March 21, 2014

Twitter Fiction Festival: how technology is changing the face of fiction


Twitter_logo_blueThe conclusion of the third annual Twitter Fiction Festival last week left a small legacy of interesting and innovative experiments in ergodic literature, and a greater sense that fiction is again expanding its means to process and illustrate the so-called state of the times.

Early forays into twitterature (as it’s been dubbed by some) included Black Box, Jennifer Egan’s short story for the New Yorker, which was written in tweet-sized chunks to be issued on the hour for twenty-four hours;  and Teju Cole’s Small Fates ,which illuminated tiny worlds of transcendental humor, mystery, and horror with real and fake news clips from Lagos, where he was researching a book.

The entries to this year’s festival feel, for lack of a better term, mature. Authors are pushing the medium further than ever before; in one winning contest entry author Chris Arnold created an immersive episode of disaster, using several twitter ‘character’ accounts to describe a disastrous storm at an airport.

In another, Adam Popescu recreated his summit of Everest as though it were happening in real-time, replete with photographs of his progress up the mountain. Because of the immediacy of twitter, the ordinary barrier of suspension of disbelief evaporates; it’s so easy to believe it’s really happening in the moment—funny as it is to picture a climber pulling out his iPhone and mashing the screen through his ice gloves.

And of course, the festival barely encompasses some of the best works of twitter-literature: @NeinQuarterly, which was profiled at the New Yorker for its wonderfully dour character of a German nihilist, or the saga of @Horse_ebooks which held the world briefly captive as the mystery of its garbled, charming transmissions unraveled.

And it’s not just Twitter. New forms of fiction are springing up everywhere in response to interactive technologies of the internet. Take, for example, the newest genre of urban legend, the creepypasta (from creepy + copy/paste). This type of short horror fiction is often spread via screen-caps of messageboards or crudely pasted together in MS Paint in order to lend it a sort of underground zine-y authenticity.

Many creepypastas are transparently false, and enjoyed on the basis of being good horror stories: for example, the SCP foundation, a fictional FBI-type organization responsible for containing threatening supernatural entities, whose website hosts thousands of official-looking documents describing all kinds of brilliant and horrific creatures (think a modern-day X-Files if it were just a collection of the actual x-files).

Other creepypastas blur the line, and while it’s evident that they aren’t true, there are dozens of people online who will insist that they are. They are bolstered by interaction with other technologies, such as the most recent phenomenon of using Street View  to situate a story more concretely in the real world.

(Would you like to visit hell in google street view? Courtesy of this glitch, now you can.)

From the beginning, the internet was a fertile proving ground for new fiction. From Ted the Caver to Shaye St John, the flexibility and immersive properties of it and its associate technologies have offered users a multitude of creative forums. As these new forms of fiction gain traction, perhaps we will see them explored deeper by literary authors, and perhaps they will be allowed “literary” credibility–and then the real fun will begin.


Amy Conchie is assistant to the publisher at Melville House.