Wed, Dec 2, 2009
When a new Brooklyn literary outlet publishes a short story about Coney Island romance, written by a Brooklyn author, all via Twitter, The Brooklyn Ink takes notice.
Rick Moody spoke exclusively to the Ink on Monday night about the process that his story, “Some Contemporary Characters,” has undergone and how the idea came about. The Ink has been re-posting this story since it began, and you can continue to follow it with us or on Electric Literature’s Twitter feed.
Moody said that he does not actually use Twitter very often, or hasn’t in the past. “I don’t tweet my own life narrative, but the character clock is what’s really interesting to me,” he said. Twitter, as any user of the platform knows, only allows 140 characters per “tweet,” including spaces. “I became obsessed with the idea of creating for that character clock,” said Moody.
Writing a story for Twitter was Moody’s own idea. The people from Electric Literature, a new multi-media publication that publishes fiction both in print and to iPhones and Kindles, just happened to call him at the right time. “They had published work by [fellow New York writers] Jim Shepard and Lydia Davis, who are both friends of mine, and they wanted me to write something for their second issue,” Moody explained. “I said, ‘Well hey, if you guys are going to be all electric, I’ve been doing this thing for Twitter…’ and they really liked the idea.”
Moody said that writing the story in a tweet-by-tweet format was quite difficult and took him about five months to do. The author also mentioned his interest in the way that the tweets load backwards, with the most recent missive at the top of a feed, so that a person could actually read the story either way. Moody did just that—after doing a “practice run” tweeting the whole story to one friend, he tried to read it from finish to start.
Electric Literature began tweeting the story on Monday, November 30 at 10 a.m. When the story concludes tonight, it will have taken 153 tweets in all. The story, as it has unfolded since Monday, is about a romance, set in Brooklyn, between an old man and a much younger girl. Both are cautious, and each tweet switches from the thoughts of one character to the other. “The story actually, due to the way it alternates perspectives,” said Moody, “has this pre-masticated sort of quality.”
There is a question of how Twitterers are choosing to consume the story. Many tweets and subsequent articles have wondered as to whether people are viewing the story on Electric Lit’s direct timeline, seeing only the story, or if they are staying in their main feed, reading the story mixed in with tweets by all of the other users they follow. This latter option would conceivably create a whole new kind of publishing, in which the narrative is even more spliced than it already might be in its divided tweet form.
After only the first day of the story’s publication on Twitter, some outlets observed a problem: Electric Literature had invited anyone and everyone to “re-tweet” the story, but doing so caused many Twitter users to see Moody’s story repeatedly in their Twitter feed, which annoyed many people. When asked about this, Moody observed playfully, “That’s sort of horrible but also really postmodern.”
Yet some sources were less kind with their commentary on this problem, such as Melville House, a small publishing house located in DUMBO. “Innovative publisher develops new way to make Rick Moody annoying,” they wrote, calling the multiple re-tweets a “fiasco.”
Andy Hunter, editor and co-publisher of Electric Literature, believes most of the negative reactions come from a “very small, but vocal percentage of the whole.” Hunter said over the phone: “The people that experience the overlap are people in media, or people that work in the field, like book bloggers. So they don’t use Twitter the way most people do, they use it for business purposes to try and track what’s going on in the literature world. I guess we just didn’t expect it would be that annoying to people. We thought that people in book media would be more interested in the content of the story, and less concerned with clutter in their Twitter feeds.”
Still, Hunter and his colleague Scott Lindenbaum have taken the criticism to heart at least partially, because they’ve modified their plan for the next time they try this: “We’re definitely going to do more Twitter fiction,” Hunter said. “But probably not in the co-publishing manner. If we did do it again, we’d try to get partners that really wouldn’t have so much overlap.”
As for embracing new technology, “I’m kind of still dragged kicking and screaming into this,” Moody said with a laugh. “This is what’s happening and you can’t just blind your eyes to it, you know, so I figure ‘Hey, get to know your enemy, try it all out.’” Other writers that have attracted large followings on Twitter include Colson Whitehead, who also lives in Brooklyn, Chuck Palahniuk and Susan Orlean.
Minor grievances aside, Moody and the team at Electric Literature believe this has been a success. “We got over 10,000 extra followers of the story,” said Hunter. “The ratio of positive to negative comments is about 7 to 1. So it’s been very successful as far as using Twitter as a tool to expand literature and get people involved. And that’s what literature is all about.”
Whether there is a future for “Twitter fiction,” Moody is the first to admit: “It’s a gimmick. Even my own! Whether it’s a good story, we’ll have to see in the days to come, but the one clear lesson is that literature is very hard to do in 140 characters.”