#Twitterfiction goes mainstream

Steven Soderbergh is writing a book—though it won’t have pages, paragraphs, or chapters more than a few lines long.

Steven Soderbergh (Axel Schmidt/dapd)
Steven Soderbergh (Axel Schmidt/dapd)

The director of “Traffic” and “Magic Mike” was, as of the writing of this post, 90 tweets into his Twitter novella, “Glue,” which seems to chronicle (in an abstract, disjointed, 140-character kind of way) the movements of two unnamed spies in France. It’s a first for Soderbergh, who has stuck to directing, producing and screenwriting in the past. But it’s an increasingly common application for Twitter, which actually hosted its own literary festival in November.

In fact, in the past year, Twitter literature—Twitterature?—has popped up everywhere from academia to The Guardian to the hallowed pages of The New Yorker. Teju Cole, one of the pioneers of the genre, recently wrapped up a two-year project in which he tweeted — in sparse, merciless, lyrical prose — the fantastical true crime stories of Lagos, Nigeria.

 

 

Jennifer Egan wrote her New Yorker story “Black Box” as a series of tweets. In a separate piece for the New Yorker describing her process, Egan lauded the genre “because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters.”

 

 

 

Further afield, inventive writers have created entire characters (or caricatures) and given them Twitter life. D.C. novelist Elliot Holt created fake accounts for several fictional characters to weave a story of death at a rooftop party. Karl Welzein—not a real person—has captivated tens of thousands. Dan Sinker turned @MayorEmanuel, his hilarious, expletive-laden parody of the Chicago mayor, into a book—which Wired called Twitter’s “first truly great piece of literature.”


Twitter lit is defined by the 140-character length of each installment, even as the genre borrows conventions from around the short-form world, including from flash fiction and six-word stories. The prose are brief and often witty. The genre thrives on wordplay, syllogism, abstraction and hyperbole. If this sounds like poetry, that’s because each entry, if not the entire story being told, often is.

“The space of 140 characters is a membrane or chrysalis that allows the identity of the story to safely form,” Jessica Otto, the founder of online Twitter lit mag “Trapeze,” wrote in 2011. “An author can create abstraction out of a concrete plot … and ignore realities that are enforced by long fiction.”

Will Soderbergh’s “Glue” aspire to those heights? If his clunky first seven “chapters” are any indicator, probably not. But the story is young, and the genre endlessly flexible—and Soderbergh, it appears, has many tweets to go.

His latest reads only, ominously: “END OF CHAPTER SEVEN.”

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Emi Kolawole | May 3, 2013