Culture Vulture

Keep the stories short and tweet

Literary experiments on Twitter are a welcome respite from the microblogging platform's ocean of information

The late writer and Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway famously wrote a short story in six words.

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Its brevity sharpens our focus on what is not visible - a stillborn child, perhaps, or a miscarriage?

We are prompted to ponder: Were the parents devastated to hear that they would never have children? Or was a mother forced to give up her child for adoption? What were these shoes like?

There is something profoundly affecting about a sentence that says so much with so little. The possibilities linger between the spaces.

On a whim, I counted these spaces, along with all the letters and punctuation, which added up to a grand total of 33 characters. It occurred to me that Hemingway, who packed so much into short, powerful sentences, would probably have done well on Twitter.

The immensely popular social networking and microblogging platform has a limit of 140 characters a short message posted, also known as tweets. This means that succinctness is key.

In a sense (and I'm reiterating what has been said many times before), Twitter is the epitome of our attention-deficit generation, ensuring that we can consume everything in bite-sized chunks the size of a text message.

I'm a Twitter addict.

I wade through an ocean of pithy, punchy statements daily, getting my fix of news headlines, funny videos and the occasional link to a long feature story. This flood of information (mostly white noise) might seem quite the antithesis to Hemingway's subtlety and show of quiet restraint.

But contemporary writers have increasingly been turning to Twitter for a bit of a creative and intellectual workout.

With about 255 million monthly active users across the globe, Twitter amounts to a rather substantial audience, and there is a trickle-down effect when users "retweet" the tweets of others, like watching something spread by word-of-mouth but on a much larger scale.

This, of course, is not the sole reason why writers have been toying with this new medium of expression.

Like any other platform involving the use of language, Twitter can be viewed as yet another conduit for artistic expression, waiting to be charted and explored, its topographies measured for how effective it can be.

Two years ago, The New Yorker announced that it would serialise a new short story by the award- winning American writer Jennifer Egan, but not in the pages of its magazine. It would send her story out, line by line, into cyberspace via its Twitter account (@NewYorker) over nine days.

I was already an avid Twitter user in May 2012, when that first sentence of Black Box leapt to life: "People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you've seen pictures."

What promises did this story hold? What started out as what I assumed would be some sort of studied character drama (I had just read Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From The Goon Squad) unspooled quite differently.

You could not skip ahead. The sentences, each delivered separately, felt fractured, but simultaneously oddly lyrical, as if one were speaking in terse verse.

Black Box turned out to have a strong science- fiction bent, involving "mental dispatches" from a spy living in the not-so-distant future. These bursts of storytelling were an anchor amid a flood of other more forgettable updates.

There was a general sense of anticipation as you were fed a narrative in tiny spoonfuls, meaning you had to somehow remember what came before in order to engage with what came next, and so demanding more focus from the reader in a medium that requires very little focus.

Last month, novelist David Mitchell (@david_ mitchell) used Twitter for a teaser of his soon-to- be-released novel, The Bone Clocks (already longlisted for this year's prestigious Man Booker Prize).

Mitchell, who had called Twitter the most "straitjacketed" form of all, tweeted a short story from a teenager's point of view titled The Right Sort. While not linked to The Bone Clocks in terms of plot, it seems that they might occupy the same universe.

Mitchell's protagonist uses the rat-a-tat rhythms of teenspeak, and doesn't shy away from truncations, meaning that two halves of a sentence might be separated by others (from other users) in-between.

The nature of Twitter celebrates the ephemeral. Most people who follow hundreds of feeds might catch only a stray sentence here or a whiff of plot there.

No matter how cohesive the story, it all eventually vanishes into the void. So why bother with this form at all?

I suppose long-form storytelling might never find a home in Twitter - I highly doubt I would be able to read an entire novel in Twitter form - but it can at least interrupt the fabric of social networking with narrative threads that go on beyond fragments of conversations or the latest disposable viral fad.

In 2007, the computer programmer and poet Adam Parrish set up a Twitter account called @everyword.

For seven years, he attempted to tweet every word in the English language. Language evolves rapidly and he didn't quite capture every single term, but the project (which ended on June 6) gave me the long-term pleasure of seeing random occurrences of words rise from a sea of other tweets, from "a" to "zymurgy" (technically, @everyword's last tweet was "étui" - because the e-acute, or é, comes after the letter z).

The juxtaposition was sometimes almost magical - "sorry" might turn up when a spot of grace was needed or "laughter" might snag the corner of your eye on a gloomy day.

On that note, I believe Twitter's literary experiments still manage to accomplish what all stories set out to do: muffle the storm of information washing over us and transport us to a different place, even if only for an instant.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan