Photo credit: theimpulsivebuy
If reading were food, the serialised novel would be the degustation menu. Tantalising chunks of story meted out piece by piece. That experience doesn’t happen all that often today – at least, not away from the TV and computer screen. Sure, we wait, achingly, for the latest installment of Game of Thrones or Mad Men, but in fiction once-serialized stories come packaged start to finish and we’re free to binge. There are times, however, when restraint might be just what is needed.
A case in point is the short story by Jennifer Egan just published by the New Yorker via Twitter. Egan is no stranger to thoughtful experimentation with format. Her Pulitzer prize–winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad plays with chronology and narrative, shuffling together 13 almost interlocking chapters that range in dimension from a celebrity interview to a PowerPoint presentation. Reading this chapter is the only occasion I can remember ever coming away from a PowerPoint slide feeling like I knew more than when I began reading.
Still, I confess, when I heard about the Twitter story, I had reservations. In December 2009, Rick Moody collaborated with the magazine Electric Literature to produce a story exclusively for the Twitter format. Unfortunately, Moody’s story, ‘Some Contemporary Characters’, misunderstood the medium both logistically and creatively.
The story was tweeted in 10-minute intervals by @ElectricLit, which also enlisted 20 partners to publish the story in their own Twitter streams, the idea being that this would help maximise the story’s exposure. Problem was, the partners were all related to literature and writing in one way or another and most people following one tweeter were likely to be following another. This resulted in a dispatch of repeated Rick Moody tweets six times an hour.
At the level of story there were also problems. Moody’s narrative, about two internet daters (groan) was told in alternating tweets from the perspective of each character. However, it was never quite clear if readers were supposed to take these 140 characters (the title is a pun, gettit?) as thoughts tweeted by the characters, or if Twitter just happened to be a means of publication for a regular old story. Then came the problem of why he had decided to use a single Twitter feed for a story coming from two individual points of view. Why not fully exploit the form and bring each character into being on Twitter for the life of the story? Which is to say, it felt as though Moody hadn’t really thought about the point of publishing the story on Twitter but had written it offline and then sliced it up for Twitter delivery. When reflecting on the experiment, digital publishing guru Richard Nash compared it to ‘serializing a saxophone solo’.
The question of serialisation and Twitter jumped out again when the news about Egan’s ‘Black Box’ filtered through my Twitter stream from (surprisingly – to me, at least) Wired. ‘Let’s Hope Jennifer Egan’s Twitter Story Heralds the Return of Serial Fiction,’ they exclaimed. I’d never had Wired pegged as too interested in serialised storytelling until it clicked that it wasn’t Dickens but Dune they were probably thinking about. Virtually all early sci-fi novels appeared first as serials in the pages of pulp magazines such as Astounding, Amazing and If.
Egan’s story is part of the New Yorker’s sci-fi issue. It involves a spy undercover, keeping track of her thoughts and feelings while maintaining an outward charade. No tricky surprises, no multi-person perspectives, no winking nods to online lifestyles. As a device, using the constrictions of Twitter in this way works: it’s psychologically reasonable for a person in this scenario to think in a mode that is both terse and reflective. This spy is not tweeting; she’s thinking in short, sharp bursts that have the rhythm of deep, but hurried, breath. It’s exciting to read. @NYerFiction tweeted the story in one-minute intervals for an hour every evening last week (but readers can also read the full digest here and of course in full in the issue). The narrative and character unspool in minute-by-minute bursts. Here’s the first section to give you a taste:
People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.
The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important.
If you’re having trouble perceiving and projecting, focus on projecting.
Necessary ingredients for a successful projection: giggles; bare legs; shyness.
The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible.
When you succeed, a certain sharpness will go out of his eyes.
Egan says she’s been working and reworking her 140-character sentences for much of the past year, and it shows. Each one is so rich that the reading takes on the quality of digestion. Maybe it’s not for nothing that tweets are often described as ‘bite-sized’. In the case of Egan’s story, they’re also wholly satisfying.
Caroline Hamilton is a Killings columnist, and a research fellow at the University of Melbourne investigating the future of publishing, writing and reading. She has also written a book about the publishing success of Dave Eggers, One Man Zeitgeist.