October 14, 2021

To no one’s surprise, and almost as little excitement, Marvel Studios is extruding new content. The Mr Whippy of cinematic fantasy disgorges Eternals in early November, and yet more Spider-Man in early December.

Meanwhile, column inches continue to be generated by whether or not the next 007 should be a woman, and Superman is now bisexual. Just as reliable as the output of these franchises is the grumbling about our apparent inability to come up with fresh new stories.

The usual explanation given for the domination of franchises over new material is that media industries like a known quantity. But what if the real problem lies deeper? What if, in truth, we’re no longer able to come up with new stories because we’ve turned storytelling itself into a branch of influencer culture?

This was the unsettling implication of last week’s water-cooler debate: “Kidneygate”. A long New York Times essay told the strange story of Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, two aspiring writers now embroiled in a bitter dispute.

Dorland donated a kidney to a stranger, then created a Facebook group to talk about her “journey”, and shared it with her writing group. Larson, a member of the same writing group, then wrote a short story depicting an egotistical and implicitly borderline racist woman donating a kidney. When Dorland learned this, she began an increasingly monomaniacal campaign of lawfare against Larson.

Like the dress that was either black and blue or white and gold, the story prompted a lot of debate. When does taking material from the world around you stop being legitimate and become invasive? Do we “own” our own stories? Or as the NYT put it: “Who is the Bad Art Friend?”

But perhaps the question should be: would you trade a kidney for a shot at immortality? For while on the face of it Kidneygate seems to be two women arguing about art, in truth it’s about the only form of immortality on offer since the internet killed literature: clout.

Once upon a time, the way to get famous as a writer was to publish a book. But the internet inverted that. The print publishing industry today is both bigger than ever and more beleaguered than ever by competition from other media, not to mention the ocean of free digital content. The result is diminishing returns: more than 188,000 books are published every year in the UK alone, but only 5% of authors sell enough to earn more than £30,000 a year.

Against that backdrop, not unreasonably, publishers are more likely to be interested in people with the sort of profile that will help market their work. There are countless talented writers out there; the decisive factor in who gets the book deal is often being an existing player in public conversation. In other words, the swiftest route to becoming a famous author today is already being famous for something else.

That means aspiring writers need that indispensable resource for an attention economy: “clout”, which translates roughly as “the number of eyeballs you can persuade to notice you online”. And chasing clout is indisputably a skill, albeit not a literary one.

Building up clout can be done several ways, but perhaps the two most common are emotional exhibitionism and identity-politics controversy. Expert wielders of clout attract fans and haters in equal measure, set people arguing among themselves and then leverage the resulting public profile for real-world power or earnings.

One such expert clout-engineer is Nikocado Avocado, real name Nick Perry, a YouTube celebrity famous for his “extreme eating” or “muckbang” videos. Nikocado Avocado’s content is voyeuristic in the extreme. Categories on his channel include “Fights”, “Emotional” and “Upset Feelings” among others. More importantly, he has 2.6 million subscribers — a store of clout that translates into serious earnings. In 2019, his net worth was estimated at $3m.

It’s almost impossible to go too far with this kind of content. The only unforgivable crime, as far as consumers are concerned, is being caught faking the emotion. “Mommy vlogger” Jordan Cheyenne was recently pilloried after she accidentally uploaded an unedited video of herself and her child, in which she could be heard encouraging her child to act like he was crying. She has since deleted her channel.

In the more traditional cultural spheres of academia, politics and literature, competition for eyeballs drives clout-chasing identity politics controversies. These can be guaranteed to spice up any otherwise dull policy debate with angry culture war clicks, while handily boosting the profile of the would-be activist. Perhaps the consummate operator in this mode is the US Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who attained meme status recently by appearing at the $30,000-a-ticket US Met Gala in a white dress with “TAX THE RICH” scrawled across the back, then blamed the criticism she received on racism and sexism.

In every case, though, the core feature of clout-chasing is that it centres not on what you say, but on others’ perception of who (or what) you are. And here we see the heart of Kidneygate: a dispute over who gets to use the organ-donation story as a means of cultivating their public self.

If Nikocado Avocado figuratively spills his guts for those who follow his channel, Kidneygate saw someone spill them literally — and then post about it on social media. Dorland created a Facebook group to collect the applause she expected to receive. She walked in a local parade as ambassador for organ donation. She even created a hashtag: #domoreforeachother.

Larson, in contrast, wanted to use the kidney-donation story alongside her own Asian-American ethnic identity to boost her profile with a short story about “white saviour” politics. That is, she wanted to apply the clout-rich filter of American racial politics to this highly emotive content, in order to increase her own standing in the world of fiction-writing. And it should have worked: before Dorland’s legal action scuppered the offer, Larson’s work had been selected for “One City One Story”, a Boston literary award that would have seen her short story distributed free all over the city.

I’m just about old enough to remember the Before Times prior to mass social media. Back then, we still clung to the idea that writing was about immortality — an idea captured by Shakespeare: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Now, though, writing a book is just part of the “media mix”. Where fame used to be a means of getting your message out, now messages are a means of getting your fame out. In September, CBS launched The Activist, a show that turns political activism into reality TV — and where successful activism is measured “via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input”. Never mind making a tangible real-world impact: like successful writing, successful activism is measured in clout.

And once you’ve attained enough of it, you can pivot effortlessly from reality TV to book-writing, perfume launches, politics or whatever. The only condition is that, like Harry and Meghan, you continue to feed gobbets of personal tragedy, emotional intensity, marginalised identity or some other kind of emotive content to the clout machine.

Do this, and the whole media mix is yours. It’s not just the raft of celebrities flocking to write children’s books. The 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman made history earlier this year as Biden’s inauguration poet, as much for her look and ethnicity as her aggressively bland poetry. Shortly after the inauguration, she signed a modelling contract.

And this pipeline works just as well in reverse. Transgender model Munroe Bergdorf has a threadbare literary track record, having attained clout mostly for being photographed wearing clothes, or for public rows with corporations and gender-critical feminists over identity politics. And yet Bergdorf received a six-figure advance from Bloomsbury for the “memoir and manifesto” Transitional.

The true message of Kidneygate, then, is not about art but what art now serves. It signals that if we allow it, the world of letters will irrecoverably join cinema, music, politics and activism as mulch for an online economy of attention.

And the Faustian nature of the bargain is increasingly clear. A culture powered solely by the hunger for intensity will devour any form of culture that isn’t already literal pornography. For in a raw economy of attention, the aesthetic or moral value of your work is irrelevant: what matters is emotional intensity and the power to generate discussion. Whether it’s politics, art, literature, music or simply people’s personal lives, the clout economy will transmute it, by a kind of reverse alchemy, into pornography of the self.

Before pivoting to YouTube emotional exhibitionism. Nikocado Avocado dreamed of being a concert violinist. Before pivoting to organ donation for clicks, Dawn Dorland dreamed of being a celebrated author. But there’s little clout to be gained through working hard at creating beauty for a common cultural domain. No wonder one in five British children want to be social media influencers when they grow up. And when everyone’s so busy crafting their online selves, no wonder there’s no creative energy left to dream new shared stories, leaving us nothing but zombie franchises crudely gingered-up by the culture wars.

Will we rediscover an ability to resist donating everything — even our organs — to the clout machine? I hope so. If we don’t soon regain a measure of digital self-restraint, the endpoint of every aspiration will be emotional porn. Or perhaps we could call it Kidneygate culture: a never-ending livestream of lost and miserable souls self-defining, fighting, crying, binge-eating or quite literally eviscerating themselves, all for our voyeuristic pleasure.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.