The Strange Path of Iterating Grace, Silicon Valley’s Most Vicious Satire
In late June, 140 prominent figures in tech media discovered a small package in the mail. That number was no accident: Inside was a slim chapbook recounting the autobiographical tale of Koons Crooks, a programmer whose religious devotion to the tweets of the Silicon Valley elite leads him to a tragic demise.
The book was an absurd, scathing sature of tech culture, and the people who received it—a group that included Fusion editor Alexis Madrigal, Buzzfeed executive editor Doree Shafrir, and Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffrey–were captivated. As were their Twitter followers. There were obvious questions: Was this a gimmick, an elaborate marketing ploy? A righteous indictment from someone deep within the tech industry? Who wrote this?
Now, you can read the book and start sleuthing yourself. Earlier this week, FSG Originals published Iterating Grace, now available for $8 in a bookstore near you. But the author (or authors) remain anonymous, and not just to you: also to obsessive readers trying to unmask the author; and even to Sean McDonald, who edited and published the book without ever knowing who wrote it.
In the weeks after Iterating Grace reached its initial audience, speculation ran high. Accusations of authorship flew—from BuzzFeed’s Jacob Bakkila to WIRED alum Tim Leong to Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
“I wish I had done it!” says Sloan. “It hurts. Denying it was a little painful, because I wasn’t the one with an idea this creative and vital.”
After Madrigal, Sloan’s neighbor, accused him of writing Iterating Grace, he showed it to his literary agent, Sarah Burnes, and to FSG’s McDonald, who didn’t have high hopes for publication. “I was intrigued by it, but it seemed absurd to me that we could do something with it,” McDonald says. “Its length, its strangeness, not knowing who wrote it—it all seemed insurmountable.”
But Burnes reached out to the email address listed on the original 140 copies. And as long as their anonymity was guaranteed, the authors agreed to a five-figure book deal to publish their work. According to McDonald, only one person in the contracts department at FSG Originals knows who the authors are—and she’s sworn to secrecy.
To date, no one has been able to definitively uncover the identities of the authors, despite endless speculation—which includes one extremely detailed statistical analysis on the text. For his efforts, the authors of Iterating Grace have given that particular fan a wink: The FSG print of the book is dedicated to him.
Parodic Form, and Content
The book itself is a tongue-in-cheek takedown of the blind worship of the tech elite, littered with insider references: Koons Crooks shouts commands at his dog in Unix, an operating system popular in the 1980s. He wears a fleece vest from Pixelon, a startup that went bankrupt in 2000. He’s “fully post-meal,” surviving on frozen snack food.
But by omitting their real names, the authors have taken their parody of Silicon Valley’s self-adulation one step further. If published with a conventional byline, the book would still be a satire, but a reader would be engaging with the hyperbolic personal narrative of a known author—which isn’t very different from the VC tweets handwritten into the chapbook. (A sample: Brad Feld’s “Reminder to self: not happy with game: change the game.”)
Because of the pseudonym, the reader is conscripted into a more active role of trying to puzzle out the whodunit—and hopefully recognizing his or her own over-reliance on social media in the process. “If [Koons Crooks] revealed themselves, they’d just be the authors of Iterating Grace,” says Sloan. “By not revealing themselves, they’re remaining the authors of this whole experience.”
Anonymity: An Unlikely Social Media Tool
Before the 1800s, authors were often anonymous. (Shakespeare’s name didn’t appear on any plays until 1599, seven years after Henry VI was first performed.) But in recent years, the form of anonymous writing—of letting the written word speak for itself—has fallen out of vogue. Contemporary authors are expected to play a role far after the book goes to print by promoting their work through public appearances and interviews, or suffer financial consequences.
“It’s the economics of publishing,” explains Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, which publishes the best-selling “Neapolitan Novels” under Elena Ferrante’s pseudonym. “If you’re not willing to do live interviews, to go on book tours, on TV, on the radio, then certainly at bigger publishers, that would affect the advances you’re being offered.”
Beyond in-person promotion, authors increasingly must maintain an online presence. This works out well for some authors—just look at how Shea Serrano managed to mobilize a Twitter army 40,000-strong to catapult The Rap Year Book to The New York Times Bestseller List—but writers less adept at self-advertising risk obsolescence.
Serrano’s success came from a cult of personality, from what felt like a personal relationship with thousands of loyal fans. But Koons Crooks and Elena Ferrante suggest that the opposite approach—complete anonymity—offers an alternate path to literary success.
Since her debut novel in 1991, Ferrante has refused to do any promotion or public appearances, insisting that her work should speak for itself. “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors,” she wrote in a letter to her Italian publisher. “If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” Let the work speak for itself.
“What does that mean for readers, when 95% of their interaction with an author is through the book?” says Reynolds. “By being a successful author who has decided not to participate in promotional activities, [Ferrante] suggests another paradigm for authors”—an alternate route recognized when Foreign Policy Magazine named the anonymous author as one of its leading global figures. (The only other Italian on that list was the Prime Minister.)
In their own way, the authors of Iterating Grace are attempting that same alternate path. “The anonymity forces the conversation to the actual text,” says McDonald. “There’s the mystery, but there’s no cult of personality to it.”
Except, of course, there is a cult of personality to Iterating Grace, as evidenced by the endless speculation and tweets and articles about who the real authors could be. But that’s the point. Rather than obsession with a particular author through social media, anonymity has forced the conversation back on the readers, turning the mirror on our own fixations with innovative ideas and the individuals behind them. Protagonist Koons Crooks mistakenly sought wisdom from the tweets of Paul Graham and Chris Sacca—we look for truth between the lines of Iterating Grace.