Twitter and the Novel

by Andrew Marzoni

Mira Gonzalez and Tao Lin, Selected Tweets, SF/LD Books, 424pp, £10.95, ISBN
Various authors, The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary, AK Press, 272pp, £7.00, ISBN

Driving from New York to Atlanta in the first days of 2016, my fiancée and I listened to Elmore Leonard’s 1977 novel, The Hunted, as read by actor Mark Hammer in 1999. A complicated network of media technologies was required for our ‘reading’ of Leonard’s tale of an American businessman hiding out Israel and the thrill-seeking Marine who tries to keep the Detroit mob off his back: the audiobook version of the novel (first published in hardcover by Dell) was initially distributed via cassette (‘Please fast forward before moving on to the next tape,’ HarperAudio’s narrator, and not Hammer, repeats), transferred digitally to a personal computer, and then uploaded online, where I downloaded it to my personal computer, uploaded it to my iPhone, and played it through the tape deck of my 2003 Volkswagen Jetta by means of a cassette adapter, plugged into the phone through an auxiliary cable. The digital transfer of track nine of 12 (tape five, side A) is scrambled, chopping up Leonard’s already brusque dialogue into a sort of Burroughsian word salad – just as the drama begins its creep towards climax.

A media technology since its very beginnings, the novel has always suffered from an identity crisis in regard to its relationship with other media technologies. The initial appeal to factual autobiography, devotional memoir in early English novels like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (published as The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, where in all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates in 1719) or Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (or, Virtue Rewarded, its 1740 subtitle reads) gave way to an appeal to newsworthiness in the Victorian era: as his novels were published serially in newspapers and magazines, Charles Dickens was known to alter the plots of his novels to better reflect the whims of current events.

In the 20th century, the novel first became source material for film (and later, the television miniseries), then promotional material, with the ‘Now an Academy Award-Winning Film’ paperback reissue and the occasional ‘novelisation’ (1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind: A Novel, authored by Steven Spielberg himself, is a particularly good example). The comic book gave birth to the graphic novel, the cassette tape to the audiobook, Reaganomics to the Choose Your Own Adventure, the internet to the hypertext and the eBook. In 2016, anyone with an internet connection can be a novelist, editor, publisher, bookseller, librarian, publicist, reader, critic, and fan, all at the same time.

The longer a media technology sticks around, the more likely it is to the draw attention away from the novel, and as Twitter approaches its 10th anniversary this March, the novel has readied its defence. Though the medium has been loudly denounced by Jonathan Franzen as ‘unspeakably irritating,’ ‘the ultimate irresponsible medium,’ such platitudes from best-selling establishment figures only serve to substantiate Twitter’s avant-garde potential. Franzen blamed the medium’s 140-character limit for making it ‘hard to cite facts or create an argument’ (as if these are the things that the novel is supposed to do), comparing it to ‘writing a novel without the letter “P”’ – which, incidentally, is almost exactly what Georges Perec did in 1969’s La Disposition (A Void), excluding the letter ‘e’ in continuation of a lipogrammatic tradition that long precedes Franzen’s pronouncements on behalf of ‘serious readers and writers.’

Serious or not, Twitter’s character limit has proven attractive to recent crafters of narrative, among them Teju Cole, whose novel Open City won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 2012. In 2014, Cole ‘published’ a short story called ‘Hafiz’ on Twitter in the form of 31 retweets, each posted by a different Twitter user, transmitting a passage delivered to that user via direct message by Cole himself, the ‘author’ of the story. ‘Hafiz’ tells the story of a group of strangers brought together momentarily over the apparent heart attack of a man of a certain age, as the paramedics are called, and the man is ultimately wheeled into an ambulance. In an interview with Wired, Cole credited Twitter for engaging ‘the part of me that makes sentences. I try to shape a sentence that works. … When you’re writing fiction and longform prose, you think about the best sentences, of course, and you work on them. But when you’re tweeting, the sentences are isolated, they’re naked, and so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work.’ On the one hand, Twitter is like poetry, in that ‘every single line has a certain punch and precision to it’; on the other hand, it is like a drug: ‘I’m addicted to it the way I’m addicted to coffee or to my headphones: guiltlessly.’

The addiction metaphor is carried further by Mira Gonzalez and Tao Lin in their recent book, Selected Tweets. Both of the book’s authors are poets who initially achieved a degree of initial fame by publishing poetry on the internet, though Lin has garnered a reputation as a novelist, receiving considerable attention for his 2013 novel Taipei, of which Bret Easton Ellis tweeted, ‘With “Taipei” Tao Lin becomes the most interesting prose stylist of his generation, which doesn’t mean that “Taipei” isn’t a boring novel…’ On the surface, Selected Tweets strikes its reader as the 21st-century version of a Selected Letters, an omnibus collection of the young writers’ ephemera. As with letters, Gonzalez’s and Lin’s tweets comprise something more than correspondence, approaching memoir, and as such provide glimpses into their authors’ extra-literary lives and creative process. Yet the publication of tweets within a book – in this case, a 4” x 6” leather-bound novelty edition, with illustrations by Gonzalez – results in a translation more unsettling than the publication of letters, a medium more closely resembling the book in its traditional form. A certain kind of textuality, and intertextuality, emerges as one reads Gonzalez’s tweets against Lin’s—their transmissions exist in the same space (Twitter) and time (August 2008 to December 2014), and as their authors’ personae are nested in increasingly ‘uncensored’ handles (@tao_lin, @tao_linunedited, @tao_lin2, @tao_lin3, @tao_lin8, @tao_lin33; @miragonz, @miraunedited, @miracrying), we learn that Gonzalez and Lin are friends IRL at the same time that we are alerted to the fictitiousness of all correspondence. At various times monologue, dialogue, aphorism, joke, and broadcast, Selected Tweets showcases Twitter as a venue for the crafting of identity, the negotiation of the self. Twitter is a polyvocal space in which we can be alone together, and it is in this way that Selected Tweets has much in common with the modern novel.

Though (or, as Friedrich Kittler might say, because) its debut anticipated the iPhone by more than a year, Twitter is decidedly a telecommunications medium – along with the text message, the tweet is a direct descendant of the telegram, whose relationship with literature extends back to the 19th century. In ‘Henry James and the Mobile Phone’ (published in The Cambridge Quarterly in 2008), Adrian Poole addresses the proliferation of telegrams in James’s fiction. Noting the author’s own baroque extravagance in a telegram accepting an invitation from his friend Edwin Abbey which reads, ‘Will alight precipitately at 5.38 from the deliberate 1.50,’ Poole asks: ‘How much did those two redundant words cost James?’ Despite James’s fondness for the telegram, Poole finds it ‘hard to believe that he’d have a mobile phone of his own,’ not because of the technology’s linguistic restraints, but due to the author’s love of privacy: James ‘took pains to protect his personal space, approved of firm distinctions between the public world and private lives and deplored their erosion.’

James’s propriety aside, it is just as likely that the author would have disapproved of mobile communications on other grounds as well. In his 1884 essay, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ James defines the novel broadly as ‘a personal impression of life; that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression.’ This definition is belied by a belief in the authenticity, singularity, and unity of the self that stands in opposition not only to digital culture but the modernist mono/dialogues of Samuel Beckett (who, unlike James, had no telephone as late as 1950), Linda Rosenkrantz’s 1968 telephone-novel Talk, and the keitai shousetsu (or ‘cell phone novels’) of early 2000s Japan––all predecessors to Gonzalez’s and Lin’s contribution to the Twitter-ary canon.

Indeed, the Twitter-novel is more in line with Mikhail Bakhtin’s heteroglossic conception of the novel than James’s personal impression even at its most confessional. Gonzalez’s and Lin’s most personal tweets only serve to reveal the multitudinous cultural and interpersonal negotiations involved in the constitution of the ‘personal.’ In September 2013, @miraunedited asks her followers, ‘what are some extremely degrading things i could make tao do for me in exchange for these adderall crumbs I found in my wallet?,’ to which publishing Selected Tweets seems a legitimate response: more than anything, the book is a collection of the writer-as-wannabe-standup-comedian, Gonzalez and Lin delivering their best one-liners as they chronicle their parallel declines into substance abuse (@tao_lin seems to aptly summarise the book in May 2012, when he writes, ‘anthology of “downward spiral” portions of biographies/autobiographies’). At their most insightful, the tweets give their reader a glimpse into their authors’ creative processes: in October 2012, @miraunedited tweeted, ‘party update: the guy i lost my virginity to is having a baby,’ a line that reappears in Gonzalez’s poem ‘This Friday I woke up at 2PM,’ published in the online journal Muumuu House: ‘at 12:30am the guy i lost my virginity to told me he is having a baby.’ Even at their funniest, such as when @tao_lin33 compares the various ‘Tao Lin’ Twitter accounts (‘@tao_lin3 seems funny too, feel like I’m definitely the shittiest Tao Lin probably’), it is hard not to cringe at the raw display of discomfort in one’s own skin that Gonzalez’s and Lin’s drug use and Jamesian quotation marks attempt to hamper but ultimately cannot disguise.

Fortunately, a novelistic alternative to live-tweeting a cocaine-fuelled Planned Parenthood visit (something both @miragonz and @miracrying purport to have done) exists. AK Press, an anarchist imprint based in Oakland, California, published around the same time as Selected Tweets a similarly sized edition, reprinted from a previously released zine. The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary comprises hundreds of screenshots of tweets posted by teenagers in Baltimore between 19 April 2015, when Freddie Gray died in police custody, and May 1, 2015, when six Baltimore police officers were charged in Gray’s death. What falls in between is a hodgepodge of memes, selfies, retweets, and emoji both published and compiled in collective mourning for and frustration over Gray’s death, as well as prideful celebration of the city of Baltimore and the political viability of youth: on April 29, two days after Gray’s burial and ten into the protests, a Twitter user by the name of E-Money tweeted, ‘It’s safe to say that the juveniles run Baltimore lol #JusticeForFreddie.’ While some tweeters debate the ethical legitimacy of looting and violence, others mourn the cancellation of the senior prom. In its reconstruction of a collective out of Twitter’s endless mass, its inventive use of emoji and slang both local (‘rey’) and internet-derived (‘smh,’ ‘tfw’), The 2015 Baltimore Uprising advances the English language while bringing the novel back to its epistolary roots, providing a narrative commentary on a centralising event, a cast of characters, a time and a place.

As rumours abound that Twitter’s character limit is to be expanded from 140 to 10,000, one wonders not only about the future of the platform, but the possibility of a Twitter-novel sans livre. In October of last year, a woman from Detroit named Aziah Wells published a series of tweets under the auspicious name ‘Zola’ which went viral almost immediately. In over a hundred tweets, Zola’s story is one of prostitution, petty crime, drugs and betrayal. A low-life epic set in Florida, it treads Elmore Leonard territory, and is among the best literature I read in 2015. (I’m not the only one: Wells claims that she has been approached by Hollywood about purchasing the rights.) A literary text which has achieved the status of meme, Zola’s story captures the contemporary American vernacular more accurately and thrillingly than an author like Franzen likely ever will. If nothing else, Twitter affords the novel with a way to be novel once again, in ecstatic embrace of the dissolution of libraries into the Cloud, distinguishing the lovers of literature from the ranks of mere bibliophile.