Ever thought that choosing just the right 140 characters for your latest tweet was something of an art form?
Twitter agrees with you. From Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, Twitter will hold its first “Twitter Fiction Festival.” According to Twitter's blog, this “virtual storytelling celebration” will feature “creative experiments in storytelling from authors around the world.” Everyone is invited to submit a proposal, and Twitter plans to announce the selected authors and festival agenda Nov. 19.
This is not Twitter’s first foray into fiction. In 2009, Alexandere Acimen and Emmet Rensin launched Twitterature, a project that boiled down 80 of the greatest works of Western fiction to a few tweets a piece. Think Cliffnotes on drugs written with text message abbreviations. (A sample from Hamlet: “WTF IS POLONIUS DOING BEHIND THE CURTAIN???”). Similar experiments have been done with the Bible (@biblesummary summarizes whole Bible chapters in single tweets) and Ulysses (a group of Joyce fans boiled every eight pages down to a single tweet). What they all have in common is summarization and immediacy. Long, difficult books are simplified and condensed, making them immediately more accessible to contemporary or less educated audiences. Although these are noteworthy first experiments, they do not use Twitter as a literary medium. The tweets are meant as summaries, not as stand-alone literature.
The Guardian has taken things a step further. In October, they challenged 21 well-known writers to compose 140 character stories. These attempts resemble flash fiction, very short fiction of just a few hundred words. Because of their brevity, many of these stories hint or suggest conflict rather than fully delineate plot and characters. Ian Rankin’s tweet is an especially good example: “I opened the door to our flat and you were standing there, cleaver raised. Somehow you’d found out about the photos. My jaw hit the floor.” In just 140 characters, the tweet accomplishes much of what an entire short story does. There are characters, although we don't know who they are. There is conflict, although we are not sure of its specifics. There is setting, although it is not fully detailed. Already, we can guess at the relationship between the two characters and fill in some backstory about the problematic photos. While this is really good flash fiction, it’s not Twitter fiction. These pieces could very easily appear in print and not be read any differently. Although they limit their words a little more stringently than most flash fiction, the stories do not fully engage Twitter as a time-based, interactive medium.
A couple writers have moved beyond summarization and flash fiction. This past May, Jennifer Egan (who wrote Visit from the Goon Squad) tweeted an entire short story through The New Yorker’s Twitter account. The tweets for “Black Box,” a science fiction story about a spy living in the Mediterranean, were released a minute at a time, an hour a day, for ten days straight. Unlike the previous examples, Egan's story did not confine itself to a single tweet and therefore falls outside the realm of flash fiction. Instead, it was fully-fleshed out and time-based. The delay between released segments slowed down the read, putting it in the same arena as serial fiction and television programs. While the story successfully explored Twitter as a time-based medium for reading, it did not explore it as a time-based medium for writing. Egan’s tweets were all written beforehand. She was not composing them as she went along, nor was her narrative interspersed with real-time tweets from followers.
In her critique of “Black Box,” BuzzFeed’s Anne Trubek claims that Egan’s story left out some of the key elements of Twitter such as scrolling backwards, responding to other tweets and unrelated tweets popping up. As Trubek rightly points out, Egan’s story doesn’t take advantage of Twitter as an interactive medium, only as a serial one.
However, there are a few authors who have done so. In “Small Fates,” Cole crafts stories around short news clippings, what he has called “news of the weird” and “strange little things.” Given Twitter’s importance as a journalistic medium, Cole’s stories seem to have matched form with content. There’s also Dan Sinker’s hilariously profane fake Twitter account, @MayorEmanuel, which satirized Rahm Emanuel's mayoral campaign. The fake account, which attracted a wide following for the five months it ran, took advantage of Twitter as a tool for self-promotion as well as for social activism and critique.
I think there’s more to explore. Come November 28, I hope to see writers not just writing for Twitter but writing with Twitter, crafting their stories in 140 characters at a time, opening themselves up to the improvisation and interactivity of the form.