Telling stories, 140 characters at a time

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By John Walsh

London - Readers who complain that novels are too bloated and baggy these days will welcome the news of the first Twitter Fiction Festival this month. It won’t take place in a field in Hay-on-Wye or the town hall in Cheltenham; it’ll occur online, under the hashtag #twitterfiction. And it has so few rules, the organisers are asking contributors to make them up.

“We’re looking for new, creative, exciting ideas that will push the bounds of how we tell stories on Twitter. Tell us how you are going to explore content formats that already exist on Twitter… or how you’ll create a new one,” they say.

Much of Twitter operates as a linkage service, urging a tweeter’s followers to read an attached article or view an attached video. Many tweets are smart remarks – and Gertrude Stein famously told Ernest Hemingway: “Remarks, Hemingway, aren’t literature.” Twitterfiction uses the tiny compass of a Tweet – 140 characters – as a creative or critical tool. We’ve seen many examples already.

Twitterature (Penguin, 2009) by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, retold great works of fiction through multiple tweets that cut through the, you know, verbiage to the meat of the plot, whether it’s Oedipus Rex (“PARTY IN THEBES! Nobody cares I killed that old dude, plus this woman is all over me. Total MILF”), or Anna Karenina (“Alright, twenty rubles says I can toss my bag in the air, run across the tracks and catch it before the train arriv…”). The hilarity soon fades.

A chap with the Twitter handle of @biblesummary offers a condensed version of the Bible, one Tweet a chapter, one chapter a day. It’s ingenious, because the terse précis suits the Old Testament (“The serpent deceived the woman; she and Adam ate from the tree. The earth became cursed, and God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden.”)

On Bloomsday (June 16) last year, a group of Joyce fans chopped the 20th century’s greatest novel into Tweets, each “representing” eight pages of Ulysses, a doomed and fatuous exercise about which Joyce would have expressed contempt.

In last week’s Guardian, certain writers, including Ian Rankin and Jilly Cooper, were asked to write a story in under 140 characters. The results were patchy, more like jokes than bonsai tales (David Lodge’s was: “Your money or your life!” “I’m sorry, my dear, but you know it would kill me to lose my money,” said the partially deaf miser to his wife.) But they pointed the way to a genuine innovation: using Twitter to tell a story in real time.

The best exponent so far is Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer-winning author of A Visit From the Goon Squad. In May she tweeted Black Box (a series of dispatches from an undercover agent in the future) on The New Yorker’s Twitter feed, at one tweet a minute, for an hour, and did the same for 10 nights until the 8 500-word story was finished. It offered a thoroughly conventional experience of reading literature in instalments (see Charles Dickens), provided you could stand the jerky rhythm. You’ve got until November 28 to set the Twittersphere alight. #goodluck – The Independent

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