Thomas Molander, editor and content farm contributor
Thomas Molander is a musician and writer from BC currently living in Montreal. His forthcoming novel is called The Article Man. He is editor and co-founder of Bad Nudes Magazine.
Fawn Parker: I’m thinking about using Jarett Kobek as a launching pad here. You were telling me recently about his book I Hate the Internet.
Thomas Molander: Yeah. He, in that book, has this extremely strong stance on all content being garbage that I hadn’t really read before. He thought that any kind of expression that was tied into one of the big social media companies or something was immediately a negative force in the world. I don’t know if I agree with that fully, but I’ve been thinking about that.
FP: There’s content being garbage and there’s maybe everything being garbage. Your book feels to me like self-aware escapism, turning the mind-numbing work into something more meaningful under the guise that the process is the meaningful part. So there’s a parallel in the way that your character turns the process into a passion and so do you, and that’s what we’re reading.
TM: When I was first writing the book, the reason I wanted to start making a fantasy version of someone getting really into content generation and becoming successful is because it’s just so boring and mindless to write for a content farm kind of website. Your mind starts to wander and you have a lot of time to think about other things.
FP: The protagonist, Tyler, sort of develops this inflated ego, because of the web content. He starts to feel that this writing is valuable to him, and in turn others, and submits it to places like Forbes.
TM: It just seems to kind of make sense that when you have written for one place then the place one rung above that will notice. A kind of domino effect. He’s not even thinking about that. He’s just writing content, he doesn’t think about whether it’s good or bad, he just keeps producing it because bigger and bigger places want to put his stuff out.
FP: But is it part of the joke? He’s selling something fraudulent and maybe in certain ways you are too—I mean with the giant blocks of article-style text that you’ve literally copied and pasted from your job.
TM: No, that seems arrogant, I think. He, I think, was earnestly writing the articles. He wasn’t tricking anyone like that. Then what happens is the first couple of places like them and then, I forget what that phenomenon is called, but all of a sudden he’s just completely out of his element. Like Forbes or something solicits him but once they realize how bad he is they’re like “you have no idea what you’re doing here.” Then he has nothing.
It is all kind of a joke, I guess, in that it started as one. I thought initially, what if I just filled a whole book with these terrible articles, and at the time that was definitely a joke. But then I thought, what if I wrote a book about someone having to write these articles, and that to me is the project now; I’m not tricking anyone.
FP: The protagonist himself at times feels like part of the joke. I’m interested to know if you feel like you’re on his side as a narrator or if you’re also poking fun at him?
TM: I think that I write him like he is noble and stuff but he just happens to have these really big personality flaws that are probably based on the culture that he lives in. All of his choices seem really dumb but they probably are the best choices considering the context. He just has all these things wrong with him that I have to account for. It’s like trying really hard to ride a really bad bicycle.
But also I guess it is a slightly weirder version of the real world, or this is maybe just an isolated group of people who have naturally come together based on the fact that they all kind of act in the same way and have the same kinds of ideas.
FP: There’s this kind of boredom-madness that drove you to art. It seems to be the driving force behind a lot of the characters—Tyler obsessively creates art out of his minimum wage jobs (having a certain order in dishwashing, for example). One of Lentil’s first lines of dialogue is “This is boring,” before she later pursues a career in ASMR-vlogging.
“Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp
TM: There was a point earlier this year when I didn’t have a job and I was always trying to find one online. My characters are also all anglophones living in Montreal, so their prospects are limited. So everyone in the book, they all do work on the internet, except at the beginning when Tyler is washing dishes—the one job you can do anywhere but also the worst job. He sabotages it at first because it’s so bad, but then, you know, you have that kind of unemployment time on your hands which makes you go crazy because there’s this pressure all the time. It makes you want to look harder for a job and maybe before the internet, people, when they were aggressively looking, they would print off a whole bunch of resumes, but now it means just trying to find some kind of niche thing that you do for money. It’s some creepy thing that doesn’t make sense out of context, but you go down this hole and it looks weird from the outside. I think that the massive boredom in the book is also kind of the unemployment boredom, which is a special kind of boredom. You feel really nervous which makes you act weird.
FP: It’s funny to me how a person can play off of a medium to contextualize tone. For example, when you re-contextualize in book-form your earnest “clickbait voice,” which seems to be exactly what employers want from you, it becomes this really self-aware sort of absurdist/satirical thing. It’s amplified obviously by the fact that you’re literally using big chunks of content-farm text. You’re writing in a hyper-sincere, almost impossible-to-believe sort of style, like the book has leaked into your real life and now it’s being written simultaneously. Is it a coping mechanism for you, to know that even though you’re superficially saying the right things, that somewhere internally you’re operating in a fictional world?
TM: I mean, those articles were real and they were for money. I don’t even know if I have an answer for that but that’s a good observation or whatever.
TM: That’s kind of giving the articles an advantage, giving life or validity to the articles just because the book is written in that style. It’s like picking up a novel by someone who is your favourite novelist, you’re immediately going to like it sort of.
FP: All of the characters seem completely consumed by their artistic pursuits. Is this a reflection of the people in your life and your views of reality or are you using it as a vehicle for something? For example, Lentil and Tyler’s relationship ends when he touches her and she doesn’t respond, to which he says “I see that our relationship is platonic now.” You mix subtlety with these giant actions to form this strange dichotomy. It is really funny but also it makes me think. People are acting insane, but at the same time they’re hyper-aware of each other and sensitive to non-verbal cues. Almost how Alex trains himself to hear amounts of change dropping and decipher the monetary value. Everyone is paying attention at all times, but maybe not to the right thing?
TM: That is a response maybe to the fact that when you’re writing the empty content, you get a huge sense of the actual words that you’re writing not mattering. You’re paid per word and it’s all just about the SEO. I started fantasizing about situations where people were really paying attention to everything everyone said and when the words were really important all the time. Day after day of pushing words out into this kind of void, like no one is reading this website and it’s all about Google AdSense. Then when it was time to write fiction, I wanted to make it seem like everything in every situation really counted.
FP: It’s not at all in the real world, and yet you’ve placed it right in the middle of the real world. Lentil joins forces with The Kooks to create ASMR music while everyone is meeting on Tinder and working the same bad jobs we’re all working.
TM: I don’t think there’s anything that happens that could not actually happen. The sequence of events maybe gets unrealistic, the way that they build up, the frequency, but if you examine each thing that happens specifically it’s always realistic I think.
FP: Do you consider the site you wrote for “literature?” Microliterature, especially?
TM: It’s not any kind of literature, it doesn’t matter what the words say. It’s all about what the particular combination can do for the SEO. The stuff that I wrote wasn’t edited or read by anyone. It actually did not matter what the sentences said, it just meant that some people would accidentally click on it while they were looking for something else. It might feel similar to MicroLit in a way in that no one outside of the community is going to read it at that time. Maybe you feel like you’re writing just for your friends and publisher. Maybe it’s similar because you just have to do it well and not consider an audience a lot of the time.
FP: But definitely the presses & zines feel better in a way. They’re almost more “wholesome” for lack of a better word.
TM: Almost the exact opposite thing, yeah. They’re similar in that they’re insular, and not leaking out. They’re both maybe vacuums of writing.
But then also it’s the opposite in the sense that the content farm writing has zero artistic merit and is 100% for money whereas, for the people involved in zines, of course no one can think about making money. That’s not why you do it. It’s the opposite in that sense: all these people with small presses … everyone is just doing it like an unpaid internship or even losing money.
FP: Right. So the value is contextual almost always.
TM: It’s like that French guy who signed a toilet seat. I’m not saying the literature is like that but if you put bad content into a book about a guy writing the bad content, that’s it right there; it’s kind of just like a photograph or something. Sometimes in books someone will post a transcript from a phone conversation, letters, or emails and that kind of stuff on its own is probably not “art” either.
FP: You don’t think so?
TM: Oh, I don’t know. If you think of a long telephone conversation and take that out of context, it’s just like, flat. Two voices talking. It’s still art but it only becomes art in an artistic context, I think. So that’s what I thought putting nonfictional, poorly written articles into the book—it becomes as valuable as the rest maybe because it’s a part of the book.
I’m not sure if that’s true but it’s weird when I have to edit it because I want those parts to read in a way that’s realistic in terms of how he’d be writing them with no experience and sending them to a bad website, but I also want to edit the rest of the book so that it is a certain way.
Thomas Molander is from Vancouver Island. He has a journalism degree that he doesn’t really use, and spends most of his time making tacos and taco accessories. He also loves reading depressing books, and writing about himself in the third person.