Literary Parkour: @Horse_ebooks, Jonathan Franzen, and the Rise of Twitter Fiction

Twitter/Slaven Vlasic/Getty

When it was revealed a couple of weeks ago that the heavily followed “spambot” Twitter account @horse_ebooks was, in fact, not an algorithmically generated series of random word-strings, but the consciously crafted work of two net-based performance artists, many of the account’s followers felt they had been punked. While some appreciated the revelation of artistry behind what they had taken for an uncannily entertaining machine, others couldn’t help but be disappointed. And it’s no wonder. Had @horse_ebooks actually been nothing more than a bot, an unthinking algorithm or network glitch, then all the cleverness and creativity of the popular account would ultimately have been our own, as its audience. We thought we had happened upon a trove of found art, and like a horde of minor Duchamps, we faved and retweeted these supposedly accidental, inexplicably engaging, ready-made bits of Internet nonsense, savvily designating them as interesting, as amusing, as meaningful. Instead, the disclosure that @horse_ebooks was already the intentionally curated work of two artists — two writers — put us back in our place as a passive audience: as performance-spectators, as fiction-readers.

Now that we know the truth, however, it must be acknowledged that any chagrin experienced by followers of @horse_ebooks is only a testament to the power and accomplishment of the writers (Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender) who designed the conceptual piece and fabricated its tweets. The extent to which we were fooled was the extent to which they were able to carry off their performance — to imitate the perfect senselessness of a robot while simultaneously edging each tweet with hints of relevance, humor, or profundity. In a laudatory Atlantic piece, which called @Horse_ebooks “the most successful piece of cyber-fiction of all time,” critic Robinson Meyer writes, “@Horse_ebooks was a fiction … It was about the network and it took the form of network.” In other words, @Horse_ebooks was successful as fiction — specifically, as Twitter-fiction — because it both effectively deployed and meaningfully responded to the medium of Twitter itself. In the end, the impact of the work remains intact despite, or indeed because of, the revelation of human authorship. (Or, as @harveyspecters put it: “i didnt know horse_ebooks was supposed to be a bot i thought it was supposed to be a real person, it was funny either way.”)

The fiction @Horse_ebooks wove was not the kind we typically find in books. The intention was not to tell a story but rather to involve us in an experience — an experience that could only exist on Twitter and, indeed, is reflective about ethical quandaries that arise specifically when humans are engaged with Twitter. (How do we know if we’re interacting with other humans when we can’t see them? What if they are robots? What does it mean to “follow” a robot? Are we becoming robots ourselves? Et cetera.) To be successful, a work of Twitter-fiction (or what I might suggest we dub “Twitterature”) does not have to function as a prank or ruse in the manner chosen by Bakkila and Bender for @Horse_ebooks. What is essential is that it utilizes, and meaningfully responds to, the form of the network. And there are all kinds of ways in which writers are doing this. Great Twitterature, as it turns out, abounds. But to discover the new literature of Twitter, you can’t go looking for something that resembles a book. You can’t expect the old kind of art to be what works, or matters, on the new platform.

One person whom we may safely assume was not amused by, or even aware of, the @Horse_ebooks account is eminent novelist and Twitter-hater Jonathan Franzen. Franzen has now made it abundantly clear that he disapproves of Twitter as a force in literary culture. In a recent lengthy diatribe in the Guardian, Franzen does a callback to a previous outburst: “not long ago, when I was intemperate enough to call Twitter ‘dumb’ in public.” Since making that first remark, a year and a half ago, many have mocked or taken issue with his stance, but Franzen has not changed his mind. Instead, he has doubled down on his conviction that Twitter discourse constitutes an “intolerably shallow form of social engagement,” an “infernal” hubbub of “yakking and bragging,” a pseudo-militarized zone where “literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion.” Franzen stands by in bafflement and despair as writers of stature (i.e., non Jennifer Weiner–ish ones? Salman Rushdie, for instance) join Twitter — or, in his words, “succumb.” He muddily blames Twitter, Amazon, and the rest of the Internet for the demise of the old-school publishing industry and the loss of “depth” in literature; he elegizes the “quiet and permanence of the printed word” as he bemoans a vanished era when “publication still assured some kind of quality control.” It’s probably at those words “quality control” that he veers off into a delusional fantasy about a magical past when all the good books were the ones that got published and no great writers were ever overlooked — but let’s leave him there for now. Surely there is much to unpack in Franzen’s panicked assessment of the state of the world in the social media era, but let’s focus on one obvious inference: Franzen doesn’t fully understand Twitter, because he doesn’t actually participate in it.

Franzen’s view of Twitter is analogous to the view described in a well-known essay by 20th century French philosopher Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City.” In this chapter of his influential work The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau imagines a man who has climbed to the top of the World Trade Center and stands there, looking down on New York City. From his cloud-high vantage point the city is visually reduced to a comprehensive geometric layout: It looks like a map of itself, a coherent urban plan. The man at the top of the tower is lifted out of the city, above it, aloof — his position is akin to that of a god. To him, looking down, this organized panorama, this depersonalized system, is the city. He feels he can take in all of it at a glance.

Yet to the millions of people “down below,” moving individually through the streets, engaged in the ordinary practice of walking, any such sense of a total picture of the city necessarily disintegrates. No city planner’s map could predict or describe the real, everyday movements of a man walking down the street. He does not move as a mere automaton or cog in the city-machine. He detours. He pauses to window-shop. He chases a pigeon, twirls a cane, graffitis his name on a bench. His walking is spontaneous, singular, and personal. The way he walks is an expression of himself. It is his style. The supposedly comprehensive picture of the city and its functioning seen from above misses everything about the way the ordinary inhabitants of the city (or, as de Certeau calls them, the city’s “practitioners”) actually operate.

In de Certeau’s New York, where walking is an act of self-expression, where the “swarming mass” of footsteps is “an innumerable collection of singularities,” the moves a person makes constitute a form of creativity, much like talking or writing. “There is a rhetoric of walking,” says de Certeau. “The art of ‘turning’ phrases finds an equivalent in the art of composing a path” — or, in French, tourner un parcours. Fans and performers of the non-competitive street art parkour, sometimes known as freestyle walking, will be pleased to note that de Certeau is essentially offering a scholarly theorizing of their discipline. As the Wikipedia entry for parkour informs us, the activity “is usually practiced in a creative, and sometimes playful, reinterpretation or subversion of urban spaces. Parkour involves seeing one’s environment in a new way, and imagining the potentialities for movement around it.” By this definition, de Certeau would say that parkour is only a heightened, or particularly self-aware, version of the typically unacknowledged everyday art form known as walking. As we move through a city, we come up against the limitations of its structure — both on a physical level and in terms of power, of authority. Yet we are not entirely governed by these limits. Our movements are not fully regulated or predetermined. Our footsteps are “surreptitious creativities.” Our style of walking, of “composing a path,” eludes the rational, totalizing grasp of the aloof urban planner, of the man looking down from the top of the tower.

If de Certeau had lived to see Twitter in action, his head might have exploded. The metaphor that de Certeau went to such pains to elaborate, that of a city where walking is “rhetorical,” where an individual’s steps are like “turns of phrase,” collapses back in on itself and becomes absolutely literal when we look at the situation on Twitter. If Twitter can be thought of as a city (and, with 500 million accounts and 200 million active users, it’s vastly more crowded than any city in the world), then it is, literally, a city of rhetoric. Twitter is a fast-moving, ever-shifting virtual urban space that consists entirely of language, of messages, of communicatory blocks of symbols that circulate throughout this digital megalopolis rapidly, widely, and unpredictably. And, much like New York City seen from atop a skyscraper, when Twitter is viewed from a distance, at a glance, it is liable to be oversimplified.

Seen from above, or outside, the network, Twitter may well appear as it does to Franzen: as an “infernal machine,” a depersonalized, near-totalitarian hive capable of crushing personal literary expression. But Franzen’s view is itself absolutist. To the ordinary “man on the street,” the average, everyday tweeter, or even to the literary “elite” (i.e., @SalmanRushdie), life in the Twitter-city is more interesting, more human, than Franzen’s picture would allow. It would have to be, I’d think, to attract so many millions of people there in the first place. Sure, there are authoritarian elements at work: the 140-character limit to tweets, the blue check marks designating VIPs (like Rushdie, or Franzen, undoubtedly, if he ever decided to join), the ever-present threat of corporate and/or government tracking and surveillance. But there are surveillance cameras on nearly every corner of Manhattan as well. The virtual city is not unique in this regard.

And yes, there are unquestionably millions of tweets written day after day that fit into Franzen’s category of “Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion” — although, to be fair to the much-maligned Weiner, when I took a quick skim of her actual tweets, they seemed a mainly unobjectionable collection of jokes and news items, rather than some kind of relentless, narcissistic PR campaign. (Not to mention the difficulty of cleanly separating self-promotion from any instance of published writing, say, for example, a 5,600-word personal essay in the Guardian.) The point is, even if Twitter was intentionally designed for advertising purposes and even if many literary novelists who would prefer not to are now strongly urged by their publishing companies to use the network as a platform for self-marketing, that still does not sum up or circumscribe the ways that ordinary inhabitants of this city of language are choosing to express themselves. When you move closer, when you descend from the tower, you begin to perceive all sorts of “surreptitious creativities” — many stylish turns of phrase, many singular, individual acts within an evolving, unpredictable, and ultimately unregulatable field of literary practice.

A great Twitter writer is one who, like a parkourist in an urban space, plays with and quite possibly subverts the limits or expectations imposed by authorities. He moves in his own way, develops his own style. I will point out just a few examples, any of which could be (and mostly have been) explored in further depth. There is the tragicomic clowning of @RealCarrotFacts, by Late Night With Jimmy Fallon writer John Wyatt Haskell. There is the broken poetry of the “Weird Twitter” crew, notably including non-Internet-based poet Patricia Lockwood. There is the brilliant social satire of the hydra-headed Kaplan accounts, which mostly skewer Franzen’s own New York publishing world, and their bitchy, hilarious Hollywood counterpart, Jarrad Paul (@JarradPaul). There is the visually fascinating, concrete-poetry-esque glitch art of accounts like @Glitchr_, @Newmoticons, and @l_i_i_l. There are established literary novelists who have effectively used Twitter for political provocations, such as in Teju Cole’s recent series of wryly incongruous tweets about bombing the U.K. And there are the peculiar pleasures to be found when the work of old-world writers is wittily transplanted to the 21st century Twitterscape, as in the case of Samuel Pepys (@samuelpepys: “Went to bed without prayers, my house being every where foul above stairs”) or Emily Dickinson, whose tight-knit, unnerving wordings are remarkably Twitter-ready and have spawned any number of homage accounts.

Like parkour, like graffiti, Twitterature is a kind of street art, organically arising within a populous, complex human space. As an art form of the people (200 million of them), the literary practices of Twitter cannot be fully regulated by any elitist arbiter of value or prestige; they won’t be giving out National Book Awards for tweets any time soon. To a guy like Franzen, whose cultural status (and $70 million net worth) have accreted offline, in the far narrower, far more tightly controlled old world of dead-tree publishing, it’s unsurprising that, in his own words, “this looks like an apocalypse.” But, as de Certeau wrote, “The ministers of knowledge have always assumed that the whole universe was threatened by the very changes that affected their ideologies and their positions. They transmute the misfortunes of their theories into theories of misfortune. When they transform their bewilderment into ‘catastrophes,’ when they seek to enclose the people in the ‘panic’ of their discourses, are they once more necessarily right?” No, of course not. Twitter is not the end of literature. It is only another beginning.

Alena Smith (@miscelanyous) is a playwright and the creator of Tween Hobo (@TweenHobo). Tween Hobo’s secret diary will be published in May 2014 by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Filed Under: Literature, Twitter