Teju Cole’s debut novel Open City was published in 2011 and I came to it via the traditional means—a review in a magazine, in this case a long, positive review by James Wood in the New Yorker. Writing in the magazine’s classic thin columns, Wood suggested the novel was ‘intensely [W.G.] Sebaldian’ and one that did not mock or flaunt its own critical and literary theories. He urged readers to try to get past the first few pages, which were dense and essentially implied that no action would take place in the story that followed. I was excited by Wood’s words of high praise and went searching for Open City in bookstores. Unable to find it, I ordered a copy from Book Depository and it came to me in a square brown cardboard case. I ripped it open and attempted to rip into the book, reading the first chapter. But then I stopped and stored it under my bed.
Meanwhile, with his book gathering dust, Teju Cole was discovering the creative potential of Twitter. Most novelists now have some form of social networking account, perhaps to promote their works or speaking engagements. There are many numbers of ways to describe Twitter to those unfamiliar with it. Here are some attempts:
Users are limited to writing 140 characters per tweet.
The social media platform was launched in 2006 but didn’t seem to hit the collective consciousness until 2009, when it crashed twice on the day Michael Jackson died, as users included his name in their tweets at a rate of 100,000 per hour.
Twitter is known for the celebrity end of the spectrum—the Ashton Kutchers of the world—but as of writing there are more than 500 million active users.
People choose to follow you and you can curate your own reading list by choosing who you follow—you essentially curate and populate your own reading experience.
Sometimes these voices will speak to each other.
Some people are better at tweeting than others
Teju Cole joined Twitter in 2009 but didn’t really take to it until 2011, when he was beginning work on a long nonfiction book about his native Lagos. While researching in Nigeria he began to tweet as part of a project he titled Small Fates, an imprecise translation of the French faits divers, referring to compressed news items, typically just a single sentence in length. Cole suggests that the original faits divers influenced the writing of Flaubert and later Gide, Camus, Le Clézio and Barthes. On his website, Cole mentions twentieth-century French journalist Félix Fénéon as a master of the form. In explaining his project, Cole gave examples of Fénéon’s work:
Raoul G., of Ivry, an untactful husband, came home unexpectedly and stuck his blade in his wife, who was frolicking in the arms of a friend.
A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frérotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.
Living in Lagos, Cole had access to any number of horrific newspaper stories of this kind, and used the short news items he found to report the fates of those living (and dying) in Lagos: ‘Twenty is a bit young for a man to be married, so, with a kitchen knife, Usman, of Rijau, north of Minna, made himself a widower.’
In his essay ‘Structure of the Fait-Divers’ of 1962, Roland Barthes described these small items as ‘Disasters, murders, rapes, accidents, thefts, all this refers to man, to his history, his alienation, his hallucinations, his dreams, his fears’. Teju Cole seems to be actively arguing against what is seen as the superficiality of Twitter by taking it seriously, not just in the dark irony of the content of his tweets, but in its potential as a form of distribution. NYRB published a collection of Fénéon’s faits divers under the title Novels in Three Lines. Teju Cole was invited onto National Public Radio in the United States to discuss his small fates projects for a show that was ‘in observance of National Poetry Month’. On air, Cole read the tweets with the same cadence as a serious reading of poetry. The tension in these tweets might be in the way we try to categorise them—are they are nonfiction with a spin, small perfect narratives or simply transcribed poetic incidences? Of course, they recall Hemingway’s famous six-word short story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’. Compression is an art form in itself.
In his excellent short essay on Cole’s small fates project ‘Death by Twitter’ (published in the New Inquiry, an online cultural and philosophical journal launched and housed on Tumblr, another microblogging platform), the journalist Matt Pearce comes closest to getting at the possibilities of Twitter for literary writers, but he declines to offer a conclusion, arguing that he is ‘compounded by the 21st-century issue, which is that we critics don’t really have a familiar rubric for analyzing Twitter yet’. Writers have one of the highest take-up rates of Twitter of any profession, and it would seem that we also use it differently to those in other professions.
The bestselling, bird-watching novelist Jonathan Franzen’s alleged contention that he finds Twitter ‘unspeakably irritating’ got online blood boiling earlier this year. Franzen went on to state:
Twitter stands for everything I oppose … it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’.
Franzen’s evocation of Oulipo techniques—facetiously referring to George Perec’s A Void, in which the author avoided the use of the letter e for an entire book—is telling. Twitter dictates the form. But Thomas Jones in the London Review of Books suggests that here Franzen made a ‘category error’ in conflating Twitter with a kind of anti-literary sensibility. The New Yorker’s music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, however, cautiously praised Franzen for having the audacity to make the statement in the first place, attempting to place him as literature’s answer to Kanye West, for his ability to make unpopular statements without much care for the backlash that follows. Frere-Jones misses the chance to make the point that Kanye West was an early adopter of Twitter, and the medium perfectly captured the rambunctiousness of his outbursts.1
Franzen’s anti-Twitter statements—short condemnations without much evidence of thought—sound as superficial as he’s making the medium out to be, exposing his artistic conservatism more than anything else. It is hard to imagine Franzen arguing against Teju Cole’s use of the medium—particularly considering its capacity for empowerment. Franzen is an exponent of the long, slowly produced brick-sized novel, an art form that he seems anxious might become outdated. Twitter is a threat because it might be the logical conclusion of Chekhov’s observation later in life: ‘Odd, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read—my own work, or other people’s—it all seems to me not short enough.’ Novelists might be taking to it simply to keep relevant in this late age of reading.
Writing is not the only art form going online of course. In a recent essay in the New Inquiry, Cole writes about the Russian-born photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov’s Instagram account. Instagram is another smart phone–related social network, in this case used for the sharing of pictures. Many of Cole’s opinions on Pinkhassov’s use of Instagram could apply to his own use of Twitter. Pinkhassov, according to Cole, has ‘long valued simplicity and immediacy’. Cole notes that a ‘language is being explored with new tools’. And, tellingly, ‘it will be a headache for curators in the future’. Scrolling through Twitter feeds to access month-old tweets for this essay has been particularly painful. If your internet connection drops out you lose your progress. It can feel like a library caving in on you. Cole also writes about choosing to follow Pinkhassov exclusively. I’d recommend doing the same with Cole on Twitter, if you’re averse to the sounds of a 500-million-strong cacophony.
When the new wing of the Museum of Contemporary Art opened in Sydney this year, the first exhibition was titled Marking Time, whose centrepiece was Australia’s first screening of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour art movie. The museum stayed open for the duration of the film on Thursday nights and viewers could camp out on couches in an attempt to take in the whole thing. I couldn’t stop thinking about Twitter and the internet while watching Marclay’s massive movie mash up. The Clock doesn’t offer the viewer a linear narrative but the passing of time, the literal turning of the clock hands, creates a linearity out of which the viewer can tease his or her own narrative. Twitter works in much the same way. Sitting in the dark, I tweeted ‘The Clock: creating narrative by other means’, partly to disseminate that idea and partly to save the line to use later in this essay. Social media and the internet could now be seen as our workbooks, where we can test out ideas that we later refine in print or book form. I have drafted and conceptualised several essays in the comments section of other people’s literary blogs (an essay on the Wire published in this journal originated in a thread on James Bradley’s City of Tongues blog). But I want to suggest here that Twitter can be the work as much as the workbook, recalling video-game academic Espen Aarseth’s useful distinction between ‘ergodic writing i.e. writing still emergently based in evolving energy, and canonical writing e.g. unchangeably published’.
Not everyone has been able to successfully capture this evolving energy. Parodies of the intersection between Twitter and literature abounded when Twitter entered the mainstream consciousness. Penguin published Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books Retold through Twitter, a novelty book written by two nineteen-year-old University of Chicago students, which managed to cheapen both mediums. There is practically no humour present in reducing Oedipus to ‘PARTY IN THEBES!!! Nobody cares I killed that old dude, plus this woman is all over me. Total MILF’, as nobody on Twitter writes like that. The writers are essentially trading in outdated ideas of internet speak but they are not alone in their failure. There are multiple accounts of failed Twitter novels—attempting to replicate the success of Japanese mobile phone stories—and poorly serialised essays.
Novelist Jennifer Egan was already known for experimenting with digital forms—a chapter in her Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad takes the shape of a Power Point presentation—when the New Yorker commissioned her to write a story using Twitter. And while the work she produced, ‘Black Box’, is a great short story, I felt cheated that the story was coming from the New Yorker Twitter account. Egan has her own Twitter account but it is not a space she frequents—it has only seven tweets—and she recently had to apologise because it was hacked and sent out spam about vitamin supplements. The performance was both under- and over-rehearsed: under-rehearsed in that Egan spent very little time on Twitter, and over-rehearsed in that there should be no rehearsing at all. Was she concerned that if she disseminated the story herself, from her own account, it would be considered self-publishing?
At nearly 9000 words in length, the story also stands in sharp contrast to Twitter’s concision. The New Yorker fiction Twitter account disseminated it over ten nights, for one hour each night. All I could hear was the distinct bleeping of a dump truck reversing onto the side of the information highway and dropping the haul. This bloodless scheduling gave little consideration to the internal timing and beats of Twitter, forcing the Australian writer Briohny Doyle to observe, real time: ‘J. Egan story proves twitter is a shit medium for reading stuff longer than slogans and following over-tweeters is heaps annoying.’ I retweeted Doyle—again, partly as a form of saving with the intention to include that line in this essay—and lost all confidence in the Egan story until I read it in full on the New Yorker website.
The story is better than the initial mode of delivery. It is a sharp piece of dystopian science fiction. Egan’s story is all slogans, pushing weird futuristic aphorisms, delivered in a dead pan, instructive second person. Three tweets in, however, she suggests: ‘If you’re having trouble perceiving and projecting, focus on projecting.’
This seems like an early barbed commentary on Twitter—all projection and no perception, all tip, no iceberg. This is a routine criticism of social media sites: that there is no editing process, but as Egan must know herself, there is a perpetual process of self-editing and censorship. Twitter is, for most users, an extended exercise in autobiography. It becomes more interesting, however, when the writing pursues abstraction or the fictional.
This is something Australian writers are beginning to explore. Peter Polites’ brilliant short story, ‘From Peasant to Proletariat: An Autotwitography’, published in The Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, played with the confessional voice to humorous effect. Nadine von Cohen, a popular-culture columnist, considers her Twitter account as a fictional version of herself, in which she writes in capitals and prefaces every tweet with FUCK YEAH. The poet Astrid Lorange disseminates Gertrude Stein-like L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E poems in the form of tweets, which are as good as any of her published work.
In his review of Lorange’s 2011 debut Eating and Speaking, Tom Lee suggests that ‘in reading Lorange’s collection one imagines a kind of ur-writing, where operations of filtering, selecting, screening, sifting, parsing, and arranging are digitally (that is to say indexically and tactfully) involved’. Lee identifies something significant to the composition of contemporary Australian poetics, but this speaks just as directly to experimental writing composed using Twitter. There is no need to imagine the filtering, selecting, screening because this is precisely the process.
Wired.com hoped that Jennifer Egan’s ‘Black Box’ would see the return of serialised fiction—Egan mentioned that this nineteenth-century form was on her mind when she wrote the story. I find it interesting that such a forward-thinking technology magazine would hope something experimental would give way to something old-fashioned.
Twitter has cited Teju Cole and Jennifer Egan in their announcement of the Twitter Fiction Festival, an officiated five-day festival seeking submissions for stories and live conversations. Wired.com ran the story with the exaggerated headline ‘First Twitter fiction festival might mutate storytelling forever’. The festival, starting in late November 2012, includes an official program and an official list of authors like any other literary festival, so seems to be missing the spontaneity of Cole’s approach compared to that of Egan.
Cole is using his Twitter feed to experiment with what we might call ‘spontaneous essays’ that can seem as improvised as jazz. Cole has described them as ‘unpremeditated’. When the first of these essays appeared, he flagged the exercise as a ‘seven-part excursus for Saturday morning’, each part being an individual tweet. If we consider the definition of excursus as: ‘1. A detailed discussion of a particular point in a book, usually in an appendix. 2. A digression in a written text’, does this mean that Cole considers these experimental essays as a digression from the written text of his Twitter feed?
Each age has its presiding metaphor. Ours is aerial bombing.
Drone warfare and the IMF are variations on a theme: decisions taken from a great height, with disregard for consequences on the ground.
Downton Abbey’s popularity is about a nostalgia for class superiority, and the desire to watch those who act from a great height.
Virgin Atlantic’s obnoxious designation of First Class as ‘Upper Class’ is about the same idea: that class is benign and charming.
One question links the IMF, drones, Virgin’s ‘Upper Class’, Limbaugh’s violence and Strauss-Kahn’s, and the mania for ‘Downton Abbey’.
The question is this: those people down there, are they really people? It’s a question about for whose sake this world exists.
Someone in soft, casual clothes in a featureless building in Nevada presses a button, and the question disappears.
The comment on drone culture is Don DeLillo apocalypse anxiety, heightened by the use of new technology. Cole seems to be engaging in something deeper here than anything he attempts in his philosophical Sebaldian novel, as admirable as that form is (and which might be considered experimental but perhaps only in terms of mainstream publishing). Following this series, Cole offered another excursive essay, this time reflecting on the Kony 2012 campaign—a video campaign launched by Invisible Children Inc, intended to bring awareness to their plight and to have the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony arrested by December 2012. Cole suggested it was little more than an example of what he called the White Savior Industrial Complex.
From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.
The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.
Then comes the king hit: ‘Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.’ Cole’s clipped commentary was more excitedly picked up in the discussion of the ethics of the campaign than practically any other opinion editorial and was reproduced in full on the Atlantic and New York Times websites. In a long essay subsequently published on the Atlantic site, Cole defended his position in writing the commentary, stating that the tweets ‘were intentional in their irony and seriousness. I believed that a certain kind of language is too infrequently seen in our public discourse. I am a novelist. I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn’t have a point.’
It seems that the near pointlessness of Twitter affords Cole a degree of creative freedom. Experimentation with the form can be rewarding. This year, my friend and fellow writer Samuel Cooney and I decided to swap passwords to our Twitter accounts for a month. People had already been confusing us (one of Cooney’s interns on his magazine the Lifted Brow thought that I was a fake Twitter account that Cooney had invented). I’m not suggesting our project is a great literary work, but it was exciting to wake up each morning and read what you had done the night before—things I never did, statements I never made. For that month I was a fictional character. The ghost writer was making the life up on the go. I was very happy to have incorrectly attributed to me the ingenious work of someone who is a visionary of the absurdist, non-sequitur list-making that Twitter excels in:
Nunchucks made from baby baboon femurs.
A bow made from the pelvis of an Irish Setter, string made from the Achilles heel tendon of an adolescent llama, arrows are porcupine quills.
A boomerang made from the fused ribs of a lowland zebra.
I received retweets for these and more, and gained more readers. In return I lost Cooney followers and probably damaged his reputation—partly inspired by von Cohen and the fictional @wise_kaplan account (a sharp parody of an erudite but unstable editor type), I prefaced most of his tweets with the fact he was naked—but I was allowed to experiment with a creative voice that I had previously had trouble accessing, and was able to do this anonymously and in front of a modest-sized, mostly favourable audience.
At the end of her essay on The Clock, published in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith admits that ‘really an essay is not the right form in which to speak of it’. But what other medium should we be aiming for? This essay could not have been written and distributed on Twitter. It would not have worked, so Matt Pearce’s rubric for discussing Twitter remains elusive. I believe it exists somewhere in creating the kind of serious and considerate literary criticism we would use for any art form (without pressuring authors to be aware of their feeds and accounts as literary projects). A good Twitter feed is not a sideshow; in some cases it can be the main event.
- In her 2010 wrap up of Twitter, Alice Gregory, writing for the journal n+1, pointed out this particular gem from West: ‘I specifically ordered persian rugs with cherub imagery!!! What do I have to do to get a simple persian rug with cherub imagery uuuuugh.’