Damn Hemingway’s baby shoes: some thoughts on Twitter fiction

There  have been a couple of high profile attempts to make use of Twitter for fiction purposes – I’m thinking of Rick Moody’s Some Contemporary Characters, and Jennifer Egan’s more recent Black Box – but neither of them seem fully to embrace the medium.

If Moody’s story, sent out via Electric Literature in 153 tweets over three days in 2009, taught us one thing, it was that you mustn’t get other people to systematically retweet every single entry of the story, as anybody following all those feeds is going to get pretty annoyed at having the thing clogging up their timeline like pondweed. Also, as a short story essentially chopped up into tweet-sized pieces, it didn’t really explore the formal possibilities offered by the social media site.

In this, Egan’s story was a step forward. Black Box, sent out via the New Yorker fiction account (@NYerFiction) for an hour a day over ten days last May, seemed to grasp the poetic potential of the form: that each tweet had to work on its own, rather than as part of a linear narrative. Accordingly Black Box was written in the second person, as a series of (internalised, self-directed) instructions or comments for the protagonist, a female spy sent to infiltrate the baddy’s tropical island HQ.

Determine whether your Designated mate seeks physical intimacy; if not, feign the wish for a nap.

Your pretense of sleep will allow him to feel that he is alone.

Curling up under bedclothes, even those belonging to any enemy subject, may be soothing.

This detached, knowing narrative style works well on Twitter, I think. The form calls for authority. It tends towards the aphoristic: think of George Szirtes’ wonderful New Proverbs of Hell. It doesn’t like holding multiple characters in mind, but it does like exchanges between a pair of established characters: eg, again, Szirtes’ occasional odd couple Doctor and Langoustine, or Lars Iyers’ Lars and W.

The worst kind of Twitter fiction, for me, is the single-tweet standalone narrative, which is really only an extension of that other low-value form, the six word story, made famous by Hemingway’s awful “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. You can find some of it, some of it better than others, at nanoism.net. Oblong Magazine is another. Search ‘twitter haiku’ and you know what you will find… and it will not be Bashō.

Last year The Guardian challenged 21 authors to produce tweet-length narratives, and not many of them are worth even a first glance. I like Charlie Higson’s

Jack was sad in the orphanage til he befriended a talking rat who showed him a hoard of gold under the floor. Then the rat bit him & he died.

for its wealth of narrative, relative to the other examples, and successful use of an ironic reversal, when poor old shit Jeffrey Archer came up with the frankly kindergarten-level

“It’s a miracle he survived,” said the doctor. “It was God’s will,” said Mrs Schicklgruber. “What will you call him?” “Adolf,” she replied.

Last year’s inaugural Twitter Fiction Festival threw up a couple of decent ideas, my favourite of which came from Elliott Holt, who created three fictional Twitter personas (Simon Smith-Millar, Elsa Johannsen and Margot Burnham), and developed a story via their tweets over a single evening. Not a bad idea, but for this to work, characters would have to be embedded for longer, and interact with other Tweeters – the fabric between fact and fiction online (or rather fact and fantasy) is blurred in so many ways that a Twitter ‘reality novel’ could be worth creating. Think what Bret Easton Ellis tried to do with his fake memoir novel Lunar Park, and see what he does with his Twitter account, and imagine if he had the guts and nous to really push the two together, semi-real, semi-scripted, like an episode of TOWIE. That would be worth reading.

Which really brings us back to the Egan/Moody conundrum, that Twitter serialisation doesn’t take account of how people use the site, how it ebbs and flows in their work and social lives. When I had the idea for my own Twitter-based story, J, which I had, fortuitously enough, on New Year’s Eve of last year, it was that it would be a story written and posted at the rate of one tweet a day over a whole calendar year.

It was immediately obvious that a normally constructed narrative, as really, are both Egan’s and Moody’s Twitter stories, would not work like this. You can’t expect people to stay interested in the unfolding of a story at such a slow pace. Nor can you construct a narrative with plot-dependent entries; it’s got to be followable, more or less, even when you miss out an entry or two, or seven, or more.

The solution was to construct a narrative which somehow has built into it both the slow rhythm of a daily post, and the very specific narrative length of a year, to which we are all, at some very basic level, very much attuned. And so it was that I had the idea of a story that follows its protagonist’s entire life, from birth to death, over the course of a year.

Kicked into the furious blizzard of sound and light that only later turned out to be the world, J fought and fought to die, but all in vain.

Thus it started. A month later, on 1 February, we were here:

J’s mother went back to work, was made redundant, found another job, quit. On J’s seventh birthday she went to see her GP.

This links in to something I have become interested in in other artworks over the past few years, the idea of duration. Like many people I was intrigued by Christian Marclay’s film/art installation The Clock, a cinematic collage of clips from films that show the time onscreen, on a clock or a watch, cut together to last 24 hours. Watching it, you were absolutely fixed to the spot, you were under no illusion as to where, and when, you were. As people in the films did the kinds of things people do at that time of day, here you were, not doing those things, but stood in an art gallery watching them.

Watching The Clock made me think of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, and it made me think of clocks that count down to the Millennium, or the Olympics, or your own death, based on medical data.

What are the rhythms by which we live our lives? A year. A month. A week. A day. An hour. A minute. A second. All of these rhythms move in circles, and some of them specifically offer themselves as ways of measuring ourselves. Every birthday, or New Year’s Day, or anniversary of a death of a wedding, we are able to compare where we are now to where we were a year ago. We might think of our finances in terms of months – each bank statement shows ingoings and outgoings since the last. Perhaps most obviously, the days of the week come around almost before we know it – how much have we got done since it was last Monday morning? And, Christ, is it nearly the end of February already?

What J, the story, does, is map a lifetime onto a year, in the manner of a time-lapse film of a flower blooming, or clouds whizzing over the desert. J doesn’t know when she is going to die, but I do – on December 31 2013, at the age of 80, or thereabouts. Divide 365 by 80 and you get 4.5, meaning that J ages a year every four-and-a-half days. Not that the narrative sticks to that like glue, and nor does it necessarily give the reader regular time checks, but it’s a guide.

A day is a 365th of a life.

A week is a year and a bit.

A month is about seven years.

Today, Thursday 21 February, is the 52nd day of the year, and J is eleven and a half, a year or so older than my eldest sons. Map a year onto a week and it has just turned Tuesday. My character has had a seventh of her allotted life.

She will overtake me at the end of June. That’s when she (and I, if I were her) will have lived half of her allotted life.

The future I see for Twitter fiction is not about cramming a narrative into 140 characters, but about hijacking the way our online lives offers new loops and rhythms for us to measure our lived lives by. People used to fantasise that one day we would wear computers on our wrists like watches. Then people started to remark that no one wears watches any more, so dependent are we on our phones. But really, our online phones help us navigate time in many more subtle ways than simply telling us what time it is.

Read and follow ‘J’ here: twitter.com/365daystory



  1. Pingback: Twitternovels – More Twitter than novel | Masters of Media
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