Can You Write a Novel on Twitter?

The quest to write great literature, 140 characters at a time.

Illustrations by Maayan Pearl for FP
Illustrations by Maayan Pearl for FP
Illustrations by Maayan Pearl for FP

The Twitter feed of American novelist Elliott Holt usually includes remarks on what she's reading, retweets of friends' book news, and occasional political commentary. But one night a mystery unfolded there. As Holt's followers watched, she retweeted the feeds of three guests at a swanky party in SoHo. Each one encountered a red-haired woman and tweeted about her odd behavior:

The Twitter feed of American novelist Elliott Holt usually includes remarks on what she’s reading, retweets of friends’ book news, and occasional political commentary. But one night a mystery unfolded there. As Holt’s followers watched, she retweeted the feeds of three guests at a swanky party in SoHo. Each one encountered a red-haired woman and tweeted about her odd behavior:

@ElsaJohanssen: ummm a woman with red hair just sucked down three cocktails in a row. now she’s dancing like a maniac. #wtf

@MargotBurnham: Red haired woman has had way too much to drink. Those cocktails go down too easily.

@SimonSmithMilla: Woman with ginger hair is doing a show. What is this, Flashdance?

Later that night, the redhead fell to her death from the roof, letting out, according to @SimonSmithMilla, “A scream so infernal I wasn’t sure it was human.” Afterward, the guests’ Twitter feeds were cited as evidence of what had happened. But was the incident a suicide, a murder, or simply an accident?

None of the above: It was fiction. Holt, along with some 30 other writers around the world, was participating in Twitter’s first Fiction Festival, an event launched two years ago this fall to promote creative uses of the popular microblogging platform. In addition to Holt’s murder mystery, readers could follow, among others, a nanny in a fictional White House tweeting about her eerie visions (an updating of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw) and a “memoir in Tweets” by a fictional English B-movie star. Although much of the material seemed promising, the festival felt a little below the radar. While book-lovers could follow online from anywhere in the world, a sparsely attended meet-up anchored the event at that print bastion, the main branch of the New York Public Library. There, writers, editors, and readers milled around as tweets were projected onto TV screens. The same question appeared to be on everyone’s mind: Is this stuff to be taken seriously?

With its 140-character limit, Twitter wouldn’t seem an obvious outlet for narrative experimentation. Although it was conceived as a way for people to broadcast brief status updates, it caught on primarily as a means for users to connect with each other. Worldwide, there are currently around 650 million Twitter users who send a collective 500 million tweets each day. (In 2010, the U.S. Library of Congress appointed itself custodian of this output, preserving every public tweet in a digital archive.)

Yet tweeting has permeated the popular culture so deeply that the concept of Twitter literature was inevitable. Today, writers around the world such as Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell, and Teju Cole are producing original works on the platform. Even best-selling British writer Philippa Gregory, whose historical novels range in focus as far back as the 15th century, created a fictional feed for one of her characters. If Twitter literature started out as a scrappy affair, it is now moving rapidly into the mainstream. “Twitter is where the world tells its stories all day, every day” was the slogan for this year’s Twitter Fiction Festival, which featured work by popular authors such as Rhodesian-born British detective novelist Alexander McCall Smith and American thriller writer Brad Meltzer. In an interview with Fast Company, Andrew Fitzgerald, the Twitter media guru who has spearheaded the festivals to date, proclaimed Twitter “the ultimate canvas for creative storytellers.” For those who might think he’s getting a little carried away, New Yorker staffer Ian Crouch recently speculated that the next Great American Novel could be in the works on Twitter.

New forms of writing are indeed made possible by Twitter’s unique dynamics: namely, the flow of tweets in real time. And, certainly, moments of literary beauty and wit are to be found on Twitter. While many writers seem primarily attracted by the platform’s casual immediacy, others have been galvanized by the possibility of creating ambitious works fundamentally different from anything on the printed page. But their experiments show that rather than a new path for the novel, what Twitter offers is a platform for an increasingly sophisticated form of literary performance art. Whether it works as literature, as we understand it, is another question.

ONE MIGHT THINK THAT A WRITER WOULD most naturally use Twitter to unspool a narrative gradually, moment by moment. But when some novelists, including Egan, Mitchell, and McCall Smith, have tried to put this method into practice, the results have been mixed. Egan’s short story “Black Box,” which appeared in the June 4, 2012, issue of the New Yorker, was tweeted from the magazine’s @NYerFiction handle for an hour every evening for 10 days. Egan had been wondering “how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter,” she told the magazine’s Page-Turner blog. She came up with a lengthy sequence of single-sentence paragraphs, many coming in well under the 140-character limit, that amounted to a kind of handbook for a female spy in the future. Although she wrote the story by her usual method — in a notebook, by hand — its format as a step-by-step primer seemed suited to tweeted installments. “People rarely look the way you expect them to,” the story began (30 retweets). “If you’re having trouble perceiving and projecting, focus on projecting” (10 retweets). “Necessary ingredients for a successful projection: giggles; bare legs; shyness” (16 retweets). “The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible” (38 retweets).

Some readers enjoy watching these sorts of stories unfold, but others don’t — and for good reason. They find that Twitter is “a clunky way of delivering fiction,” as Sarah Crown, a former Guardian editor, complained on that newspaper’s Books blog in response to “Black Box.” (Crown also did not appreciate that a reader in Britain would have to stay up past midnight to follow Egan’s live tweets.) In addition, there’s the difficulty of assembling all the pieces later: If the tweets aren’t sequenced by an external site such as Storify, good luck finding them again.

There are other reasons it doesn’t work to tweet a linear story line by line. Deep, immersive reading suspends time, but attempting to follow a live narrative on Twitter makes readers hyperaware of the down time between tweets. David Mitchell’s story “The Right Sort,” about a boy high on his mother’s Valium, suggests that the way Twitter filters experience is similar to the effects of the drug: “The pill’s just kicking in now. Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch.” It’s hard not to read those lines as a comment on our collective addiction to repeated pings of new information. But the British novelist also finds poetry in Twitter’s fictional constraints. He compares the Twitter “straitjacket” to the playful restrictions employed by the French experimentalist Georges Perec, who wrote an entire novel without using the letter “e.” Each tweet, Mitchell has said, ought to be a “balanced entity,” as compact and elegant as a haiku.

Yet despite his idealistic intentions, Mitchell’s story, like Egan’s, was defeated by the mechanics of the Twitter platform. As one Washington Post critic noted, readers who followed Mitchell’s story were “either catching stray sentences in their social media feeds, or … scrolling, scrolling, scrolling to read all of @david_mitchell from top to bottom.” The natural momentum of the platform, which allows readers to move both forward and backward, can actually work against serialized literature. It is true that the medium’s unpredictability may generate an innate suspense: A user following from the beginning of a story must wait for each new passage of text to arrive. “The idea of installments is a very good idea,” McCall Smith remarked sanguinely of his own serialization efforts in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, because “everybody’s left wondering what’s going to happen next.” But that’s not how it works for most readers — those who join the stream in the middle of the sequence or after it has already ended. Those users are forced to scroll back to the opening of the story, experiencing the tweets in reverse sequential order. There’s no better way to ruin suspense than to read the ending first.

While McCall Smith has touted serialization as a “standard way of writing” for authors from Charles Dickens to Leo Tolstoy, it gained popularity in Victorian times as a way to sell newspapers, not as a spur for fictional experimentation. And, at any rate, newsprint is static, not a fluid medium. Rather than adding literary value to a story that’s intended to be read as a whole, serialization on Twitter seems nothing more than the latest way for authors to augment their readerships and market themselves. Even Twitter itself has gently discouraged would-be fiction writers from serializing. “We love fiction that uses Twitter functionality in the most creative way possible,” the guidelines for the most recent Fiction Festival read. “That means perhaps something more than just tweeting out a narrative line-by-line.”

For Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole, that “something more” has taken a variety of forms. First was a series of self-contained stories within the constraints of 140 characters, akin to the famous short-short story often falsely attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

@tejucole: Ude, of Ikata, recently lost his wife. Tired of arguing with her, he used a machete.

@tejucole: Arrested for theft in Mecca, the Nigerian immigrant Ibrahim is now learning to use his left hand.

@tejucole: Prince Monday Whiskey was, on Monday, whisked away by persons unknown.

Cole’s project “Small Fates,” which ran from 2011 to 2013, was inspired by the genre of faits divers, piquantly brief crime stories popularized by French periodicals around the beginning of the 20th century. He combed Nigerian newspapers for tales of especially resonant crimes and retold them in single tweets. Like epigrams, his tweets relied on careful word choice and devices such as rhythm, alliteration, and puns. Twitter’s enforced compression often heightened the irony: “With a razor blade, Sikiru, of Ijebu Ode, who was tired of life, separated himself from his male organ. But death eluded him.” Each tweet stood on its own, as Cole explicitly declined to weave them into a larger narrative.

“Most see [Twitter] as a sort of ephemeral and unworthy venue,” Cole told Matt Pearce of the New Inquiry. “My view is: That’s where the people are, so bring the literature to them.” The people responded, and Cole became one of the more popular highbrow authors on Twitter, with around 168,000 followers. Although he is currently taking a break from tweeting, as he recently told Foreign Policy, his reputation as a Twitter innovator could only have helped with the promotion of his novel Open City, which came out around the time he began “Small Fates.” But the novel, while brief, is discursive and ruminative, written in a style very different from Cole’s Twitter voice. In other words, he seemed to have discovered a way to use Twitter not as a delivery system for the kind of fiction he had been accustomed to writing, but as an impetus to create something entirely new.

Finishing “Small Fates” freed Cole to try out yet another method of using Twitter. In January 2014, he disseminated a story called “Hafiz,” composed as a series of tweets, to a number of friends who had agreed to tweet the work. Cole then retweeted the story, line by line, so that the narrative appeared in sequence in his own feed. The effect was choral, as if each storyteller stepped out of the Twitter cacophony, spoke his or her designated line, and then disappeared back into the din:

@AfricanCeleb: The seated man was closer to sixty than to fifty, dressed in an ordinary way, a button-down long-sleeved shirt, trousers.

@seyitaylor: His right hand was inside his shirt. He clutched at his heart and winced.

@pushinghoops: The young man with the phone said, “He’s having chest pains. Earlier he said he was having chest pains.”

In March, Cole published a long narrative essay, “A Piece of the Wall” (“POTW”), about a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. For this hybrid work of literary journalism, he incorporated the voices of people he interviewed, assigning a Twitter handle to each. This is how he represented his dialogue with a courtroom security guard:

@potw_Teju: @potw_Bernie Are you, yourself, from a Mexican family?

@potw_Bernie: @potw_Teju My father didn’t fight for this country in World War Two so that people could call me Mexican.

@potw_Teju: @potw_Bernie But the chains: these men are not dangerous. Why the chains?

@potw_Bernie: @potw_Teju It’s more convenient.

This dialogue illustrates one of Twitter’s defining characteristics: Its default mode is public. Conversations usually take place out in the open, where anyone can listen. Its literary analogue isn’t the Proustian genius sealed in his chamber; it’s an open-mic poetry slam, with the audience constantly interrupting to clap or boo. While Cole’s recent efforts mimic this interactivity, they function effectively as literature because they do not actually surrender to it. In selecting and arranging the tweets to suit his purposes, he remains the puppeteer behind the scenes — as he must.

A few writers have gestured toward the idea of responsive fiction on Twitter, notably best-selling fantasy author Andrea Cremer (@andreacremer), who responded to comments from her roughly 16,000 followers as she tweeted a story about a person who finds a mysterious unopened letter in an attic. But all serious fiction has to be hermetic, because writers must maintain control over their work. Imagine Tolstoy, while tweeting Anna Karenina, taking reader suggestions regarding his protagonist’s fate: Send her back to her husband! No, throw her under the train!

TWITTER LITERATURE AS A PHENOMENON may be gaining popular traction, but is the quality of the fiction keeping pace? Some regard Elliott Holt’s Manhattan murder mystery, from the original Twitter Fiction Festival, as the most creative use yet of the platform. Unlike the writers who serialized work designed for the page, Holt was a regular Twitter user when she wrote her story, and she created it with the medium in mind: “the way it unfolds in real time, the performative nature of tweets, the hashtags and irony, even the typos,” she told BuzzFeed this year. American author Chris Arnold recently did something similar with his piece “#PolarVortex,” which depicts the fictional @NEX_Airport in the throes of a winter storm. Public relations tweets from fictional airlines and ads for the airport’s sushi bar mingle with the stories of stranded passengers and crew members — one anxiously en route to a job interview, another watching his relationship fall apart via text. With a nod to the increasing use of Twitter as a means for sharing images, Arnold’s narrative takes advantage of the platform’s visual capabilities, collaging weather maps, photographs, and video in his feed.

To a person familiar with Twitter, these projects are fascinating. But the thrill they provide is primarily that of seeing a recognizable world faithfully duplicated, with all its attendant conventions and idiosyncrasies. So far, the most successful works of fiction on Twitter have been compelling precisely in re-creating the experience of being on Twitter. They feel clever and timely, but they do something fundamentally different from what novels and other ambitious works of fiction are meant to do. Novels show us something of how the world works. Twitter fiction, so far, has been best at showing us how Twitter works — hashtags and all.

More importantly, the way we experience Twitter is fundamentally different from the deep engagement that takes place when we read immersive fiction. A tweet is so brief that it can be consumed at a glance; conversely, a user can spend hours scrolling through the always-fluctuating stream of words and images, eyes flickering from nugget to nugget. Researchers, such as Maryanne Wolf at Tufts University, have confirmed what everyone who reads on a screen intuitively knows: that the choice to read a text on paper or plasma has a profound impact on the way we experience it. We use various cognitive processes as we shift back and forth between paper and screen. Our brains are adaptive and plastic throughout our lives, so excessive screen reading can cause our deep-reading skills to atrophy and our comprehension, in particular, to slack off. We wind up skimming through the paperback in our hand the same way we allow our eyes to wander in and out of our Twitter feeds. But if we are doomed to end up reading novels the way we read Twitter, it doesn’t follow that we read Twitter the way we read (or used to read) novels — deeply, empathically, creatively. The feed simply does not lend itself to that kind of reading experience.

What it does lend itself to — even more so than conventional literature — is conveying short bursts of beauty. American novelist and food critic Ruth Reichl (@ruthreichl) tweets about her meals and daily routine in language that veers into poetry: “Deep misty morning. Landscape erased. Warm peach cobbler. Splash cream. Black coffee. Waiting for the fog to clear.” Pentametron (@pentametron) is a bot that finds tweets written in iambic pentameter — almost always unintentionally — and matches them with others that rhyme, pairing strangers in odd duets. “Put fear aside and be yourself today,” tweets a life coach in Cape Town, and a guy who identifies himself only as @young_hittah718 responds with the Nikki Minaj lyrics “a million, billion, trillion miles away.”

Is it great literature? Of course not. But it’s a new way of making sense out of the stories the world tells all day, every day — which is what writers have always tried to do.

Ruth Franklin is a contributing editor 
at the New Republic and the author of 
A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth 
in Holocaust Fiction. She is at work on a biography of author Shirley Jackson.

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