Soupbone Collective

Bartleby, the Marketer: A Story of the Internet Economy

Calla Norman


Author’s Note: When we were brainstorming ideas for this zine as a collective, this idea of adapting Bartleby, the Scrivener into a modern retelling popped into my head. I had this vague idea that went something like “millennial burnout something something apathy something tech industry something something.” When it came time to sit down and write, I was in the midst of final papers and projects for my penultimate semester of grad school, and since fiction has never been a strong suit of mine, I decided that I was going to pull up Melville’s story on Gutenberg in one window, my blank Google Docs page in another, and write a line-by-line retelling.

As I was writing, it occurred to me that I was basically doing what Bartleby does, with the added element of pausing to adapt to modern idiosyncrasies like references to Slack. But I wasn’t really creating anything on my own, just working off of the work of Melville 169 years ago. In a way, I’m also transtextually incorporating the collaborative style of working in a small startup like the characters in the story here are into Melville’s piece, taking his work and expanding it in a 2022 context. I don’t know if I really accomplished my goal of something something burnout something, except for the fact that I feel like most people can relate in some level to Bartleby, and their proclivity to just do nothing in a world where we always feel the need to do something, even if that’s just scrolling through TikTok or finding a new way to brew coffee.


I am an elder millennial. Or at least, it feels that way now that I have seen semester after semester of marketing interns too young to remember Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. They are all quite interesting people, with tales of study abroad shenanigans, late nights in South Side bars or in Lawrenceville, always good for a laugh, a work bitch-fest, or a shoulder to vent on. But no intern I’ve ever worked with could possibly be weirder than Bartleby. While all the prior interns I was able to stalk online before hiring, Bartleby was nowhere to be found—not even on tumblr. I’ve become accustomed to piecing together the lives of those around me from their social media feeds, but I believe that Bartleby had no digital footprint—which is honestly a huge loss, if you knew them. All I ever knew of Bartleby was what my own eyes saw, across the open-concept office space or coming across my Slack channels.

But before I begin, I should probably introduce you to myself and the rest of the crew.

I’ve always thought it’s important to work smarter, not harder. So, even though the marketing world is constantly changing and always turbulent, I don’t let it bother me and take it in stride—whether it be new communication channels, some different TikTok trend the interns want me to try, or a new strategy for our email messaging. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly ambitious—I do enough to hit my OKRs and stay out of everyone’s hair. I’m not bombastic as some marketers are known to be, but rather prudent and methodical—some might say I’m more data-driven than anything.

Around the time of this story, I’d just gotten a bit of a promotion. Our startup, which was now languishing in a WeWork graveyard, meant that I had received the job of my boss who went on to work at Google. Her job wasn’t hard, and came with a nice bump in pay. I wasn’t there long, of course, but it was a good few years.

As I just said, we were in a WeWork, surrounded by small startups just like us, huddled around our computers, getting ourselves espresso or staring into space. It was a big open concept, but somehow I always got the desk that looked out onto the living wall, covered in moss, across the room from me. While some might call that soothing, something about it irritates me. So much for that.

Around the time I met Bartleby, I had a communications marketer, a brand manager, and a copywriter also on my team: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Yes, they’re nicknames—though with some of the names I’ve seen people called these days that’s not necessarily a given, I guess. Turkey was obsessed with their skincare routine, which is interesting because their face was never anything other than bright red whenever I saw them. They were always so energetic, constantly shifting from leg to leg at their standing desk, playing with a fidget spinner, taking random trips to the bathroom and ping-pong table just to burn a bit of energy. Sometimes it was too much, and they made mistakes in their messaging that I had to go back and fix—probably because they were working too fast. Even so, they did what they did with style, and that’s what matters at the end of the day.

“I’m like your ride-or-die, right?” said Turkey. “I know sometimes it’s like we’re throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks, but we make some pretty neat shit together.”

“For sure, Turkey,” I said. “You’re right at a high-level. Could do with a few less typos though.”

“True,” said Turkey. “I guess I’m getting old, but what else is autocorrect for?”

Fair enough. Guess he can stay.

Nippers, in contrast, was a sallow, Soylent-drinking incel. His ambition was just as powerful as his indigestion,and thus, I never saw him drink a solid meal in the time I knew him. While he was irritable, he wrote some damn good copy. He also could never quite figure out how to make his desk work for him. He tried a regular chair, yoga ball, bean bag, and even a standing desk, but would exasperatedly give up and just hunch over—then complain about back pain. Once his frustration caused him to stand up, grasp the desk he was sitting at, and shake it, much to the terror of the sprightly intern sitting across from him. Occasionally I’d hear him speaking in hushed tones over Discord to some mysterious contacts—I was never sure if they were gaming friends or something more nefarious, and never asked. He dressed really well: standard tech uniform of Patagonia vests, button-ups, and khakis, though they always seemed to have stains on them.

Ginger Nut was a kid. I mean, literally, high school, trying to get internship experience, when she should be making out with a saxophone player at the back of the band bus. I think she’s the boss’s niece or something? We have her doing typical intern things, getting smoothies, cleaning desks. She was a snack fiend, obsessed with trail mix. And not even the good kind, with M&Ms—like, legitimately just nuts and berries, and sometimes I see her throwing said trail mix in a blender with some fruit as if one transmutation of nuts and berries isn’t enough. We’d also send her out all the time to the bakery down the block, Trader Joe’s, all sorts of places depending on my and Turkey’s cravings. (Nippers was content with his Soylent, though occasionally could be seen to sneak grass-fed beef jerky from Whole Foods).

That summer, business was picking up—lots of our clients were in need of fresh content, stat, so we found ourselves in need of a marketing intern. I’ll never forget the figure Bartleby cut when they appeared at the WeWork on their first day. Nothing too flamboyant, pretty respectable, if a bit sad-looking. Honestly, after interviewing Bartleby, I was kind of relieved to have someone so quiet and… normal working with us, with all the zaniness of the rest of the team. I decided to keep them close by at a desk near me, but divided by a screen so we could all have our privacy. I sensed that might be important to Bartleby.
Bartleby was a marketing machine at first. Content writing, drafting emails, writing copy for social media posts, all done in a flurry those first couple of days. Which, I guess, was a good thing—you don’t often see that kind of work ethic these days—but it was always a bit unsettling. Bartleby worked with no light behind their eyes—almost like an android.

Marketing is collaborative work—we always bounce ideas off of each other, check each other’s work, that sort of thing. It’s not the most exciting, especially when our clients aren’t particularly exciting, but it suits us.

One day, I went over to Bartleby’s desk. “Hey Bartleby, I wanted to connect with you on this piece of content I’m writing. Can I Slack you the document?”

“I’d rather not,” said Bartleby mildly.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Are you not ready yet? I just think it could use another set of eyes.”

“I’d rather not,” repeated Bartleby.

You’d think there’d be a twinge of irony in that phrase, “I’d rather not,” the way I’ve heard a lot of their generation on TikTok put it, but Bartleby was as unmoved as ever. They didn’t seem bothered in the slightest by my speaking with them, just said “I’d rather not” as easily as someone might say, “I’m fine, thanks.” If they had been a bit snotty with it, I probably would have fired Bartleby, if I’m honest. But that wasn’t the vibe with Bartleby.

A couple days later, Turkey, Ginger Nut, Nippers, and myself were getting together in the brainstorming room for a kickoff of a new campaign, and I sent Bartleby a Slack to join us.

< Hey Bartleby, did you get my cal invite? We’re hanging out in the brainstorming room for this kickoff—are you joining us?

I’d rather not. >

< Why do you say that?

I’d rather not. >

Again, normally I wouldn’t take this kind of thing. But Bartleby was so calm, and even through the ambiguous space of the text-based Slack channel, I wasn’t sure if they were being impertinent or what.

< Are you sure? This is going to be a really great project, and I was actually hoping you’d take the lead on some of it. It could be a cool project to put on your resume, and all.

I’d rather not. >

I looked up from my computer at the rest of the team. “Am I crazy?” I asked. “What do you all think?”

Turkey said, “No, I think you’re right—they’re the one acting weird. I wonder what’s up.”

“You should just let them go, already,” said Nippers. “Imagine saying ‘no’ to something your boss asks. I can’t even.”

“Well, they did say ‘I’d rather not,’ which I don’t think is necessarily ‘no,’” I said. “Ginger, what do you think?”

“I think … there’s something a bit off about Bartleby,” she said carefully. “I don’t want to say ‘looney’ since that’s kind of a weighted term, but …” she trailed off.

< Bartleby, we’re waiting! Join us when you’re ready, please.

I got no response, so the rest of us just went on with the kickoff in the usual manner. After that, I kept a close eye on Bartleby. I don’t know if they even stopped to eat lunch. I’d see them last before I left for the day, and first thing when I came back. They just worked at their desk without moving, practically like a houseplant, except a pothos has more personality. Occasionally I’d see trail mix wrappers on the desk, brought by Ginger Nut. Is that what Bartleby lived on? He wouldn’t be the first, I guess.

Eventually I started to get a bit annoyed. This kind of passive resistance —I wouldn’t say passive aggression, because there was nothing remotely aggressive about Bartleby whatsoever—was just so weird! But how do you even address this kind of thing? They’re not being insolent, or rude, or harassing anyone. Bartleby is just straight-up chillin’, doing their work, not doing any harm, and not going home. Sometimes they’d just stare at the living moss wall, but who doesn’t zone out from time to time? Can I really fault someone for doing their job? Not every employer would be as patient as I—maybe I just need to see this internship out with Bartleby, it’s a nice thing to do. It’ll be done at the end of the summer. I’m a good person, after all, especially if I can befriend this weirdo. The passiveness bugged me a bit, but I let it go as much as I could.

“Bartleby,” I said to the screen between us. “Can I look over that blog post with you?”

“I’d rather not.”

“Seriously, dude?” I asked, a bit annoyed. “How much longer is this going to go on?”

No answer.

I got up and found Nippers and Turkey at the espresso bar. “Bartleby is still saying they’d rather not work. I honestly don’t know what to do at this point.”

“Fire them,” said Turkey. “It’s the only way.”

“It could just be a passing whim,” said Nippers. “Or maybe they’re trolling you.”

It occurred to me that maybe Bartleby was in need of a mental-health break. Maybe a walk would do them some good.

“Hey Bartleby,” I called. “Ginger Nut’s out today, so would you mind going to pick up the smoothies? It’s a beautiful day out!”

“I’d rather not,” said Bartleby.

“You won’t?” I asked.

“I’d rather not.” said Bartleby.

I returned to my desk and put my head down on my closed laptop. What is even happening right now? This intern is making me lose my mind, I thought.

“Bartleby,” I said.

No answer.

“Bartleby,” I said, a bit louder.

The only sound was drumming coming from someone’s Airpods.

“BARTLEBY!” I shouted. A few eyes looked up at me, annoyed at the disturbance. Bartleby peeked around the screen and peered at me.

“Can you go see what Nippers is up to and tell him to see me?” I asked.

“I’d rather not,” they said, and returned to their desk.

“Fair enough,” I said. At this point, nothing good was going to get done for the day, so I decided to pack up and go home.

I thought about Bartleby some more. It appears that they just do their work, don’t ever review it, collaborate with anyone, or wish to do any kind of menial labor. Just outputting words like a machine. They’d just rather not do any of that. Okay.

I resigned myself to Bartleby’s quirks, and got used to it. Their stillness, the work they did, the fact that they were always there. I never thought they were sketchy in the slightest—I had total trust in them—I just knew there were certain things they’d rather not do. Even so, there were some instances where I just needed a sounding board, or someone to schedule a post, and I’d ask Bartleby and get frustrated when they replied, “I’d rather not.”

One time I was in town on a Sunday, and it was getting chilly when I remembered I left a jacket at the WeWork. I went up in the elevator, expecting a quiet floor, when I saw Bartleby pacing around, looking disheveled. Their button-up shirt was unbuttoned, pants rumpled, and usually perfectly nice hair a mess. I called to them, and they said, “I’m sorry, I’m a bit busy at the moment, I’d rather not speak to you right now. Maybe you’d better leave and I’ll see you later.”

Not knowing what to think, I turned around and got back into the elevator. What was Bartleby doing at work on a Sunday? Why did they look like that? What right did they have to tell me to go? I pushed the button back up to our floor, and when I got there, Bartleby wasn’t around. I went behind the screen to check out their desk, and found a bedroll tucked under it, a few extra sets of clothes, trail mix wrappers, Sweetgreen containers, and a toiletry set. Was Bartleby living in the WeWork? How horrible!

I’d always considered Bartleby an android, but seeing all their personal effects made me realize that they’re a human like me. This feeling of sympathy washed over me, until I noticed a key in a locked drawer of their desk. I had to open it. In it was Bartleby’s phone, which somehow wasn’t password protected. I opened it and it was open to Bartleby’s banking app, in which I saw every single one of their online Gusto payments deposited, but not a single withdrawal made.

Why would someone participate in a capitalist system and not spend their hard-earned money on anything? Any creature comforts, like a Hydroflask, or, I don’t know, an apartment?

It occurred to me that I’d never seen Bartleby look at their phone, or browse the internet beyond what they were working on. They never left WeWork, but when I was there I never saw them partake in any happy hours, or drink more than a few sips of their coffee or tea. I really didn’t know anything about them—where they came from, where they went to school, whether they had family in town, or even whether they were healthy at all. I mean, no normal, healthy person would live like this. I decided that the next day I’d talk to Bartleby, once and for all.

“Bartleby,” I said the next morning to the screen. “Could you come here? I wish to just speak with you, I won’t tell you to do anything you’d rather not do.”

Bartleby appeared.

“I was wondering,” I said. “Where are you from, Bartleby? Can you tell me?”

“I’d rather not,” said Bartleby.

“Will you tell me anything about you? Literally anything.”

“I’d rather not.”

“But why? I’ve never been anything but nice to you!”

“Right now, I’d rather not answer.” Bartleby disappeared behind the screen.

I took a deep breath and got up to speak to Bartleby. “I’ve been patient with you Bartleby, and I’m sorry if I crossed a line just now asking about your personal life. But I need to ask you now to be a bit more reasonable and maybe do a bit more of the work in your job description.”

“I’d rather not be reasonable right now.” said Bartleby.

“Rather not, huh?” said Nippers, barging in. “I’d rather you grow the fuck up and do some work! Where do you even get off saying you’d rather not work. I’d rather you did!”

Turkey came up and said, “I think Bartleby had rather come down to the brewery with us tonight—then maybe he’d rather work.”

“Turkey, you’re saying it too!” I exclaimed. “That word!”

“What word?”

“I’d rather you all leave me alone,” said Bartleby.

“That word! Rather!”

“Who uses ‘rather’ anymore?” asked Turkey.

“Hey boss,” said Nippers, “Would you rather I send you this as a .doc or as a .pdf?”

The next day, all Bartleby did was stare at the living moss wall. I asked them if they were going to do any writing, and they said they decided that they would no longer write.

“You don’t want to write?”

“No more.”

“What? Why? For what reason?”

“Don’t you see the reason for yourself?” I looked at their eyes and saw they were bloodshot and dry. Looked like they were overextending themselves. The next day, I brought them a pair of blue light glasses.

“I’ve given up writing,” said Bartleby.

“Okay, that’s it.” I said, “Bartleby, I think you should leave. You’ll get your last check next week, but for now you can’t stay here. I’m sorry.”
Bartleby said nothing.

“I’m headed home for the day, you can take your time packing up your stuff, but I would rather not see it when I come back tomorrow, or you.”

I felt pretty good about that, to be honest. I’d never fired anyone before, but I think I handled it pretty well—no drama involved or anything. I’d given Bartleby a fair shot, tried to accommodate them, but it just wasn’t working out.

The next day, I headed up to the office, and began putting my stuff down on the desk.

“Not now, I’m busy,” said a voice behind the screen. Bartleby! I was flabbergasted. What were they still doing here?

“Bartleby,” I said. “What the hell are you still doing here? I told you to leave! This is seriously unprofessional and a bit shitty, if I’m being honest. Why won’t you leave me?”

“I’d rather not leave you,” said Bartleby.

“What right have you to stay? I fired you! You don’t pay for this WeWork! You don’t pay my taxes! This property isn’t yours!”

No answer.

“Are you at least going to work?”

No answer.

I remembered last year at another startup that shared this space, there was this one product intern who was just a brat. He ended up bothering his manager so much that the manager actually attacked him, and they ended up brawling on the street. They both were let go. I couldn’t bring myself to act like that, though, and hoped that maybe Bartleby would just decide on their own to get the hell out. But they stayed. Others in the office began to take notice of the peculiar person staring out the window, and I had several other managers come up to me and ask why I didn’t let them go. I kept asking Bartleby over and over to leave, and each time their resolve remained the same.

The only thing I could think of to do was to relocate. I gave Bartleby enough notice, telling them our lease at the WeWork was ending and we were going to go remote from now on. It was time for them to find somewhere else to… be. And we left. Some time later, I got an email from a project manager.

Hey there,

I’m Derek, project manager at Inksia—we just took over your lease at the Penn Avenue WeWork. I wanted to let you know that there’s this guy here, who I think worked for you? They won’t leave, and I’m not sure if they don’t know you left or just would rather not go. Who are they? Can you please make them leave?

Best, Derek

I replied, saying Bartleby is nothing to me, I know nothing about them, and they’re no one’s responsibility now. A few weeks later, I got another email.

Subject line: WHY WON’T THEY LEAVE?

Hey—

Can you PLEASE get this person out of here? I’ve called security a few times, but they just keep coming back. Now they just creepily stare at that moss wall, hang out in the elevator, or sit on the espresso bar counter. It’s really annoying. Please MAKE THEM LEAVE. I don’t want to involve the police, because ACAB, but honestly I might be forced to if you don’t do something.

Derek

So I went back to the WeWork, and found Bartleby at the espresso bar.

“Bartleby,” I said. “Are you aware this is a really bad look for me? Why won’t you leave? You know that now you must either go do something, or something will be done with you. Can I get you another job somewhere? How about at Sweetgreen?”

“I would rather not make any change,” said Bartleby.

“How about as a bartender?” I asked.

“I would rather not like that, but I’m not particular,” said Bartleby.

“Maybe you should just go on the road, become an influencer or something,” I said. “I’m sure there’s a niche for you somewhere.”

“I’d rather not do that,” said Bartleby. “Right now I’d rather not change at all.”

What else was there for me to do than to just get out of there? I ran out of the WeWork, called an Uber, and got out of town as fast as I could. I was worried that Derek would try and get me to come get Bartleby again, so I told Nippers he was in charge now, turned off my phone, and rented a sprinter van, which I basically lived in for some time. Eventually, I calmed down enough to look at my email and sure enough was an email from Derek, telling me he had Bartleby removed and placed in jail. Well, now I just had to go visit the poor bastard.

“Bartleby!”

“I know you, and I want nothing to do with you.” said Bartleby.

“You know I didn’t put you here,” I said. “And it’s not so bad, right? No different from staring at that brick wall all day, at least.” They had nothing to say to me.

I decided I’d put some money in Bartleby’s commissary for now on, and I went to the prison office to do that. When I returned, Bartleby was in the yard, huddled up. I went over to them to say goodbye, and their eyes were open. I reached out and touched Bartleby, and a shiver went up my spine.

The commissary manager came up to me to tell me my payment went through, and Bartleby can now get food from the prison shop. “Unless he lives without eating,” he said.

“I think they do live without eating,” I replied. The manager peered at Bartleby. “Is he asleep?”

“With Jobs and Zuckerberg,” I mumbled.

I never found out who Bartleby really was after I left the prison. I did hear something though, after they died, but take it with a grain of salt—you know how fake news gets around. He used to work in the digital archive at Google, and was in charge of deleting information that was never claimed or searched. Could you imagine having the power to wipe something from history like that? Sometimes they’re online memorial pages for someone who’s passed—then what? The internet is so full of life, and death.

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!




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