2007 - 2020

On Twitter and Writing

imagesThough Twitter is not exactly a new writing technology, it is a technology that is affecting a lot of writers. It used to be a radical cri de coeur to claim, “We live in public.” Like many mantras of the cyber-nineties, this turns out to be mostly true, but misses an even larger truth: more and more, we think in public. For writers, this is an especially strange development.

***I sometimes wonder how the great writers of the past would handle the Twitter predicament. Would they ignore it or engage and go down the rabbit hole? Who are the really unlikely tweeters from literary history? Would Henry James, whose baroque sentences could never have been slimmed down into a hundred and forty characters, have disdained Twitter?

Most great writers could, if they wanted to, be very good at Twitter, because it is a medium of words and also of form. Its built-in limitation corresponds to the sense of rhythm and proportion that writers apply to each line. But some writers achieve their effect through an accumulation, or make sense via sentences that are, by themselves, on the far edge of making sense. (Robert Musil comes to mind.) Not everyone is primed to be a modern-day Heraclitus, like Alain de Botton, who starts each day, it seems, by cranking up his inner fortune-cookie machine and producing a string of tweets that are, to varying degrees, sour, funny, fatalistic, and bitingly true. It’s a comedian’s form. The primal tweet may be, “Take my wife, please!”

Gertrude Stein, with her gnomish, arty, aphoristic tendencies, would seem to be ideal. “There is no there there” may be one of the great proto-tweets.

Joyce Carol Oates, whom I don’t think of as famously concise but who has become a prolific and often ingenious tweeter, recently tweeted a question: “If an action is not recorded on a smart phone, does it, did it, exist?”

Oates’s question touches on a set of major problems for writers on Twitter: Does a piece of writing that is never seen by anyone other than its author even exist? Does a thought need to be shared to exist? What happens to the stray thought that drifts into view, is pondered, and then drifts away? Perhaps you jot it down in a note before it vanishes, so that you can mull it over in the future. It’s like a seed that, when you return to it, may have grown into something visible. Or perhaps you put it in a tweet, making the note public. But does the fact that it is public diminish the chances that it will grow into something sturdy and lasting? Does articulating a thought in public freeze it in place somehow, making it not part of a thought process but rather a tiny little finished sculpture? Is tweeting the same as publishing?

This from New Yorker, The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing read the full article here.

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  1. keirliddle says:

    Asides from philosophically I can say that a tweet is pretty much considered “published” for the purposes of libel.

    There is some disagreement about a RT (as regards who published the tweet/claim) but regardless a tweet is a legally published entity in precedent AFAIK.

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    Here’s a few Scottish authors of fiction & poets who dont Tweet:

    Tom Leonard, Jim Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Alan Warner, Douglas Dunn, James Robertson, Janice Galloway, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson, Robert Crawford, Liz Lochhead, Ali Smith, John Burnside, Laura Hird, William McIlvaney, George Gunn, Anne Donovan, Alan Massie, & the late Iain Banks.

    Others have dipped their toe in the water and then gone silent for whatever reason: Ewan Morrison, Ron Butlin, Roddy Lumsden, JK Rowling.

    On the other hand authors such as Ian Rankin, AL Kennedy, Irvine Welsh, Val McDermid, Louise Welsh, Alan Bissett, Zoe Strachan, Allan Guthrie, Chris Brookmyre, Sara Sheridan, Alexander McCall Smith, Doug Johnstone, John Niven, Sophie Cooke, Kerry Hudson, Jenni Fagan, Ken Macleod, Tony Black, Barry Graham have all taken to Twitter big style*.

    The writers who’ve taken to Twitter tend to Tweet interesting, funny and occasionally banal stuff about life and culture rather than just self-promote. Most of them happily engage in conversation with readers and whoever else pops up.

    Maybe its an age thing. Maybe its about an inexorable need to communicate. Or maybe Twitter is just a novelty – like Facebook was – which will soon become an albatross around the necks of those who need time and space and solitude to think and explore/expand on thoughts. As a regular Twitter user I suspect all of these, especially the latter, intersect. But one thing that has changed is that the distance between (Tweeting) author and reader has broken down.

    To use the old cliche, at the end of the day writers – like everyone else – don’t need to pour out their every thought on Twitter. Most things are best kept private and why lose the element of surprise? Like everything else Twitter is what you make of it.

    KW

    *This list keeps growing!

  3. Some writers are terrific on Twitter. Brett Easton Ellis for one, Irvine Welsh for another. It’s seems best for those who bubble over with opinions, and who are keen to converse with their fans/general public. But I can appreciate that some prefer to keep their mental processes a-brewin’ on their own hob, as it were.

  4. George Gunn says:

    Technology is orthodoxy and inevitably is banal. The recent revelations tell us that the state reads everything and publishes nothing. As Milan Kundera writes in Immortality “To be absolutely modern means to be the ally of one’s gravediggers.”

  5. Craig P says:

    Re: Joyce Oates. As I’m not on twitter, does twitter exist?

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