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Author Junot Diaz poses for a photo on Granville Island in Vancouver, B.C. October 17, 2012. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)
Author Junot Diaz poses for a photo on Granville Island in Vancouver, B.C. October 17, 2012. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

Twitter fiction: hip new literary genre or just a parlour game? Add to ...

I get nervous when talking to young writers about the Internet. I’m so hopelessly behind I’m afraid I will embarrass myself. I wanted to write about the Twitter Fiction Festival, a contest happening this week, sponsored by Twitter, to which the general public is encouraged to send stories that they are writing in 140-character bursts, which I thought maybe represented something new or something we will all be doing soon, so I e-mailed a guy I know to be postmodernist and pop-culture friendly and involved with underground forms and video cameras, for an expert opinion. Canadian writer Nathaniel G. Moore, author of the novel Wrong Bar and proficient Internet-manipulator, responded, “Sure, yes. But Twitter as a genre is already overdone.”

See, that’s how fast it moves. I embarrassed myself just by asking the question.

Moore pointed out to me that simultaneous with the move to digital platforms comes a decidedly lo-fi trend in narrative – a trend that appeals to the same young, educated demographic – and that is storytelling, old-fashioned live storytelling in front of a real audience with no computer screens. This is the form promoted by the New York-based organization The Moth, for example, that fosters “true tales of ordinary life” performed with some verve and charm, usually in places where alcohol is served. The two hip genres couldn’t be more different. One is about extreme compression and strict formal restraint, the other is more expansive.

There are great pleasures to be had from the former, although I’m not sure they are new ones. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan’s recent sci-fi thriller story Black Box, which she tweeted, was written as a set of instructions to spies – an intricate machine of oblique narrative strategies. Nigerian-American author Teju Cole is tweeting pithy 140-character stories, that he is calling “small fates”; they are inspired by the French journalistic tradition of faits divers (A sample story, in its entirety: “Not far from the Surulere workshop where spray-painter Alawiye worked, a policeman fired into the air. Gravity did the rest.”)

I also quite enjoyed the recent collaborative story started by Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz on Twitter. The idea of a Miami public radio station, to coincide with the Miami Book Fair, it worked like this: Diaz tweeted the first line. (“The dogs hadn’t barked all week.”) Listeners then tweeted their own possible next lines. The organizers retweeted their favourites and assembled a complete story out of them. The result was predictably silly – like a game one plays after a boozy dinner – yet surprisingly, not terrible.

But I have to admit I didn’t read any of these stories as they were tweeted. I have no patience for a story that unfurls as slowly as that. I wait until the tweets are done and the whole story is compiled somewhere and then read it all at once. So I am missing what the experience is supposed to be like – fragmented and lengthy.

Paradoxically, although the experience of receiving Tweets over several days is quite long, the completed Twitter fictions tend to be quite short. (The collaborative story inspired on the Diaz line was in its entirety only about a page long.) So what is the advantage of publishing in this format? Does it make us experience literature anew or is it just a parlour game?

Since Moore is a guy who is no stranger to Web-based writing – he is publishing bursts of his work-in-progress, Savage, on Facebook and is simultaneously promoting the as-yet-unpublished book with visuals and videos and contests on Tumblr – I thought he would be a fervent supporter of Twitter fiction. “Twitter is not a real genre,” he said. He argues it’s just short fiction: When you reprint the tweets in order, losing the visual structure of your phone screen, the constraints of the format lose their point. Fiction in literary magazines, he points out, whether online or print, is getting shorter and shorter, and that may be limiting. “Everybody’s saying, send us something that’s under 200 words. People can have results very quickly with this – they can instantly publish a magazine and say look what we did.”

I actually thought a connected guy like Moore would be telling me how to enable the EmotoSpurt feature on my ThoughtPulse tablet and cloudstream my adware microfiction promonovel directly to the hivebrain ... But surprisingly, he is more interested in the live performance trend. He likes the idea because it takes meticulous rehearsal and memorization of long narratives and doesn’t involve the isolation and introspection of computer screens.

The revelation reminds me that I read Jennifer Egan’s story Black Box in the New Yorker (print edition!) without even knowing it had first appeared as an experiment in new media. It made no difference to my enjoyment. Fixed forms in every art are great and fun and stimulating but require no electronic device to generate.

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