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November 30th, 2009 / 9:25 pm
Mean

Some Reactions to “Some Contemporary Characters” by Rick Moody

All of you know that Electric Literature recently began tweeting what they are calling ‘an experiment in participatory ePublishing’: they are publishing Rick Moody’s story “Some Contemporary Characters” over three days/153 Tweets. They’ve invited anyone who’d like to RT ((re)publish?) the story along with them to participate. As far as I can tell, here’s who is participating: @WritersGarret, @vromans, @shyascanlon, @TheSchooner, @str1cken, @StephenBruckert, @skylightbooks, @skemptastic, @OpiumMagazine, @MWSchmutterer, @litdeathmatch, @FictionAdvocate, @coppernickel, @commongoodbooks, @breathebooks, @brazosbookstore, @blackclockmag, @a_m_kelly, @Andrew_Ervin, @lunaparkreview, @BOMBMagazine, and probably more.

After tweeting the story for today, Electric Literature posted this question on their Facebook page: “Is the Multiple Tweeting of Rick Moody’s Story Awesome, Annoying, or a Bit of Both?”

After the jump, I’ve tried to answer the question as best I could.

Those of you who happen to follow a handful of the listed twitterers, or what Electric Literature has called ‘copublishers,’ might have had a similiar feed as I did. Mine, at one point today, looked like this:

moodytweets

I admit that my initial reaction to all of the excitement was one of mild annoyance. I complained about it to a few friends, via Twitter and Gchat. I didn’t get out of bed except to tutor for a couple hours, I drank burnt coffee all day, and didn’t shower until 3pm. I maliciously unfollowed those on my feed who were RTing the story, but plan to refollow them after the three days are over.

I perhaps worried too much about all of it. This is to say that, really, it doesn’t matter, this little thing I’m writing. People will like it and hate it, most likely. Even Moody said, in an interview with Future Perfect Publishing, that he’s betting that micro-serialized Twitter stories are just “a flash in a pan.”

Still, I felt I should write up this post because I’d rather think through my criticism for others to see than be just another guy shitting on everything in 140 characters or less.

***

After a bit of fun, I realized that I hadn’t even read the story, what little of it had been tweeted anyhow, so caught up was I in the novelty of complaining about it. I figured I should read more before judging any further. I initially read the story in my feed, parts of it at least, but then got frustrated sorting through all the other tweets, most of which were distracting/more interesting than the story itself: compare, for example, Kathy Fish’s tiny, but funny tweet to the repeated, and oddly unTwitterlike tweet of Moody’s story.

I then clicked on @ElectricLit’s feed so I might read the story all at once. I read from the bottom up, a weird backwards assembly of tweets that told a story of online dating, variously narrated in that clipped way of all tweets: dropped words and punctuation, more observational/reportive phrases than usual, occasional reflections, use of abbreviations such as  ‘b/c.’ Basically, it was, at its most effective (so far), what you’d expect from a Twitter feed. And it sounds like that was Moody’s goal; in that same interview, he says that the story “was absolutely written ground up on Twitter, for Twitter, about Twitter, with the character counter page open the whole time, to keep me from going OVER.”

But at times the language itself shifts into this intricately crafted thing (formal diction and syntax) which is at weird odds with the whole Twitter form: a “point-of-purchase glossy containing the word cellulite” doesn’t strike me as a phrase that is inherently Twitterable. It seems as though Moody did a great job meeting the constraint of 140 characters, but sometimes goofed the language of Twitter. The constraint might have led him to create some neat turns of phrase, but it feels ‘off.’ Levi Asher agrees, saying:

Maybe Moody is focusing on the artistic potential of the 140-character sentence, but that’s only half of what this work needs to do. It must also feel natural on Twitter, must reflect its setting in terms of identity and plot point as well as character-count. This [story] still feels like a text placed on Twitter rather than born there.

But perhaps, Asher and I’ve just missed something here. Maybe our expectations are inappropriate for this particular experiment. Maybe a story written specifically for Twitter deserves to be read like all the other Tweets out there: quickly, haphazardly, distractedly. Maybe we’re supposed to accept that these Tweets are unique, that here we have a series of Twittering narrators who don’t mind the fancy language, who actually speak and type this way. But even in this case, even if I can get past the concept of worrying about who is doing the Tweeting, I don’t understand the experiment, why such a story needs to be told? Is ‘to experiment’ a satisfactory enough reason? Or is this experiment simply a gimmick disguised as something to ‘save literature’? Something else? Moody says:

I think my contempt for Twitter is what inspired it, initially. In general, I think the way to describe the world is to get longer not shorter. Twitter, by virtue of brevity, abdicates any responsibility where real complexity is concerned, because it forbids length. This seemed to me like a challenge, then: how to get complex in a medium that is anathema to complexity and rigor. And a challenge is always thrilling.

***

I’ve given up reading the story for now, though I might return to it later. I stopped here, teetering on the brink of replying to everyone, publisher and copublishers alike, to say yes, it was in fact inadvisable to shove the tongue all the way in. Really, I’m actually less interested in the quality of the story itself; I’d rather talk about the mechanism by which Electric Literature published it and how this publishing didn’t completely take advantage of the medium. Take, for example, Richard Nash’s comment in response to the original question at the Electric Literature Facebook page:

this & previous experiments with Twitter narratives have all failed, largely because they failed to reflect how people tell stories on Twitter. They simply don’t serialize—they link and/or condense. So structurally it was a contrivance, like serializing a saxophone solo. Native twitter art seems to work more effectively with persona extended over a period of months, perhaps years. Like @otolythe‘s work @enoch_soames and @adelehugo, neither of which have quite reached critical mass as art projects but which are far closer to using the specific rhythms of Twitter than using it to serialize multi-thousand word narratives.

I admit that I don’t have great examples of Twitter being used perfectly in a literary sense. The examples I can think of are relatively simple, but effective: a character from a work of fiction or some other fictional entity opens a Twitter account, tweets, and interacts with those who tweet back. I think part of what makes Twitter fun is the possibility of immediate gratification and interaction. Laugh if you want, but I think DarcyToYou is currently a more interesting feed than that of the multiple tweets in “Some Contemporary Characters” because of how the character Mr. Darcy responds to others (skydiving?) whereas those in Moody’s story are static as far as I can tell. Other feeds that play or played with this extension of a persona that Nash talks about include the following: Storm Trooper TK 329, part of a media blitz for Death Troopers and now no longer active; the inconsistent, offensive, and hilarious Twitter666 journal, which gathers a bunch of fictional characters from whom we might not often hear; and the clever jokes of FakeAPStyleBook, which play on the real APStyleBook. All of these work, I think, to varying degrees because they use the Twitter formula to their advantage. If you know of others, please link to them in the comments section.

To Nash’s point let’s add that of Carolyn Kellogg’s: the simultaneous publishing of “Some Contemporary Characters” clotted the feed.

In the past, having bookstores, bloggers and other magazines simultaneously pass out a short story would widen the circulation. Today, many of those people are in overlapping social networking circles, and the result is repetition rather than reach. Anyone following more than one of the outlets sees exactly the same tweet show up at exactly the same time from multiple sources.

Kellogg pinpoints the reason why I was so annoyed today when the publishing first began. I think you’d find that a search of ‘electriclit’ on Twitter will result in more than a few suggestions that Electric Literature use hashtags to trend the story or better manage how it gets distributed. To Electric Literature‘s credit, they seem to be responding to this criticism in good ways, thinking things through, figuring out what works and what doesn’t for the future. This, I suppose, is the nature of collaboration on the internet.

***

And so I’d rather not leave off with a negative point, because I do like what Electric Literature is doing on a greater scale: I like their movies, I like that they pay their authors, I like that they reach a large audience, I like that they publish through many mediums, and so on. So let me acknowledge the good things that have come of this experiment, which is still in progress, before I conclude.

There was, as we’ve come to expect from Electric Literature, a good deal of hype about this Moody story. There was a fun countdown sequence, some coverage at Entertainment Weekly’s litblog, a really positive effort to spread the story as far as possible (see the above list of retweeters), and even an interview at The Wall Street Journal Speakeasy. One gets the sense that Electric Literature does care and believe in what they’re doing. For example, what is exciting about all of this particular Twitter story is that Electric Literature has nearly 21,000 followers: cut out the usual spambot activity, add the followers of the other ‘copublishers,’ subtract the overlap that Carolyn Kellogg mentioned, and you’ve still got a large number of readers, I think, far more than typically read even the better known print magazines, right? So while I and others dealt with a very annoying feed, the Twitter platform operated as a kind of literary vector for the story to reach those who didn’t have that overlap, spreading the story across a wide swath of little cliques of readers. Josh Maday probably put it best when he said:

seen from the big pic of twitter, the moody story will b one reverberating echo of RTs, like telling it into the grand canyon

So, ultimately, I like the idea. I like the trying and trying and trying; however, logistically, and I think others agree, it seemed awkwardly executed and annoying. I think this is a fault of both the manner in which it was spread around and the medium itself. But I don’t know how it could have been disseminated more effectively; this, obviously, is a problem with my own stubborn criticism. I’m the one who sat on my bed all day in my underwear, while the Electric Literature people and Moody actually did things with words, the result of which many many people read.

UPDATE

Electric Literature has responded to comments over at the Facebook page:

One problem with the copublishing is that the people getting multiple feeds are the people who avidly follow publishing and literature – bloggers, media, other publishers, etc. Not a good group to annoy! They shape the narrative. But the story is reaching 10,000 more readers. Plenty of whom are enjoying it – searching on @bombmagazine, for example shows far more retweets than complaints. Ultimately, a wide community is talking about fiction and ways that the literature can effectively engage with the greater world. Which is why we started EL.

The problem we had with retweeting as a method is that the @electriclit tag would be added to every line, like a storyteller with a persistent hiccup. Worse, it would make every co-publisher look like a shill for Electric Literature, with every tweet branded with our name. Even a hashtag would disrupt the text (not to mention, Rick didn’t leave room to accommodate one).

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