Samuel Johnson Shortlist Q&A Laurence Scott
Describe your book in one sentence?
The Four-Dimensional Human explores the various wonders, consequences, and unexpected ironies of digital life, and how this new, networked world is rewiring both our public and private behaviour.
What drew you to this topic in the first place – was it your own desire to know more or that you wanted to shine a light on the issue for other people?
I wanted to capture something of the mood of these young years of Web 2.0: the new shades of feeling and experience created by our relatively sudden, intense immersion in digital technologies. I was also interested in how our online personhood is being shaped by various political and commercial forces, and how this digital portrait compares to earlier visions of what ‘a person’ might be.
How do you go about your research? Can an author read too much into the subject matter?
I observed people’s ways of being, both online and out in the world of smartphones and tablets. My literary and philosophical training was useful when comparing these behaviours to older imaginings of personhood. I became alert to how the digital revolution was being packaged to us, commercially and civically, in adverts, in rhetoric. I scrutinized myself as well, for signs of any new kinds of preoccupation, desire, empathy and misanthropy, which could be deemed born from the pressures of tending two selves: one real and one virtual. I hoped, as Zadie Smith has argued when writing about the experience of being digitized, that I wasn’t a freak, and that other people were feeling these things, too. An author can certainly read too much into something, but invariably this will cause the writing to creak and strain. Sentences can usually tell when they’re being asked to bear too much.
What book do you wish that you had written?
It would be a pleasure to add Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September to my bibliography. Imagine being the author of such a brief but genius description of an ante-room, which included ‘a circle of not very comfortable shell-shaped chairs that no one took seriously.’
Do you read your reviews? How do you respond to them, good or bad?
I would be astonished and impressed if a debut writer could ignore their first reviews. I read all of mine and have been fortunate that (so far) the critics have been generous. My response to being summed up and appraised is probably not my finest feature! Good reviews cheer up an afternoon and make it seem like the Earth is spinning on its proper axis. But then I was shown one blogger’s rude tweet, and my unbecoming instinct was to assume that the displeasure was their failing, not mine. Reflecting someone else’s opinion of you back onto them is a kind of narcissism turned inside out, and hopefully I’ll outgrow it, pronto.
Any advice on how to deal with the bad?
If the bad review rings true to your own secret suspicions, then go somewhere quiet, arrange your face into the expression of Cate Blanchett at the end of Elizabeth, and stonily decide to correct the problem next time. If not, conclude that this reader and your book weren’t meant to be, and don’t overdo the muttering putdowns.
If you were trapped on a desert island, which two books would you want to have with you and why?
I would definitely bring Howards End by E.M. Forster, because when I first read it as a late-teenager I was vibrating at exactly its frequency of radicalism and nostalgia. I’ve rarely been so drunk on a book’s language and ideas, and because of this puppy love it is endlessly consoling to reread. Also, its moral imagination, as mysteriously happens with books, is more admirable than that of its author.
The second book would be, perhaps unexcitingly, The Lord of the Rings, for the obvious reasons of epic scale intercut with cosiness. After a while on the island, I would probably just skip from one scene of refuge to the next, beaching myself in an endless cycle of firesides, elven homely houses, milk and honey, stocked larders, lanterns in the woods, round and round until salvation came.
What was the last book you read?
Another Country by James Baldwin. The anger smokes off the pages and gets into your clothes and hair. You become angry too, while resolving to drink more spirits and sleep with each and every one of your friends.