by Sian Erskine
With a 280-character limit, a series of tweets is not the first place you expect to find great literature. But the production of serialized fiction isn’t new — look at Charles Dickens. Does serial fiction stand a chance amongst the noise of the Internet? And do we engage with literature differently — if we can find it — in a forum where we can block, retweet and favourite in the click of a button?
Over ten days, The New Yorker published Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” in a sequence of tweets.
Articles written in the buildup to the short story drew attention to the social media format. “Black Box” follows Egan’s character Lulu, broadcasting her dispatches as part of a futuristic, espionage plot. Each segment’s release was structured to play with spy fiction’s tropes of suspense and intrigue. The fictional world of “Black Box” became the readers’ realities as they scrolled through, and reacted to Lulu’s reports. Choosing to publish on Twitter made the reader an active participant in the story.
Dickens’ novels set the standard for transforming longer works into compact installments. Twitter’s character limit creates an exciting challenge to condense a story even further. Across publishing, the serial has been widely replaced with paperbacks. There have been a few attempts to revive the form, such as Stephen King’s The Plant, which was later abandoned. King released chapters of his novel as an eBook, but suggested if returned to, “the format for its publication may be different”. poetry, on the other hand, has been reimagined through Instagram, responding to a present, cultural moment. A fictional series of tweets also offers another relevant and accessible form to readers — and possibly a new format for King.
The Independent’s review of “Black Box” criticised Egan for publishing a work via Twitter that “cries out for – and deserves – high-quality print publication”. The article misses Egan’s point. The text imagines future possibilities for technology, a mind-set we should extend to the potentials of publishing fiction through the Internet.
“Black Box’s” originality diminished as The New Yorker published a collated version of the story on their website — changing the reader’s experience of the text.
Instead of an innovative revival of serialised fiction, the story now reads as a continuous article.
Participating in fastmoving Twitter Feeds, the permanence of fiction is less important than its capacity for instant impact. As a short story “Black Box” captured a niche within the ephemeral networks of social media, pushing the boundaries between text and technology. A modern fiction of Dickensian length, is yet to follow suit.
Reading audiences and communities are already online, so why not books? Platforms like Twitter shape a reader’s cultural tastes and are constantly accessible. New media’s capacity for mass interaction is what most writers hope for, yet few use it as a valid form of publication.
Twitter serialisation needs to be taken seriously as a legitimate space for fiction, alongside other forms of publishing. Egan has started this process, but it’s just the beginning.