I've submitted four stories to Nanoism:
Amy got a comment on her blog. It said "I'm going to kill you." She commented on the comment. "Haven't you been reading? I'm already dead."
They'd only been dating when they died together, so their funeral felt like a wedding.
TODAY READ IT DO IT BUY IT PLEASE I'M DYING SLOWLY YES NOW NEWS YES
They got lost coming down the mountain named "Heart." On a farm road they found a bull carcass, neck twisted. He thought: What’s important?
These stories are 140 characters or less. That’s because Nanoism only publishes Twitter-sized fiction, along with a small community of other online magazines like Thaumatrope and Escarp. Since discovering the site earlier this year I've become interested in Twitter fiction (other possible names for this form: litwit, twitliterature, twitlit, Twitter fiction, Twitter fic--I like ‘twitlit’) because it's a kind of literature that was born purely in the digital realm and has no direct analog ancestor. I’ve read a good amount of twitlit, and, judging from Nanoism’s content, it's clear to me that it's editor Ben White is a good twitlit editor (as well as storyteller). I trust his skills in the twitlit arena. Nanoism is clearly the best out there.
But to me twitlit still seems like a nifty experiment rather than an art form. I have yet to find a great Twitter story, one that gives me the cathartic feeling great literature gives, whether it be a novel or short story or fragment. You know the feeling I'm talking about: an artful release, an expression of the zeitgeist, the feeling that everything makes sense and no sense at all, the revelation of beauty. This is literature's task, among others, and so it must be for twitlit. But I haven’t read a Twitter story that does this.
So the question for this review, given that the stories on Nanoism are good but not great, is roughly this: What would a great Twitter story look like?
One way to answer this question would be to consult the work of a master. All art forms have masters that define them: Issa (haiku), Homer (epic), Shakespeare (various), etc. But twitlitis young enough not to have a master. (I once had a delusion, one among many, where I became a twitlit master. I've since cooled my jets: the stories above were, for good reason, rejected. See the Postscript of this essay for my next attempt.)
Another way to answer the question would be to trace the history of the Twitter story, define it, and single out some essential qualities that would make one great. As we all know a tweet is 140 characters long. According to Dom Sagolla's first-person historyof Twitter in 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form, the number 140 was born out of economic and coding necessity. In 2006 Twitter’s inventors imagined a social networking/ information service that would broadcast what was “happening” to a wide variety of people over cellphones and Internet. At first messages could be any length. If they were larger than 160 they were broadcast in clunky, separated quanta. But this increased bandwidth bills and made for awkward communication. Thus 140 came into being. (For the most entertaining history of Twitter I’ve found, see Dungeekin’s Genesis spoof, “The Genesis of Twitter.”)
The Twitter story was born, I imagine, as an intuitive adaptation to the new medium. Twitter came out and storytellers told stories with it. If an official “History of Twitter Fiction” were written I bet the writer would find little fictions arising almost simultaneously with the service itself. This is because stories are media too, though they’re much older than Twitter. They’re as ancient as our species. What’s novel about a Twitter story is that it isn’t defined by syllables, meters, words, phrases, or any of the other analog limitations that define sonnets, short stories, or haiku. A Twitter story’s bounds have been determined very recently by this contemporary history of social networking and bandwidth bills: it must be 140 characters.
Something interesting is that a ‘character’ isn’t an analog-linguistic form. It’s purely digito-graphic. Twitlit therefore works with a different, newer alphabet. And the word itself--character--is fun to think about when thinking about twitlit. Fiction has ‘characters’. Tweets have ‘characters’. The media is therefore the message in twitlit: Twitter stories tell characters’ lives in 140 characters. (Also: a space between two characters also counts as a character in the Twitter realm. This seems relevant for a great Twitter story, but I'm not sure how.)
At a party recently I found myself talking about this review and the question of twitlit to a friend that isn't involved in the online literary community but enjoys a good story. He asked me what a really good Twitter story would be. I could only think of the Hemingway story that began the ever-growing hint fiction movement. It’s six words long: “Baby shoes for sale--never used.”
“Wow,” my friend said, “there really is a story there.”
Which reminds me of another conversation I had with a colleague in my graduate program. A rampant tweeter, she runs with the philosophical crowd and uses hash marks like “#justatheory” and “#somanygapsinmyeducation.” I told her about the Twitter feed I keep for Fictiondaily.org (@fictdaily)and she found me, followed me, and said "oh!" in a delightful sort of way. She asked me, "Have you heard of Arjun Basu?" I said I hadn't. She scrolled through her tweets on her iPad and found the Canadian writer’s Twitter feed, a long list of Twitter-sized stories, which he calls "Twisters." "He's a great writer," she said. "There's this one story he wrote that I always think about..." She smiled and started searching through Basu's stories. I noticed he had nearly 57,000 followers (probably the closet thing to a master I've found in Twitlit). She found the story she was looking for and read it aloud to me:
She asked him about the depth of his love and when he hesitated she shed a tear and he said, I'm just not deep, and she knew that but still.
After she spoke the last words, relishing them, she closed her eyes and put her iPad down. "I just love that,” she said. “When I first read that I was just like: yes."
Her inflection was perfect. She clearly found peace, truth, complexity, catharsis (read: beauty) in Basu’s work. I thought to myself that this is what it means to write a great Twitter story: to obey a new set of confines, digital instead of analog, and write something that makes you say, “Woh, there really is a story there” and/or “yes.”
I picked up my iPad, found Basu, and clicked “follow.” Now I read his fiction, along with Nanoism’s and all the others, amid the teeming din of text that is this new world.
P.S. MY NEXT SUBMISSION TO NANOISM
Ahmed paints a painting: a close-up of JFK’s face, pained, as he sucks a faceless woman’s breast. The title: Capitalism.