The New Yorker tries Twitter fiction with Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan's last book, "A Visit from the Goon Squad," won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There is no Pulitzer yet for fiction published on Twitter, but that's where she's taking a couple of her characters from the novel, in a New Yorker experiment that starts today at 5 p.m. PDT.
Egan's new story, "Black Box," will be serialized on Twitter over 10 nights. Each night, it will be tweeted from @NYerfiction over the course of an hour. Each evening's Twitter postings constitute one installment, and that installment will appear on the New Yorker's revamped book blog, Page-Turner, after the installment has finished. Read it there or complete, in the magazine, when it hits newsstands May 28 -- look for the science fiction issue, dated June 4 and June 11.
That's the logistics: In real time (or real-ish time) on Twitter over 10 nights, or serialized on a blog, or all at once in print. It's an interesting experiment, one which seems designed to cover all the bases -- if you don't have the patience for the online serialization, just read the printed version.
Yet maybe Twitter is the way to go. Egan, who often plays with form, is using Twitter as a medium for telling the story, set in 2030. On Page-Turner, she explains what she was thinking while creating a story that would fit into Twitter's 140-character constrains:
Several of my long-standing fictional interests converged in the writing of “Black Box.” One involves fiction that takes the form of lists; stories that appear to be told inadvertently, using a narrator’s notes to him or herself. My working title for this story was “Lessons Learned,” and my hope was to tell a story whose shape would emerge from the lessons the narrator derived from each step in the action, rather than from descriptions of the action itself. Another long-term goal of mine has been to take a character from a naturalistic story and travel with her into a different genre. Jon Scieszka first put this idea into my head with his spectacular meta-fictional picture book, “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!,” in which the three pigs move through picture books drawn in radically different styles, transforming visually into the style of each world they enter. I wondered whether I could do something analogous with a character from my novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad”: create a cartoon version of that person, for example -- or, in this case, a spy-thriller version. I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one -- because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters. I found myself imagining a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea. I wrote these bulletins by hand in a Japanese notebook that had eight rectangles on each page. The story was originally nearly twice its present length; it took me a year, on and off, to control and calibrate the material into what is now “Black Box.”
Additionally, Egan told the New York Times that she is interested in serialization. "I'm fascinated by it. I love the 19th-century novels. I'm interested in ways to bring that back to fiction," she said.
In 2011, Egan told me that she wanted to continue trying to write things that posed a challenge. "One thing I really believe is that setting your sights beyond what you can do at a particular moment is a great way to force yourself to keep learning. To this day, I start a book and I think, 'Oh, no, I can't do it.' It's pretty scary, and it can be depressing to realize that you're working beyond your skill set. But hopefully, by the time I will have finished with it, I will have figured out how the hell to do it. That's the challenge. That's how you grow."
Twitter has not always been good to serialized fiction. In 2009, a short story by Rick Moody caused a stir after deluging many Twitter followers with the same tweets from a dozen different sources. Maybe "Black Box" -- all 8,500 words of it -- will get a better reception.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Jennifer Egan in 2011. Credit: Henry Ray Abrams / Associated Press