Diverging Views on Twitter Fiction

Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” serialized by The New Yorker on Twitter, is causing something of a stir. “Black Box,” which is written in 140-character segments, is a spy story—a genre suited for serialization, however minute. It’s a clever fusion of the magazine’s print presence and social media, a rare display of technological savvy from a mainstream powerhouse.

But what are the implications for fiction? Is Egan’s serialized story a clever one-time thing—just in time for the magazine’s first science-fiction issue, even—or does it point toward the future of fiction?

Twitter fiction is nothing new, having been a pretty insular sort of genre since the social media tool’s inception. And short-short fiction (or flash fiction, napkin fiction, etc.) is nothing new either. The difference here is that Egan’s story is quite long—8,500 words—and each segment was specifically designed to conform to Twitter’s 140-character limit. So it’s a strange marriage, as Sarah Crown already pointed out at The Guardian.

But it’s a welcome difference, for me. Having taken a flash-fiction workshop in college—which was an awesome experience—I’ve seen the way the short-shorting writing process can strangle a writer’s imagination, enabling them to write in a 1. DRAMATIC SHORT SENTENCE 2. DRAMATIC SHORT SENTENCE 3. DRAMATIC SHORT SENTENCE 4. BOOM DONE! manner. Bare-bones writing, no details, etc. Flash is a welcome change of pace, and often an interesting way to write an entire book, but as a writer’s entire oeuvre—something I saw a lot in college—I’m more skeptical.

Serializing bit by bit on Twitter, however interesting in theory, is also an uncomfortable way to read something; given the way Twitter works, one has to scroll up to get to something new. (Is this disorienting for anyone else?) I read the story on The New Yorker Web site, where it’s been printed in a more accessible, straightforward form, not on Twitter.

So is this the future of writing? Probably not. Egan’s story would have generated a lot of buzz without the Twitter serialization—she won the Pulitzer, so, yeah—but likely wouldn’t have sparked one of those capital-C Conversations in the media.

But what about the serialization? Might that be making a return—not necessarily on Twitter, but somewhere else? Again, I’m skeptical. Over at Wired, David Barr Kirtley offers the case for serialization:

In recent decades, however, serialized fiction has all but disappeared, as declining magazine circulations made it challenging for most authors to find a home for a single story, let alone a gaggle of them. At the same time, a booming paperback market lured many writers away from magazines altogether.

This has been quite a loss for fans of serialized fiction, a form that enforces quick pacing, dramatic plot twists and economy of language — three virtues conspicuously lacking in many modern novels.

Now, the “declining magazine circulations” have pushed aside single stories, yes, but I don’t really think that’s had any effect on the serialization of long fiction in magazines. And if it has, thank God. Serialization’s an antiquated tool that highlighted the impotence of authors; the nineteenth-century was not some halycon period for fiction.

I didn’t know there were readers out there clamoring for the return of serialization. I’m not sure if Kirtley is talking about the return of serialized fiction as much as he’s criticizing the Franzenization of fiction, bloated writing, long sentences, slower plots, etc. His argument seems to be for quicker writing as much as serialization. (And really, he should probably look harder—there are plenty of releases each week that satisfy the quick-dramatic-economic categories.)

And if that’s the argument—that modern authors no longer feels constrained by the word limits in periodicals and now are free to write as much as they want—well, get out there and write something interesting. If the whole game’s run amok, why stand on the sideline?

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