Saturday, October 27, 2012


Prescient philosopher of the media Marshall McLuhan once famously remarked that “the future of the book is the blurb.” Had he lived long enough to witness the ubiquity of the personal computer and social media, he might have said that “the future of the book is the tweet.”

As both a longtime James Bond fan and a contributor to Acculturated’s symposium on “Language in the Digital Age,” I was amused to read about how author and comedian Charlie Higson recently reduced twelve of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels into 140-character tweets, just in time for the release of the new 007 movie Skyfall.

Here is Higson’s take on Dr. No, for example, the first Bond book to be made into a film, the one in which original Bond girl Ursula “Honey Rider” Andress made her iconic appearance in a white bikini: “Jamaica? Yes. Dead agent? Yes. Honeychile Rider like a naked Venus from the sea? Yes. Steel hands? Yes. Radioactive pool? No. Death by guano”

This is not the first time compressing novels into a single tweet has been undertaken on Twitter. Writers like Tim Collins have boiled down the classics at least as far back as 2009. Here is his summary of The Catcher in the Rye: “jdsalinger: Rich kid thinks everyone is fake except for his little sister. Has breakdown. @markchapman is now following @johnlennon”

That same year two students at the University of Chicago condensed each of eighty great works, from heavyweights like Virgil, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, into twenty tweets or less and collected them in Twitterature, a title that raised the hackles of traditionalists. The pair were criticized for “degrading” the classics, but it was all in irreverent fun and not meant to be taken seriously.

While Twitterers were toying with novels, novelists have been toying with Twitter as well. This month The Guardian challenged 21 well-known writers to compose 140-character novels (Ian Rankin: “I opened the door to our flat and you were standing there, cleaver raised. Somehow you'd found out about the photos. My jaw hit the floor.”)

Other Twitter experiments include single authors writing full-length novels one tweet at a time (similar to the very popular “cell phone novels” in Japan, where five of the ten bestselling novels of 2007 started as cell phone novels), collaborative works, even conceptual art created by automated algorithms. “Maybe we are only just beginning to appreciate the potential of Twitter as an art form,” says Tim Collins.

The above PBS video about “twitterature” points out that a tweet is similar to a haiku in the extreme constraints imposed upon their length (a haiku in English is held to a total of 17 syllables). A 140-character limit poses a daunting obstacle to creating anything resembling art. But constraint, the video notes, is often the very basis of creativity: “The absence of limitation is the enemy of art,” proclaimed famed director Orson Welles.

It remains to be seen whether art and Twitter marry well, what form may suit them both best, and whether it will produce anything memorable. But one of our defining characteristics as humans is an endless capacity for embracing creative challenges and transcending them. Ernest Hemingway crafted a short story that pierces the heart in a mere six words: “For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn” – the equivalent of a 33-character tweet.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/26/12)