A Q&A with ‘Kill All Normies’ author Angela Nagle
‘Literary people are much more open to complexity than political people. Political online commentary is just a cesspit for the unhappy’
Angela Nagle: “I became obsessed with online anti-feminist forums about eight years ago. It started me thinking about the relationship between countercultures, subcultures and the mainstream”
Angela Nagle writes for the Baffler, The Irish Times, Jacobin and Current Affairs magazine. Her new book is Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Zero Books, £9.99)
Can you tell us about your latest work and how it came about, the story behind the story?
I became obsessed with online anti-feminist forums about eight years ago, particularly those that had new and distinct features that distinguished them from traditional anti-feminist movements – countercultural aesthetics of shock and transgression and a heretical troll-ish sensibility native to geeky online forums. It started me thinking about the relationship between countercultures, subcultures and the mainstream. This new online right culture of ultra-offensiveness grew while the opposite online culture of ultra-sensitivity grew and things got progressively uglier and battles became more and more embittered and entrenched throughout these years. In the end I wanted to try to carve out some other political space, which required me to take a step back and think in terms of big themes and ideas, about our cultural obsession with “edginess”, counterculture and marginality, our cycles of tech-utopianism followed by crushing reality and so on.
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I didn’t read at all when I was younger so I don’t have any young adult books that I loved. Then I went through a phase of reading all the time in my mid teens, mostly dystopian fiction and feminist writing. I would skip school all the time and go to the local library in the small town where I grew up and spend the entire day in there. Huxley then led me to 1984, A Clockwork Orange and probably to a lasting preoccupation with those themes and those nightmarish visions.
What was your favourite book as a child?
My Dad read The Three Billy Goats Gruff with me as a child and did the voices. I liked that. I don’t remember any others.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is one of those books you know is going to change you in some profound way shortly after you start reading it and it did for me. I read it last summer and nothing has quite surpassed it for me since. A very painful read.
What is your favourite quotation?
Rosa Luxemburg: “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters”
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Right now, Mark O’Connell tends to be outside of the Irish literary scene despite being a world-class writer because he writes about technology and doesn’t really fit in anywhere here.
Which do you prefer: ebooks or the traditional print version?
Print! Ebooks are awful. I need a break from screens.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
I have a beautiful box-set of two books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, with introductions by Zadie Smith and Will Self and illustrations by Mervyn Peake.
Where and how do you write?
Unfortunately because Dublin is a rent crisis city it is near impossible to be a writer here and so like most people here I’ve always suffered from lack of private space. Right now I use an attic when it’s not too hot or cold and Trinity College library the rest of the time.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Cormac McCarthy made me think more about the elegance of short sentences, though I obviously haven’t learned that lesson because my sentences are too long. If I leave myself enough time to edit something I try to correct that.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
Well, I’ve only written one and it was sort of based on an entire PhD so it has to be Kill All Normies.
What book influenced you the most?
Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde aka The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
More Classical Mythology but I wouldn’t have had the discipline.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
You may need to move to a cheaper country.
What weight do you give reviews?
I’ve received some glowing reviews followed by a backlash of commentary completely savaging my book and me personally. Thankfully I haven’t received the latter from anyone I respect.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
Audiobooks will get a lot bigger in the short term because people travel and commute so much and look at screens all day so they have tired eyes. But as with all things in modernity, there will always be a romantic countercurrent. People will return to reading books just like they’ve returned to records.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
Fiction is a lot more political now maybe. That may or may not be a good thing. I’m not sure.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
Anyone who ever said anything interesting was attacked for it.
What has being a writer taught you?
Literary people are much more open to complexity than political people. Political online commentary is just a cesspit for the unhappy.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Luke Haines, former singer with the Auteurs, wrote a book about Britpop and his “part in its downfall” called Bad Vibes. The whole thing is packed with scene after scene that made me cry with laughter. My favourite was probably his encounter with Chris Evans. I’m not sure how faithful the narration is though so that could be semi-fictional. As for fiction, David Lodge’s campus books are all filled with excruciatingly embarrassing but extremely funny scenes. I liked the one with the attempted seduction by the female Italian Marxist professor (and her husband).
What is your favourite word?
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
It would be about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He is definitely one of the most extraordinary figures of the modern world.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
The one where I describe Richard Spencer as someone who writes like he might wear surgical gloves when leaving the house. Someone quoted that back to me and it made me laugh.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
In American Pastoral when The Swede meets his daughter after she has become a Jain and has been underground. That made me cry.
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
I’d make them read all the dystopian classics before bedtime to prepare them.