Novel idea: Twitter fiction

By MIKE MILIARD  |  January 14, 2009

Read all over
Initially wary of yet another social-networking site for which to be on the hook, Scharpling soon recognized Twitter's potential: it was like the best part of Facebook — the status updates — without the hassle of uploading photos or getting "poked."

"It's such an immediate thing," he says. "You have two sentences you wanna say, and you just say them instantly. If somebody's following you, they get that thought — boom — the second you write it."

But after putting Twitter to more orthodox use for a few weeks, Scharpling started thinking. "Where are the parameters of this thing?," he asked himself. "It doesn't have to just be, 'I'm waiting to go see Benjamin Button with my friends.' What if I took on an enormous undertaking, but did it with this thing piece by piece?"

Others were wondering the same thing.

Toronto ad man John Kewley — he writes concisely for a living — likens Twitter, teeming with constant updates, to a global "brainstream" where users can submerge themselves in others' thoughts, feelings, and existential particulars. So he's co-writing a language-dense, James Joyce– and Philip K. Dick–inspired Twitter sci-fi narrative, Joy Motel, the plot of which plugs the reader into the protagonist's stream of consciousness.

Kewley's writing partner, Wayne Allen Sallee, is someone he's never met. ("We've never even spoken on the telephone.") Nonetheless, they correspond online, and "share a wavelength," and one day, when Sallee tweeted Kewley with "a snippet of a film noir–sounding sentence," Kewley replied in kind. "I sent him one back, to sort of build on his, and we did about 20 of those."

The pair banged on back and forth, braced by the brevity and immediacy mandated by the medium. "You can just jump on there because you have half a thought, and then an hour later, Wayne will respond," says Kewley. "We don't know where this is going. It's real-time writing on Twitter."

Goodbye, The Book?
But is it literature? "My immediate reaction is that I'm horrified," says Chris Castellani, artistic director of Boston writers' workshop Grub Street.

Then, for a moment, he rethinks his position. On one hand, while the act of dashing off repeated tweets seems too facile, says Castellani, "I know how difficult it is to write short things really well." Certainly at Grub Street, "We're always stressing how important economy of language is."

Scharpling, for one, relishes the restrictions imposed by Twitter's constrained format. Since the posts are so short, he says, "You end up crafting each sentence so it's packed with content," in order to keep the reader reading. "It's fascinating, in its own weird way. To me, it's hilarious to have every sentence just explode. Like, 'Joe Lieberman, covered in blood.' Okay — that'll keep people onboard."

In fact, though, that's one problem Castellani has with the format: the necessity of worrying "about keeping people hooked." Part of the point of reading, he argues, "is letting a novel unfold, letting it digress." Twitter writing, meanwhile, "concentrates all the action into intense moments."

(Then again, says Leslie Epstein, longtime director of BU's Creative Writing Program, "I wish half the novels I read stopped at 140 characters.")

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