When the Novel Swiped Right

A friend of a friend was heading back to New York on the train. He pulled out his phone and opened the Grindr app. He started chatting with a guy who, it turned out, was also on the train: the conductor. Shouldn’t you be focused on the road? he texted, flirtatiously. Last fall, a different friend matched on Tinder with the great-grandson of Eva Perón’s bodyguard. Another friend, who insists any app with a chat function can be a dating app, hooked up with the driver dispatched to bring him socks he ordered online after some DMing about delivery instructions got steamy. After he ghosted the guy, packages marked delivered never arrived.

All these stories sounded like the beginnings of novels — romance, historical fiction, revenge thriller — so much so that I wondered why more writers weren’t taking greater advantage of this material, especially since for most people I know, dating now means one thing: going on the apps. As the narrator of Kate Folk’s “Out There,” the title story of her 2022 collection, jokes, putting herself “out there” ironically means staying in and downloading Tinder and Bumble: “I resolved to pass judgment on several hundred men per day,” she declares.

Perhaps the relative dearth of dating apps in contemporary fiction is because meeting online has often been seen as a lackluster story, not on the page but in life. When the narrator of Lauren Oyler’s “Fake Accounts” (2021) considers making a profile on a dating app, she mourns the meet-cutes of the predigital era: “Would it not be humiliating to go from the great story of falling in love with my Berlin pub crawl tour guide to saying, ‘We met on Tinder.’” Yet for writers, Oyler included, who have chosen to incorporate into their plots the apps and algorithms that now commingle with our most primal urges, the results have been, well — disruptive. As in life, dating apps in fiction have provided authors with new, bold stories to tell about human connection and intimacy, in which desire can suddenly feel as boundless as the internet itself.

For some writers, online dating enables characters to break free from traditional narratives about how people should meet, wherein heterosexuality is treated as a default, the obvious and only story. “Anne of Cleaves,” a story from Brandon Taylor’s collection “Filthy Animals” (2021), opens with a first date that is also the first meeting of Marta and Sigrid, an encounter initiated online. After breaking up with her boyfriend, Peter, Marta created a profile on a dating site; under the category of “interested in,” she put “women and not men.” Peter was part of her social group in college, a setting that made their coming together seem preordained: “They saw each other so much that it had seemed natural that they should date, and when he asked her to the movies, she’d said OK, all right, sounds good.” Though dating apps were once seen as facilitating connection through artificial means, here Taylor shows how they have also allowed people to question these terms, to replace what “seemed natural” with what they actually feel.

As in life, dating apps in fiction have provided authors with new, bold stories to tell about human connection and intimacy.

For other writers, dating apps make possible encounters among characters who might not otherwise come into contact by virtue of differences in age, race or class. Theirs are provocative stories of desire and the limited social worlds we have confined it to. In Sarah Thankam Mathews’s novel “All This Could Be Different” (2022), a recent college grad referred to as “S” (her profile name on the app) is taken aback when her date, a woman raised by a struggling single mom, shares a detail about her upbringing. “When I was a very little kid,” the woman confides, her mother “was stripping to make rent, and from some hazy memories I suspect she did a lotta blow.” She interrupts herself as she sees S’s look of surprise: “Wow, your face right now, I want to take a picture of it.” Sally Rooney’s latest novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” (2021), likewise revolves around two inter-class couples, one of which meets online. Felix works in an Amazon-like warehouse while Alice is a rich and celebrated novelist. “How’d you land yourself a famous girlfriend?” Felix’s brother asks. “Tinder,” Felix replies, to his brother’s surprise. But Alice, tired of the bourgeois literati, is seeking surprise.

In Rooney’s novel “Normal People” (2018), the character Connell was thrust into a middle-class milieu by way of education. Though Connell meets his love interest, Marianne, because his mother cleaned her family’s house, their time at university allows them to grow closer, physically and culturally. In “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” Rooney uses Tinder to bring together two people of vastly different material circumstances without the aid of cultural capital to shorten the distance. Rooney understands that meetings are classed encounters. Alice tells Felix she sensed her college friend’s parents were not thrilled that she — the daughter of a car mechanic — was their daughter’s roommate. “They wanted Eileen to make friends with nice middle-class girls,” she remarks, reminding us how much these supposedly organic, less orchestrated ways of meeting are as engineered as any app.

The more nefarious aspects of internet dating are also the subject of recent novels where technology, rather than shattering our prejudices, sharpens them. In Chantal V. Johnson’s “Post-Traumatic” (2022), a Black woman in her mid-30s sees her white friends inundated with messages on the apps, while she receives a “trickle” and quite a few that use “food-related adjectives describing her skin tone.” She is left feeling both exoticized and rejected. “It was the topic of a dozen think pieces: Black Women Are the Least Desirable,” she muses, referring to the myriad studies of racial biases in online dating. Similarly, in “All This Could be Different,” S — the daughter of South Indian immigrants — admits that she seeks out white women on the apps. “I knew that my thoughts were impolitic and ugly,” she concedes, before adding: “Desire, though, burst through the word should, water breaking down a flimsy dam.” Indeed, Mathews takes care to stress that while the apps represent freedom from certain traditions for S (heterosexuality, arranged marriage), they enable others (colonialism) to endure.

Is technology our collective fairy godmother, getting us into balls to which we otherwise would not be invited, making our world small enough to touch whomever we want?

Dating apps are technologies designed by workers and accessed on smartphones made with minerals extracted under exploitative conditions. Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that Kate Folk, who lives in the shadow of Silicon Valley, would produce some of the most searing and complex fiction to date about the apps. Folk’s collection “Out There” is set in a San Francisco where 50 percent of the men on dating apps are estimated to be “blots,” artificial humans originally created to replace low-wage care workers. A Russian company has harnessed the technology to target lonely women, reprogramming the blots to take them on romantic trips to Big Sur, where the machines — taking advantage of spotty cell service — break into their phones and steal their data. At first, the blots become a way for Folk to explore the inanities of dating under patriarchy. In the title story, the narrator is relieved when her boyfriend fails to ask follow-up questions about her personal life. He must be real!

However, a later story, “Big Sur,” includes the perspective of a blot named Roger who, discarded by the Russian company after its scam is uncovered, becomes homeless. While Netflix shows like “The Tinder Swindler” focus our attention on lone wolves, dating scams are increasingly perpetuated by people who have been trafficked, forced to work in texting farms, sending scripts to lonely, vulnerable people. Roger’s erstwhile target Meg takes pity on him, realizing that he, like her, is alone in this expensive city without family money to rely on, and rekindles their relationship. Here Folk displays the ways technology has formed new underclasses — and new forms of identity that can become the basis for love and solidarity.

I was thinking about these novels and stories when Prince Harry’s memoir, “Spare,” was released last month. In it, he describes seeing Meghan Markle for the first time on a friend’s Instagram page, in a reel where her face was altered by a puppy dog filter. It’s tempting to think of this moment as a 21st-century version of “Cinderella,” a you-will-glimpse-her-across-a-crowded-room for the cramped thumb set. Is technology our collective fairy godmother, getting us into balls to which we otherwise would not be invited, making our world small enough to touch whomever we want? There are reasons to swipe both left and right on this new technology. It is murky and messy, full of light and dark. In other words, a perfect match for literature.

Jennifer Wilson is a contributing essayist at the Book Review.

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