I always read Russell Smith’s column when it appears in the Globe and Mail (the good old-fashioned one that arrives with a thump on my doorstep, that is), but I read today’s on “Twitter fiction” read with particular interest.
(Disclosures: 1) Russell and I are acquaintances, going back to Queen’s University in the mid 1980s; and 2) I read this particular column with particular interest because I myself have been sporadically working on a multi-platform experimental writing/performance art project of which one component would be a Twitter stream. I won’t bore you with details, but thought I should mention it.)
Russell and the writer he quotes in the piece, Nathaniel G. Moore, make some cogent points and observations, but I’m not sure they fully explored the idea. Russell quotes Nathaniel as saying, “Twitter as a genre is already overdone”. My immediate reaction when I hear dismissive proclamations like that from hipsters and the cognoscenti is to dismiss them in turn. How many times have we heard that absolutely everything is “overdone”, “exhausted”, “finished”, or “so last week”? “Twitter fiction”–or at least one particular form within that highly constrained little world–may indeed by “overdone” in Moore’s circles. But does that necessarily mean that exploring Twitter as a medium of artistic creation and expression in any way, by anyone, anywhere is “overdone”? If you think of it as a fad or passing fancy, perhaps so. But Twitter itself, and social media more broadly speaking, were (and continue to be) dismissed by some as fads or passing fancies themselves.
Is it just a case of too many people doing something? Or is it perhaps an illustration of the “too cool for school” mentality that as soon as something is “discovered” or “goes mainstream” it’s no longer hip and therefore “overdone”? As Russell mentioned in his column, the inaugural Twitter Fiction Festival is happening this week. Twitter has been promoting it. Wired wrote about it. Various other sites and bloggers have written about it. Heck, the Guardian even has a section called “Twitter Fiction” on its website. Is that the problem? Is that way Moore can say, apparently without hesitation or reservation (but quite possibly with an eye roll, a certain tone of voice, and maybe even a theatrical yawn), that Twitter fiction is already overdone?
Russell does give several examples of long-form Twitter-based work–projects by Jennifer Egan and Junot Diaz–and says there are pleasures to be had, while admitting he didn’t read any of them as they were tweeted. The fact that he didn’t read them in “real time” is totally fine. What I find less fine is his admission that he didn’t at least in part because he “(has) no patience for a story that unfurls as slowly as that”. Good thing he didn’t live in the 19th Century–however would he have handled the “episodic writing” of Dickens et al.? Would he have been able to wait to find out what happens to Little Nell? Would he have preferred–or been able to–wait until The Old Curiosity Shop was done and the whole story was compiled somewhere so he could read it all at once?
Actually, the column conflates two different types of Twitter fiction–the “long-form” of Egan and Diaz (lengthy narratives “written” a tweet at a time) and the “small fates” of Teju Cole (miniature stories contained in a single tweet, to which I would add the work of Montrealer Arjun Basu). They are quite different forms, and raise different issues, but they are treated by Smith & Moore (sounds like a law firm or something!) as essentially the same and illustrative of Moore’s assertion that “Twitter is not a real genre”–full stop.
It seems to me that some of the very things being explored and some of the very questions being asked with long-form tweet-based pieces are precisely issues such as the relationship between reader and text, the construction of narrative, the ability (or lack thereof) to construct a coherent whole from fragments of text, the relationship of tweet-based writing to more conventional forms, issues of temporality itself, and so on. If writers are just “goofing around” with Twitter, then there really isn’t much to Twitter fiction. And perhaps when Twitter has a fiction contest and the Guardian asks “top writers” to “try their hand” at 140-character stories, it does devolve into a glorified limerick contest or parlour game. But if at least some writers/artists are indeed exploring some of those bigger issues–theoretical and abstract though they may be–then I think it’s far from overdone.
In the early part of the last century, Surrealists took part in a “parlour game” called exquisite corpse. One could argue that it was nothing more than a trivial pursuit. But one could also argue that it was an integral part of the Surrealist “weltanshauung” and artistic practice. This year, there have been two projects derived from the exquisite corpse concept–the film “The Exquisite Corpse Project” and the writing project “The Electronic Corpse: A Storytelling Experiment“, which was in turn part of Social Media Week.
And these are far from the only examples of “literature” or “art” either using Twitter as a platform or even interrogating Twitter as a medium. There is, of course, a plethora of Twitter accounts doing historical “real-time” tweeting, including JFK1962, War Cabinet, WW 2 Tweets From 1940, Samuel Pepys, Robert Falcon Scott, R.L Ripples and more. There is another sub-genre (oops–Twitter isn’t a genre…sub-something-or-other) using algorithms with various sources to “create” tweets, such as Markov Chocolates, Deleuze and Guattari, TED-esque Talks, Horse ebooks, and others. And there is still another sub-whatever that is tweeting source texts in their entirety, including Vanessa Place and everyword.
(It is to this last group that my own on-again-off-again project would belong–undertaking the quixotic quest of tweeting the entirety of one of the many English-language translations of Don Quixote, in part as a type of “performance art”, in part to explore issues of public domain,copyright and intellectual property; in part to explore some of the theoretical issues discussed previously; in part to explore issues of transcription, translation, transferance, transposition, and transmission…but that’s another story.)
There is also a world of “Twitter art”. The account tw1tt3rart is just one example, but it’s easy to find many more. Personally, I’m not as interested in that world as I am in the world of writing, so I haven’t explored Twitter art very extensively.
If Smith and Moore like the idea of live storytelling in front of a real audience with meticulous rehearsal and memorization of scripts (which is far from new!), I suggest they check out the next PechaKucha event closest to them. Mind you, I just wrote a snarky piece elsewhere on this blog about how that concept is seeming stale and overdone, so perhaps I should just scurry back to my glass house. Sigh…