Twitter Fiction Festival breaks storytelling into bite-sized bits
"Twitter is a place to tell stories," wrote Twitter's Andrew Fitzgerald in a blog post announcing the event. "Often those stories are about news, or politics, or perhaps sports or music, but it turns out Twitter is a great place for telling fictional stories, too. As one professor from Michigan State University says, 'Tweeting can be thought of as a new literary practice.' We want to celebrate that."
A panel of festival organizers hand-picked a wide range of genres and concepts to feature. One participant will re-tell 100 Greek myths in 100 tweets. Another plans to invite Twitter users to help her write epigraphs for gravestones. Twitter also will showcase the serialized story of five strangers trapped on a bus, an exploration of censorship in China, and an interactive writing game that will involve the wider Twitter community.
"With this kind of medium, serialized writing can be taken in a totally new direction," said Johannes Neuer, associate director of marketing at the New York Public Library, which is hosting in-person facets of the festival. "All of the sudden you have readers in real time, and an opportunity to really incorporate the reader much more than previous generations of authors could have done."
Twitter has been a playground for storytelling experimentation before. The New Yorker magazine carried out a high-profile experiment on the platform with author Jennifer Egan, who tweeted installments of her story "Black Box," before the magazine published it in its entirety last May.
Comedians routinely have used the platform to tell stories or share vignettes in installments. Last fall, writer and actress Mindy Kaling posted a string of fictional observations about New York Fashion Week.
"Took off heels and pretended to be Malia Obama to sit in front row at Prabal Gurung," she wrote at the time. The series of tweets also included mock details of a dramatic faux romance with actor Adrien Brody. More recently, a parody account pretending to be New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver tweeted a psychedelic election-night journey. One of those tweets: "I am islanded in a stream of stars. Motes of datum gleam overhead. Am I their projection, or are they mine?"
Some may cringe at the idea of subjecting literature to the sometimes haphazard and rapid-fire unpredictability of a Twitter stream, but even now-sprawling classics have fractured roots. Celebrated works like "Anna Karenina," "The Brothers Karamazov," "Madame Bovary," and much of Charles Dickens' work first reached readers in snippets published in newspapers. But one of the goals of this festival is not simply to replicate serializations of the print era.
"Just taking paper books and putting them online, there's something not-so-beautiful about that," said Yael Goldstein Love, a novelist and co-founder of Plympton, a new publishing house that specializes in serialized fiction. "Part of what is really exciting about the Twitter Fiction Festival is it gets writers all over the world to think of other ideas, ways the online-ness of it enhances the story."
Goldstein Love was one of the judges who picked participants in the festival and says she was struck by the kinds of narrative experimentation Twitter encouraged. She says one entrant described the way his story's tempo -- and in turn the frequency with which he published tweets -- would vary based on what was happening at any given moment in the story.
"This guy saying he would change the rhythm depending on how much action there was, that kind of blew my mind," Goldstein Love said. "That can have emotional resonance. These are the kinds of things we just don't even think about."
Since it launched in 2006, Twitter has become a space where people play with narrative conventions. While the platform's web origins make it part of the disruption that has turned the publishing world on its head, Goldstein Love sees the creativity generated on Twitter as a harbinger of good things to come for the industry.
"Especially seeing all these submissions -- some from established writers, some from people who have never published a word -- it really puts to death a lot of doom-and-gloom rumors," she said. "People are imaginative and people are excited about publishing. Publishing is going to have to change a great deal, but so long as people are brimming over with creativity, I'm not at all worried."
Ryan Chapman of Penguin Press echoed that sentiment, calling Twitter one of the "green shoots for narrative storytelling" that keeps him optimistic.
"Maybe it's something to do with the fact that Twitter's maturing into this new space where people are so used to seeing it as a news source or conversation source," Chapman said. "As a reader, Twitter's obviously a place where everybody's already gathering for exchanging news and conversation. If people can use it as another part of their toolkit to create stories, that's really exciting."