February 26, 2014

Teju Cole vs. Lupe Fiasco vs. Lian Yue: who’s in the vanguard of Twitter fiction?



It’s rough out there on the bleeding edge of digital whatsit fiction. You’re on the last anti-chapter of your hyperlinked extra-illustrated mash-up of House of Leaves and Make Way for Ducklings when your agent calls with the news that, yet again, it’s already been done.

So it was only a matter of time before the fights would break out over who’s really In the vanguard of Twitter fiction these days. It happened, of course, in the NPR comments section. After NPR ran a story about Teju Cole’s Twitter experiment, in which he had followers and friends re-tweet, in consecutive order, 140-character lines from a story he’d written, “Hafiz,” a commenter named Seth Harrison pointed out that rapper Lupe Fiasco had gotten there first.

A month before Cole’s story, Fiasco started posting, tweet by tweet, sections from his Afro-Futurist novel Teriyaki Joe: Neo-Harlem Detective. His Twitter feed is private, but Chapters 1-6 are up on the Lupend blog. Here’s how it starts:

Chapter One: Grits

Two more smacks should do it. She’s weak. A couple more properly placed palms across the cheeks and she’ll be all his. She’ll make good money for him too. Thick-legged, creole, tall…yeah she’s a real winner. I give her two months. I give him three. Two months before she wises up and figures out she’ll be here forever and three months before she puts a knife in his chest for it. That’s Neo-Harlem for you. That slow burn then that inferno. And you either wood or fire…aint no water just Gin to keep it goin.

Harrison’s contribution to establishing an accurate literary genealogy for the twitter novel was then, mysteriously, deleted. So he posted it again.

Fiasco comments

Obviously, the mainstream media can’t handle the truth. Luckily, however, Buzzfeed’s on it. In their recent article, “Twitter Fiction: ‘No Constraints, No Joy,’” they interview some of pre-eminent Twitter fiction masters of the moment, among them Cole, Ranjit Bhatnagar of “Pentametron,” Mike Gagerman and Andrew Waller, jointly responsible for “Steve Roommate,” Jacob Bakkila of “Horse ebooks,” and Elliott Holt, whose “Evidence” might be the first Twitter mystery novel.

They found that their interviewees are thinking about Twitter as a way to tell stories — or to just shoot language at you — in all kinds of ways. Bakkila, for instance, prizes it for its essential inefficiency as a novelistic form, saying:

I love storytelling and art that uses the least traditional methods of expression present in a particular system, and telling a hidden story in plain sight over two years on a platform known for the immediacy of people battling for attention seemed like the least efficient use of Twitter, so I thought, sure, why not.

Holt, on the other hand, levied Twitter’s incremental nature, and the fact that people still seem to believe a lot of stuff on there, into a sense of authenticity:

I didn’t want to just tweet lines of a story. I wanted to use Twitter to tell a story that wouldn’t work anywhere else. So I used the hallmarks of Twitter — the way it unfolds in real time, the performative nature of tweets, the hashtags and irony, even the typos — to create my mystery. I wanted the characters’ tweets to seem spontaneous and authentic, so even though I had plotted out the entire story, I improvised some of the tweets.

Still, my favorite of this early crop is probably the Chinese author Lian Yue (the pen name of writer and social critic Zhong Xiaoyong), who’s writing a book titled 2020 about the life and times of “Mao Zhiyong, a pale, overweight middle-aged man.”

Yue seems to have pre-emptively taken himself out of the rat race of Twitter experimentation, thereby automatically putting him in the vanguard: his book won’t be finished until 2020 (hence…), and he only posts updates four times a week to “avoid the overload of information that both gets on people’s nerves and slows down the work.”  When interviewed in the Wall Street Journal about why he chose to write a novel this way, he said:

“This is like singing in the shower. When you are relaxed, you will entertain yourself; you have the passion to be creative and expressive. Shower singing cannot be public. Those who happen to hear it may suffer. But the guy who’s enjoying himself in the misty bathroom can’t control himself.”

Want to judge for yourself who’s the greatest misty bathroom singer of all? The annual Twitter Fiction Festival is coming up, March 12-16.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.