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Richie: The Arrival of the Twitter Novel

So, I’ve been reading this great book, Richie. In fact, I’ve been reading it along with over sixteen hundred other people. For free. On Twitter. Yes, anyone who knows me and technology will gaffaw.

Obviously I blog, but it’s something I’ve come very late to (I’m sure Jeff could fill you in on the joys of trying to e-tutor me through WordPress 101). I ‘facebook’ also, for the primary reason that it keeps me in touch with the Melbourne Spoken Word community and relatives overseas. But I’ve been asking myself for the past six months what hell Twitter is all about. I mean what, people really want to know what I’m doing at the exact time I’m doing it, even if I’m blind drunk and eating fruit toast while riding a wild donkey or about to die of a heart attack on a free-falling plane above Mexico? Or more to the point, do I really want mostly-total-strangers to know if I’m blind drunk or on a free-falling plane above Mexico?. But then again, that’s what I said about facebook, initially.

So I was stunned to recently discover some of the most captivating writing I’ve thus encountered online in the form of Richie, a Twitter Novel (in progress). I stumbled upon fragments of Richie on New York Writer Jason Gusmann’s fictional mixtape blog several months ago (as these blog things happen, I found fictional mixtape via a click-through on Brisbane writer Paul Squires’ gingatao).

To date, Gusmann has over 1600 readers/followers of the Ritchie on Twitter. By way of the novel’s subject matter, the author explains:

Richie and Dee Dee are a couple of lonely, socially-maladjusted criminals living in a new-age reformatory called Fairview. So, naturally, the novel is about their friendship, or what passes for friendship between them, and how they chafe under the new brand of soft controls employed by their kinder, gentler jailers. However, it’s also about past lives, school shootings, the generational impact of technology, love surviving outside of time, and the disappearance of firsthand experience. But it’s funny, too…like Dostoevsky via the Breakfast Club.

I have to say, by way of author-spruik, that’s a fairly accurate summary.

One of the things that really struck me about Richie is how appropriate the writing style is to the Twitter format. Take this instalment from the classroom scene in Chapter One of Richie:

       the richie kid folds his arms
       leather jacket creaks which i
       think is cool i want one

Or the vivid cafè scene in Chapter Three:

       next day lunch the cafeterias
       weird cuz its like a
       combination of like
       spaceport and french bistro

       its all like domed glass
       windows and colored tubes
       and little round tables each
       with room for four white 
       wicker chairs

       //but i think the ambience is 
       kind of lost on the delinquents 
       that eat in here//

       i always end up eating with
       this black kid with one glass
       eye who never talks to
       anybody

Brilliant!

Of course, the adaptation of the standard novel to new electronic and digital delivery formats is by no means a new phenomenon, and Gusmann himself is unsurprisingly a fan of the cell phone novel, for many reasons:

I actually started writing the story of Richie and Dee Dee in a totally conventional manner (i.e. regular sentence/paragraph/quote structure) and it just felt really unsatisfying even though I knew early on I was in love with the characters. I was a little over 100 pages in when I discovered the keitai shosetsu, or “cell phone novel”, format. If you aren’t familiar, around the turn of the century (2000, not 1900) a whole bunch of Asian kids started writing novels on their cell phones and posting the results in a serialized format on sites like Maho i-Rando. I loved the grassroots publishing aspect of it, but more important for me was the layout: 140 character blocks of text arranged vertically like individual stanzas or truncated haiku. With the format change came changes in tense (past to present) and narrators (omniscient to the first person Dee Dee) that weren’t necessarily dictated by the format, but ended up a far better fit for the story. Once the form solidified, posting serially on Twitter was a natural fit: although the bottom-to-top posting is not the most convenient way to read a novel, it doesn’t affect my fragmented text-bursts as much as others’, and it more than makes up for any inconvenience in pure foot traffic.

I’m now coming around to the Twitter’s literary potential, particularly as a poet .Interestingly though, when I request a bio from Gusmann, he lists one of his aspirations as publishing a print version of the novel which is fast becoming a Twitter sensation.

Jason Gusmann, the author of Richie, is a New York born writer who hates control systems, jobs that drug test, diabetes, the death of sincerity, and “mean people”.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

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  1. I haven't read this properly yet, however I thought I'd draw your attention to the collaborative effort on Twitter to write an opera libretto. http://twitter.com/youropera although it's easy to understand here: http://royaloperahouse.wordpress.com/
    To answer your question about 'what Twitter is' – it seems to be a very clever marketing tool for some; a spammers paradise; or for the not so savvy another means of boring updates. Think it has far more interesting possibilities than FaceBook as it's easy to follow organizations, journals, music companies etc etc on what they are doing.

  2. Twitter is different things to different people (I know, that is an absurdly vague answer, isn't it?) For me, it's a mash of fun-work-and the opportunity to keep up to date with those friends in a different timeline that phonecalls are prohibitively expensive to (although Skype helps with that, I guess)

    I'd like to see you on there, at least Maxine ;)

  3. I am enjoying Twitter a lot and especially the creativity people like Jason are demonstrating in reconnecting literature to an audience of readers. The transition to the first person narrative is more important than it may appear at first. "When art and culture separate, art becomes a gated community and culture just a billboard."

  4. I have a great deal of admiration for Jason's twitter novel, and I'm gaining a lot of respect for the twitter medium. It's fantastic to have a short form outlet that obliges creative types to present concise ideas. Clearly that conciseness need not limit or present a threat to the long form. Congratulations, Jason! Thanks Maxine for giving the Overland audience an introduction.

  5. I am really becoming a fan of this novel. Its fantastic that its on twitter. I stumbled across it, but the twitter format makes it feel very real and its quite addictive. A printable version sounds very exciting…but waiting for tweets certainly keeps your interest. Its an unusual feeling not being able to pick up ‘the book’ when you want to though.

  6. if anyone reads this and becomes interested, i will be re-running “richie” by request on twitter beginning the evening of 6/15/11 – thank you!

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