Authors are turning Twitter into a literary genre, 140 characters at a time by Olivia Goldhill

Award-winning author David Mitchell is writing a new short story, and you can read his work-in-progress on Twitter.

Over the past four days, Mitchell has intermittently posted tweets from the perspective of his narrator, an obsessive stalker and hacker. The story is told in the style of slang-filled tweets, rather than 140-character snippets of narrative. But the Twitter handle @I_Bombadil is a reference to a Tolkien character, and there are frequent cultural allusions amid the hashtags and emojis.

Ever see GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING film? Nottalotta action TBH, but v.classy allthesame. Some1 wrote novelisation2. (Like u I like books)xB

— I_Bombadil (@I_Bombadil) September 7, 2015

This is not Mitchell’s first piece of #TwitterFiction (he’s tweeting this piece to promote his upcoming novel Slade House, which has its origins in a 6,000 word Twitter story The Right Sort). And Mitchell is not the only respected writer to take Twitter fiction seriously.

Philip Pullman spent several months tweeting the tale of Jeffrey the housefly, Pulitzer prize-winner Jennifer Egan published Black Box via the New Yorker’s Twitter feed and Margaret Atwood was one of many established authors who took part in this year’s #TwitterFiction festival.

Jeffrey listless, melancholic. My fault: I left a volume of French verse open on the kitchen table and he’d spent the night on Baudelaire.

— Philip Pullman (@PhilipPullman) November 21, 2013

There’s no doubt that writers’ interest in Twitter fiction is partly driven by publishers. Authors are encouraged to use social media to engage with their readers, and a large Twitter following can translate into strong book sales.

But while Twitter may be filled with snarky comments and aggressive trolls, there’s no reason why stories with serious literary value can’t be published via tweets.

Melissa Terras, professor of Digital Humanities at University College London, says that every literary medium has some kind of constraint, and Twitter is simply the latest restriction.

“It’s the role of literature to play with forms,” she told Quartz from London. “In poetry you have very rigid forms, and people have to operate within those constraints. With Twitter fiction, people are taking the limitation of 140 characters and doing something creative. It’s a slightly different artform and it creates a different experience of fiction.”

Authors have already embraced several different styles of writing Twitter fiction.

Rita Raley, associate professor of English at University of California, Santa Barbara, told Quartz that Mitchell’s latest piece of Twitter fiction seems less compelling than his earlier work, though his use of modern vernacular “could work quite brilliantly.”

Meanwhile, Raley describes Egan’s Twitter story as “short poetic exercises”, where atomistic tweets are strung together to form a narrative.

People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.

— New Yorker Fiction (@NYerFiction) May 25, 2012

She points to Teju Cole’s series of seven stories on drones as an example of fiction that can be told within one 140-character tweet.

6. Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.

— Teju Cole (@tejucole) January 14, 2013

Not everyone is convinced that Twitter fiction should be taken seriously.

“Can Twitter be an art form? Toothpicks can be an art form!” Jonathan Franzen #NYerFest

— Maria Popova (@brainpicker) October 5, 2013

But, as Terras says, resistance to new literary mediums is inevitable. In the Victorian era, critics were aghast when production press technology became more advanced and allowed authors to write longer novels. “You had all these critics saying, ‘The books are too long, they’re awful’,” she said.

But as writers embraced the new medium, readers and critics came to celebrate their work. Perhaps the today’s avant-garde authors of Twitter will be just as convincing.

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