemed to reverberate in the hush of the room. This wasn’t the accusatory or commendatory question I had anticipated. “I want to say that it comes down to intention. Are you wearing your bindi in your photo or rhyming with ‘curry’ in your rap as a way to revel in your culture? Or are you trying to get white people to like you, the flattened idea of you they have because of your skin colour?”
As that quote demonstrates, the subtweet becomes an easy hook on which people can hang their pre-existing ideas of the artists, for good or bad. But The Subtweet’s main achievement is that ideas like the above example are taken as read. Of course Neela and Rukmini will be grappling with white supremacy and its unfair additional poisoning of every well, whether that’s finding a good bassist, responding to online comments, or working a day job that doesn’t appreciate the needs of an artistic life. Of course non-white artists will have a different struggle to so-called mainstream ones – the Hayley subplot is especially cutting on this topic – and of course Ms Shraya’s tone and style make it apparent she knows these issues from the inside. This is why ignoring one half of the follow-up story is just bewildering. (Almost as bewildering as the choice to feature a woman holding an analogue telephone on the cover.)
As it is, the second half of the book works more as an analysis of life in the public eye and the unintended consequences of living in public, especially when you have thousands of young music fans hanging on your every post as a code to help them grow up. But while it’s a major one, that targeted erasure is The Subtweet’s only misstep. It pulses with the lives we live now, the personalities on social media with which we live them, and the art we make to share our feelings about it, and anyone who cares about those things ought to give it a look.
Vivek Shraya is an artist whose body of work crosses the boundaries of music, literature, visual art, theater, and film. Her bestselling book I’m Afraid of Men was heralded by Vanity Fair as “cultural rocket fuel,” and her album with Queer Songbook Orchestra, Part-Time Woman, was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. She is one half of the music duo Too Attached and the founder of the publishing imprint VS. Books. A five-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, Vivek has also received honors from the Writers’ Trust of Canada and the Publishing Triangle. She is a director on the board of the Tegan and Sara Foundation and an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary. She is also the founder of the award-winning publishing imprint VS. Books, which supports emerging BIPOC writers.
Sarah Manvel is the author of the comic novelette YOU RUIN IT WHEN YOU TALK (Open Pen, 2020), and is looking for an agent for her three completed full-length novels. In her spare time, she is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, primarily for criticsnotebook.com. She lives in London, without a pet, and tweets as @typewritersarah.