Do Humans Dream of Poetry Machines?


I remember clearly the first moment that a computer program surprised me with its poetry. A few hundred lines of software I’d written in Java and had called SEER were not impressive for any technical elegance or for a truly artificial intelligence. But my program had written a coherent English sentence relevant to my chosen subject, which happened to be snakebite, and had done so with an oracular grace that I found uncanny. After instructing SEER to summarize a dozen articles I’d found online about rattlesnake strikes, including stories, poems, and medical reports, I blinked at the results. With a venomous bite you have been given a great gift appeared in chapter one of the novel that I co-wrote with that software, italicized to show that my aging Macbook had authored those words. With dozens of other computer-generated passages, SEER accounted for about 10 percent of my unpublished first novel, Love Song of Zero and One. As literature the book was a disaster, but it was the most instructive and enjoyable failure I’ve ever experienced.

What still haunts me is that I searched diligently for anything in the text I’d asked SEER to summarize for something like the above phrase. But I couldn’t find any paradox or sage pronouncement there that the machine had regurgitated, no evidence that instead of writing originally, my software had just replicated thoughtlessly a pre-existing literary notion that it had failed to digest and re-compose. In fact, the word gift didn’t appear at all in the source material I’d fed to Sentient Electronically Engineered Recounter (SEER). My use of the word “Sentient” in the acronym had been a joke, of course. This was just a laptop with a database of words and a Markov model for text generation.


I should take a moment to recount, in what geeks call natural language, the events that led me in that winter of 2011 to take the inspired and desperate step of sharing authorship with a machine. Fifteen years before, I had joined the technology workforce just out of UCLA clutching my bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. That was around the time that the Internet became the World Wide Web. I soon took a job testing computer games because it paid better than working in a deli, and it required only half-assed joystick skills along with an ability to describe precisely in writing any software defects I found.

The interview for the job asked candidates to submit written instructions to an alien life form who’s never before seen a telephone that would enable it to make a phone call. At that point I should have realized I was entering a work world that was less oriented toward humans than ever before.

But I learned to test software, then learned to manage the testing process, and then taught myself to program computers when testing software proved a career dead end. By night, inspired by Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, and Salman Rushdie, I wrote fiction with the hope of producing something worthy of my loftiest goals. And I survived as a humanoid in the digital economy, spending most of my time with computer scientists and engineers and MBAs, who tended to mock me gently for my impractical education.

My friends who had obtained MFAs published more than I did in some cases, and most became teachers of writing or supported their novelistic aspirations as journalists or waiters. They also faced continuing money worries, an ache that I’d largely left behind with my transition into tech. So I persisted in writing fiction after hours, and software in PERL and SQL and Python during the workday, achieving literary milestones by placing short stories in respected journals. But like most writers, I found myself without the prizes and spectacularly lucrative book contract that would let me quit my day job and write full time.

To my surprise, I found programming quite manageable as a trade after the initial hurdles. Handling variables and loops required no more math than high school algebra, and learning the syntax of a foreign tongue was something I’d enjoyed when studying Italian and French. Within a year, I’d doubled my income. The condescension with which my colleagues had treated me was gone. I wasn’t the smartest or the most technical person on the team, but I was a software developer, and I eventually wrote programs to do many things. One of the most interesting challenges I’d seen others in my department take on was writing software to read and author news reports.

In the technology departments of Wall Street where I worked for a decade, geeks compete to create more efficient and accurate Natural Language Processors. These read financial results contained in press releases when they hit the newswire, and decide programmatically to buy or sell that company’s stock within microseconds. I thought this was interesting, but not the most intriguing use of that software.

I had been researching a biographical novel I was writing about Georg Cantor, the great German scientist of set theory who created much of our current understanding of infinity. I’d imagined his story interwoven with that of a present day technologist obsessed with grasping infinity through a software program, but the narrative quickly crumbled under the weight of all the math that I grasped only slenderly, and that I found hard to render as eloquently as David Foster Wallace had in his nonfiction book about Cantor called Everything and More.

Soon Love Song of Zero and One became the tale of a contemporary couple’s breakup under the pressures of the digital age. Sara, the wife in Love Song, was a professor of poetry married to a male technologist who tried to understand William Blake by using his company’s news parsing software to summarize those poems in plain English. For a week or so I tried writing the computer’s output myself, pretending that I was a machine interpreting Blake’s poetry. Frustrated with my results, I assigned myself the challenge of creating the parsing software on my own time. But for that I had to learn intermediate level Java programming.

I should note that my interest in combining technology and literature goes back to my undergraduate days, when I wrote a poem that rendered the opening of my favorite play as instructions in AppleSoft BASIC, a language I’d learned in sixth grade computer camp.

110 EXIT

The above lines approximate BASIC’s syntax, and the algorithm for daughter-comparison is flawed, but it gets the point across. My girlfriend at the time, a poet, adored my typo KINGDOOM, and thought that line summed up the play in one command.

In a sense, all of SEER’s most interesting passages and successful parsings were mistakes like KINGDOOM, a substitution without thought of one unit of language for another that still retained the patina of meaning. For SEER I used Markov chains as implemented by Dr. Daniel Howe’s freeware. Markov chains are probability-based, like what Google uses to autocomplete your search terms with those that other searchers have used.

And that was the whole magic. In its final version, SEER read text, and with some basic grammar and a dictionary of words, used randomness and probability to guess what summarized the input accurately.

But it wasn’t until after my hard month of work learning Java and understanding Dr. Howe’s freeware that I could give SEER its first assignment. The character of the husband in my novel, a technologist from Texas, returns to his home state, where a rattlesnake bites him. So I fed my program the top 10 articles from Google’s search results on snakebite. With oracular brevity, SEER’s response was With a venomous bite you have been given a great gift.

When I completed Love Song of Zero and One, it included whole paragraphs of SEER’s output, most of it insecurely mounted on the drama-starved story I’d created to carry it. One paragraph was SEER’S summaries of the The Collected Works of William Blake. No two of my programmatic summaries of Blake or of any other input were alike, which wasn’t a sign of my code’s effectiveness but of its reliance on randomness.

I submitted the completed novel to five agents, all of whom turned it down. The most gracious of them said he enjoyed the experiment and fully expected to regret his rejection of the book. He should not regret it, just as I don’t regret authoring it. What did it teach me? That technology still doesn’t understand us. Alan Turing’s famous test for machine intelligence proposes that a computer that speaks sensibly in response to questions, offering the appearance of intelligence, cannot be called anything but sentient.

I disagree. What SEER and Love Song taught me are that mere replicas of thought and creativity are easy to create with probability machines, even replicas that sound eerily wise. What is hard to create in humans and in machines is real thought and genuine creativity.

I continue writing and submitting fiction with increasing success, while composing software for money. And I occasionally tamper with computer-generated literature, which has a long history going back to the 1970s and before, as noted in J.M. Coetzee’s book of essays Doubling the Point, and elsewhere. Certainly it’s possible that companies like Deep Mind, which Google purchased and where Elon Musk is a director, are moving us quickly toward a Singularity event, in which software becomes self-aware.

But as participating in any undergraduate creative writing class makes obvious, the gap between simple self-awareness and the literary intelligence necessary to compose a worthwhile novel will always be vast.


A Thousand Hands Will Grasp You with Warm Desire: On the Persistence of Physical Books

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The Gutenberg Bible is a book of extraordinary beauty. One might even say it exudes beauty: its gleaming hand-tooled leather cover beckons to the hands to touch, to open, to reveal what lies inside. The day I saw it, it was sitting on the library table like a fat monarch laid in state, a foot wide by nearly a foot and a half long, light reflecting off the metal cornerpieces a binder had affixed for its protection half a millennium before. I asked Paul Needham, the librarian at Princeton’s Scheide Library, if I should put on gloves. He shook his head. Linen rag is not disturbed by finger oils, while calfskin in fact thanks them. I raised the solid wood-and-leather board. It opened right onto the text: two perfect jet-black columns, the ink still glossy after all this time. I turned one massive page, and then the next, intoxicated by the touch, the smell, the grace of that black block against the broad and creamy margins. To my amazement, I was leafing through the most famous and valuable book in the world, the first major volume made with metal type — the Ur-book of the age of print. Yet beyond all these superlatives, it was simply beautiful.

This volume, one of 48 that survive, was crafted with exquisite care roughly 560 years ago. Its makers — one inventor, one scribe, and one merchant who dealt in books — chose for each page the crispest letterforms, the purest linen, the ideal proportions of the golden section. In short, they selected the finest possible form to clothe the most sacred text of their age, the Christian Scriptures. I studied this book for several years, and have come to think that it has much to tell our age as well. For this Biblia latina, more than any other book, makes one thing clear: the more we value a text, the more we desire to fix it in the world, to grant it permanence. Today, as we rush headlong into the digital age, it seems to me that a similar tendency can be discerned. For against all expectation, we readers maintain our stubborn attachment to physical books, as though what they contained were somehow sacred.

By now most of us are heartily sick of the print versus e-book debate. It was framed wrong from the start: as a Manichean proposition, one or the other, either-or. Fortunately, we have our own experience now to instruct us — as well as the long history of the book. The evolution of reading technologies is both “broken and continuous,” in the words of the book historian John Pettegree; each successive form coexists with the one it replaces for some time. Most of us read some things on screen, other things in print; seven years after the invention of the Kindle, readers are answering this question for themselves. We need only look back to the first age of print to see that this is how technologies evolve. The hand copying of manuscripts by scribes did not vanish in 1454, when Johann Gutenberg and his colleagues unveiled the new system of printing with movable type. Nor did it die out completely when Aldus Manutius invented the killer app for print in 1500 in Venice, the handheld personal book — nor even in 1517, when Martin Luther’s 95 printed theses sounded the death knell for clerical rule. Hand copying persisted well into the 16th century, for special texts desired by wealthy rulers and clergy. Even today, fine letterpress printing and calligraphy are used for luxury editions of the classics for a similar clientele. For a time, and for a particular purpose, old technology persists. Where then, in 2015, do we stand with the printed book?

Beneath the barrage of e-hype, it turns out that the humble codex — the Latin term for books with spines and leaves — is holding its own. The statistics can appear confounding, but essentially the market is settling out. It is true that overall book sales have been dropping for some time. The American market saw a drop from 770 million copies sold in 2009 to 635 million in 2014 (the figures were 229 million and 181 million for the U.K.) according to Jonathan Nowell, president of Nielsen Book, the main industry tracker. Given all the other ways we spend our leisure time today, that’s not surprising. More tellingly, the rate of e-book buying has leveled off after years of explosive growth. E-books now comprise less than a third of all books sold. The first flush of digital adoption has passed, it seems; hardcover sales (particularly for picture books and adult nonfiction) have held up well, Nowell told the Digital Book World conference in January. It is paperbacks that have been cannibalized by e-books. This picture will naturally shift as we move ever forward into new digital experiences. But I find it remarkable that at a time of massive digital immersion, a majority still prefers to consume their reading the old-fashioned way.

The physical places where such books are bought aren’t dying either. The independent brick-and-mortar bookshop is slowly reviving in America, with glimmers of a similar rebound in Britain. The numbers are nowhere near what they were before the big chains and Amazon, but last year more new bookstores opened in the United States than in any year since the 2008 recession, the American Booksellers Association reported (for the record, 59). Sales of physical books at Britain’s leading chain, Waterstone’s, rose five percent in December, and the British Library’s chairman, Rory Keating, recently took a stab at explaining why visitor figures rose 10 percent in 2014. It’s not just the free Wi-Fi, apparently: the more screen-based peoples’ lives become, the more they value physical artefacts and experiences, he theorized.

At the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association convention held last fall in Tacoma, Wash., I learned that the people who love books enough to consecrate their lives to them have noticed this, too. With a gaggle of other authors, I was flogging my book in a massive speed-dating exercise that consisted of telling table after table of retailers what my novel was about. As I brandished my own beautiful hardback (of which more in a moment), we got to talking about the surprising appeal of hardbacks in this digital day and age. Over the past five years, they all agreed, hardbacks have not only held their own, they have gotten more beautiful. It’s almost as if, one bookseller mused, publishers understood that if one went to the trouble of producing or buying a printed book anymore, it had better be for a darned good reason. The very printness of print, it seemed, was its USP — its unique selling point. If a print book can’t offer something more than a cheaply produced paperback, the e-book wins the day. There’s simply no reason to buy it.

Can we define what this “more” is that a physical book provides? A lot has been written on this subject, usually centering on the notion of “tactility.” The tactile appeal of real ink on pages certainly plays a role. Most of us don’t know exactly why we love the soft oatmeal feel of good paper stock, the nubby ruffle of the deckle edge, the weight of the fabric-covered boards. It’s powerful, though, this hunger that we humans have for touch. Our skin is our largest perceptual organ, our first, most primordial sense; stroking a pet, or a page, releases occitocin, the hormone that brings joy. Even so, I’m convinced that the hold of the book goes even deeper. The best books give readers a profound aesthetic and intellectual experience, like our 15th century Bible: they are objects of both beauty and permanence.

As Hannah Arendt observed, mankind is homo faber: man as maker. We are tool-makers, art-makers, and respond to what we make, especially those things that are well made. What makes an object attractive, desirable — in a word, beautiful — if not each detail that reveals the care, the close attention of its maker? The evidence is all around us, from coveted Apple products hyper-designed by an obsessive Steve Jobs to luxury handbags and brushed-steel German kitchens. Nor is the pleasure we derive from such beautiful objects only aesthetic. Beauty is a kind of cognate for excellence: we are also viscerally responding to the maker’s attention to quality, which signals a certain kind of seriousness. Decades later I still recall the Heritage Library set of classics in my parents’ living room. Handsomely set in type, stamped with gold embossing and illustrated with powerful black woodcuts, these books sent the clearest message with their heft and beauty: pay attention, this is good. I should mention here that the gorgeous black textura letters of The Gutenberg Bible were not the first metal letters in the world; Gutenberg’s first efforts were crude, unlovely. It took time and extraordinary focus and skill to craft those letterforms we so admire, most likely the work of Gutenberg’s apprentice, Peter Schoeffer, a gifted calligrapher.

The painstaking work of craftsmanship thus results in things we can hold and admire. And hidden deep inside this tactile pleasure is the source of its real power. A well-made book, like any well-made thing, exudes a sense of permanence. The better it is made, the longer it will last — perhaps for centuries. In letterpress printing, this idea is captured by what printers call “the dwell:” the moment when inked metal letters touch the sheet. The letters dwell upon the page, as we dwell upon a word, or musicians dwell upon a note. It’s a word that marries a sense of duration, of permanence, to the act of fastening a text upon a sheet. Which texts do we choose to treat this way? The answer, I think, is obvious. The deeper, more universal, and important the “content,” the more we wish to grant it permanence. What we enshrine in print are texts we truly cherish, and deem sacred. This impulse is as old as cuneiform and scrolls, as old as the first prophets of the Abrahamic religions, instructed to preserve the Word of God. “Serious readers,” too, are members of this tribe. For is it not they — we — who felt most stricken at the thought the book had died, who perceived it as an existential threat? To some of us, it is literature itself that is sacred, insofar as it has become the place we turn for meaning, and for explication of the world.

The permanence of this heritage is an ever-present concern. We are haunted as we should be by the loss of the library of Alexandria, and by the sheer chance that saved the classics of antiquity in Constantinople. I for one am loath to hand our civilization’s most priceless works over to a digital “cloud” that will vanish when the gas runs out. The most important thing to remember about Gutenberg’s world-changing invention is not that it spread learning, or even democracy, the historian John Man reminds us. It is that printing gave mankind the means to preserve what it could not preserve before: “the entire cultural DNA of our species.” We turn away from such a gift at our own peril.

Over the nearly 2,000 years of its existence, the book has shaped us as effectively as we have shaped the book. There’s increasing evidence that the physical form of the codex mirrors the processing operations of the brain, a fact that should not surprise, considering the two have co-evolved. And this very permanence finds an analogue in the reading mind: our brains, it turns out, are wired to better store and retain what we read in print than things we read on screen. A print book conveys the meaning of a text uniquely. Its multiple sensory aspects — size, paper stock, ink, impression, art, typography — encode a staggering array of information. This physical structure creates a spatial construct for the mind that helps it navigate, according to Anne Mangan, a Norwegian reading researcher. It is useful to me to think of a printed book as a landscape through which the mind roams, touching branches, remembering paths. Like the internal “memory palaces” that medieval scholars used, the physical spaces of the book function as aids to recall. Turning pages helps us build “a scaffold on which memory and information are automatically arranged,” says Mangan.

The science is by no means settled. But it appears the physical space of the book both enourages us to focus in a way we do not on screen, and gives us clues — how far we’ve gone, where on the page that quote appeared — that help us to better remember. There is a third element that, to me, is equally compelling: a book we crack with our two hands creates an actual physical space for reverie that functions as an oasis outside daily life, a cocoon in space and time. An e-book can perform this function too, although I wonder if it takes us quite as far away. After all, these tactile qualities are part and parcel of the world the book creates. In the end, refusal of the e-book comes down to a refusal of sensory impoverishment. With all the senses we possess, why settle only for the eyes?

It’s no accident that we’re currently witnessing a revival of the handmade in every field, from handicrafts sold on Etsy to Maker Faires where the digerati escape to shape things with their hands. It is especially gratifying to see this happening in the arts of the book. The past decade has seen a huge boom in letterpress printing and bookbinding; young people all over the world are rediscovering the joy of making books as Gutenberg once did. “I can only liken it to making music yourself or cooking,” says Erik Spiekermann, a renowned typographer who has just opened a letterpress studio in Berlin. “Setting your own type is an essential experience, like making your own pizza, preparing your own food.” We readers, too, are drawn to these basic materials; we too yearn to hold a well-made book in our two hands.

This past spring I watched in wonder as the designers at Harper Books expressed that love of craft in their own work. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the founding Harper brothers were themselves printers: a case of type is displayed in the firm’s new offices on lower Broadway. Even so I was unprepared for how my story of the making of The Gutenberg Bible would inspire the people charged with putting it in print. It was as if the subject itself called forth the highest degree of craftsmanship, from exquisite page design to deckle edges and a die cut on the cover. They understood, I think, that a book about the first great book must strive for that same excellence and beauty.

I feel confident that there will always be a place for books we touch and hold. Some of us will read on phones or tablets; others will keep reaching for the real thing, the same way the great medieval printer Anton Koberger imagined his customers doing in 1493, when he sent out his Nuremberg Chronicle with this printed wish:

Speed now, Book…
A thousand hands will grasp you with warm desire
And read you with great attention.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Only Connect: Social (Media) Anxiety

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Like a lot of the people I know these days who grew up wanting to be writers, I learned how to write by reading the Internet. I graduated from college with a degree in capital-L Literature, but by the time I was 23, my major sources of inspiration were blogs and online fiction magazines. I found my voice (or at least a voice) by imitating bloggers no one had ever heard of, and publishing on websites few people would ever read. This suited me — I liked the isolated weirdness of writing into the infinite void of the web. It didn’t matter to me that no one answered back.

Some time between then and now, businesses with real money caught on to writing on the Internet, discovered it could be made scaleable, and everything changed. For many of my writer friends, this change was a net positive. Suddenly there was money in writing; in some cases, lots of it. The possibility of a “piece” going viral also meant the possibility of a job for pay at a real publication, or a book deal, or a mention in The New York Times, or any number of other writerly blessings. At the same time, wanting to make a career in letters and not being on Twitter and Facebook — that is, not wanting to share your work constantly with the strangers you met on airplanes and in restaurants and people you hadn’t seen since seventh grade — became the equivalent of not actually wanting to be a writer at all. For extroverts and writers with surplus self-assurance this didn’t pose a problem. For those of us drawn to writing because it was the one job that wouldn’t require us to talk to people regularly, it was a nightmare.

“Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life,” wrote Leon Wieseltier last month in his call to arms against the threat technology poses to humanism. “Among the Disrupted” sparked a heated debate among its readers, or at least, as heated as can reasonably be expected in the letters section of the New York Times Book Review. As one critic pointed out, there are plenty of more urgent issues for all of us to ponder, child poverty and the pay gap among them. What struck me, though, wasn’t the essay’s hyperbole, but the inaccuracy of its target.

The problem facing writers now isn’t the growing prominence of tech, but the question of how deeply the two fields are intertwined, and what that relationship means. Most of the notable works of fiction published in recent years (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven spring immediately to mind) present thoughtful considerations of the evolving relationship between the self and technology, and a lot of the people who read these books probably read them on the Kindle app. The same people who subscribe to Harpers read work published by the Atavist and curated by Longform. I’m writing right now in the notepad app on my iPhone, and you’re reading on your computer or your iPad or your own phone. How many writers do you know at this point who don’t have their own websites, Tumblrs, or blogs? For that matter, how many do you know who aren’t on Twitter?

Still, it’s true that while the Internet augmented journalism, creating jobs for newcomers and inventing new forms for them to occupy, it didn’t do the same for fiction. Atavist Books confirmed last fall that it would no longer be taking new submissions, and Byliner was folded into Vook last September. Amazon’s e-books are popular, but more innovative forms of digital literature don’t seem to be. Meanwhile, more and more often, walking into library near the office building where I work in Los Angeles feels like walking into a museum. Untouched contemporary novels line the shelves, positions unchanged. The few people in the reading room are, to a person, on laptops or on their phones.

“Only connect,” E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End. We’ve taken his directive and run with it, to the point where we talk about disconnecting — going off Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, whatever — in the same wistful tones we once used to talk about going on vacation. Social media, like literary fiction, allows us briefly, to inhabit a consciousness outside our own: on Facebook, we experience the highs and lows of strangers in real time through the same lens of authenticity that marks work by writers like Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti. If these platforms give every one of us both an audience and a show on demand, at any given moment, and for free, then what is there left for fiction to do?

Curious about how all of this was affecting those most likely to suffer from its consequences, I reached out to novelists in my Twitter timeline to find out what they thought about the role of social media — specifically Twitter — in their own writing lives. I expected all three of them to share my own anxieties — my view of the world has more in common with Wieseltier’s than I am, perhaps, ready to accept — and I was surprised when not one of them did.

Roxane Gay contributes reviews and cultural criticism to high-profile outlets regularly, edits multiple literary journals, and works as a professor at Purdue. She tweets prolifically to her 54,000 and counting followers, and engages with many of them directly. Last year, her essay collection, Bad Feminist, and her novel, An Untamed State, both dropped at the same time, to widespread acclaim.

“Many of my essays begin as conversations on Twitter, where I am thinking through something that’s happening in our culture,” Gay wrote me, adding that she uses Twitter “to be alone while feeling less lonely.”

“Ninety percent of the time,” Gay wrote, “I’m having delightful conversations and interactions on Twitter. There’s little to dislike.”

Amelia Gray, author of Threats and the forthcoming Gutshot, responded that Twitter “has been more beneficial to my creativity than most theory,” adding, “It’s a little corner of the world that is a pure ball-pit.” She went on, “My tweets and my fiction ideally share the same precision. They share a sense of character too, though rarely the same character. I use different social media towards different ends, and in that way I have different Internet personas and also a real persona which is different here and there.”

Porochista Khakpour is an essayist and fiction writer and the author of, most recently, The Last Illusion. Last year one of her tweets caught the attention of Slate, landing her timeline a mention in The New York Times Book Review. She often writes, more or less jokingly (I think?), about being enslaved to Twitter, but when I wrote to ask her about the relationship between the site and her work, she wrote back, “I think I am beneficial and destructive to my own creativity and ability to be productive. I am the problem!” She described her relationship to Twitter as, “Love/hate, but tbh mostly love. And we all know love hurts, love bleeds, love kills, love is a battlefield, etc.”

A blogger friend of mine once called social media a loneliness eliminator and I have to admit that definition makes me uneasy. What about those of us who like being lonely? What if loneliness is, in some ways, necessary? It’s true though, that, soon enough, this conversation will likely be irrelevant. Twitter and Facebook will dissolve into the digital slurry, only to be replaced by some other technology as incomprehensible to us as texting once was to our grandparents. Consider Vine, currently churning out new waves of celebrities that no one over 27 has ever heard of. Maybe six-second videos will become the new Twitter, which is the new Facebook, which was the new books. Or maybe, by this time next year, we’ll be having this same conversation about yet another new technology we can never remember how we lived without. Meanwhile, as these writers make clear, fiction writers will continue to adapt, and books, while they may be still hanging on by a thread, will hang on nonetheless.

Something I’m starting to suspect is that it’s everything I worry will make books obsolete — their slowness, the investment of time they require, and their inability to do anything other than the singular purpose for which they’ve been created — that has allowed them to survive for this long. Social media lends itself best to chronicling discrete instances: bursts of anger, flashes of surprise. Built on the notion, even on a micro scale, of constant disruption, our feeds and streams can’t cohere for long enough to bleed seamlessly into one another the way actual sentences do. Twitter and Facebook are great for quick blasts of dopamine or adrenaline, but not for creating sustained waves of happiness or fear or maintaining the kind of cumulative tension upon which good stories rely.

“Only connect!” Forster wrote, but he also wrote, “Live in fragments no longer.” Human experience is like a Georges Seurat in that it only comes into focus the further away you get from it. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram regurgitate the present back to us in easily manageable pieces that delight, spark envy, disdain, boredom, revulsion, or inspiration. What they can’t do, however, is take a wider scope. Its novels we depend on to reorganize those scattered fragments into something whole.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

A Future for Books Online: Tumblr’s Reblog Book Club

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The Tumblr reblog holds a special kind of power. It’s the way that posts are shared on the platform — if, for example, I like your photograph, or link, or video, or 5,000-word analysis of our favorite TV show, I can re-post it on my own Tumblr, with or without additions, your original post fully intact. It will appear on my blog and on my followers’ dashboard feeds; if one of them reblogs it, and a few of her friends do the same, your post will gain momentum — it might even snowball to popularity. Posts on Facebook can slip into the ether, the whims of finicky algorithms; on Twitter, arguably the most temporal social network, your 140 characters have a matter of minutes, even seconds, before they drop out of sight down the infinite stream. On Tumblr, posts spread outward in networks of webs. They have drastically longer shelf lives than their counterparts on other social media outlets — reblogs, which make up 90% of Tumblr content, can make the rounds for weeks, months, even years, and with a tag search and a reblog or two, they can spring to life long after they’re published. In other corners of the Internet, you broadcast and consume information; on Tumblr, a platform built on mutual interests and passions, all that sustained sharing helps build real digital communities, one reblog at a time.

Book lovers will be pleased to know that the Tumblr book community is thriving. The Millions has its own popular Tumblr and our own Nick Moran has done a few great round-ups of literary Tumblrs, and the community has only grown since the last installment. Book Tumblr is a space where basically everyone who regularly has their hands (or, I suppose in the digital age, their eyes) on books can gather: writers, artists, editors, publishers, lit mags, booksellers and their bookstores, librarians and their libraries, and, most important of all, readers. The Tumblr book fandom is as committed to the written word as they are to the platform’s creative and transformative slant: when they finish a book, they’re ready to pull the most thought-provoking quotes or draw fanart or bake the cake they read about in chapter 12. There’s equal space for criticism and celebration, and it’s the kind of community that forces me to talk sappily about the power of the web, how people thousands of miles apart can find each other and build friendships based on a single book, or a love of books generally.

At the heart of Tumblr book fandom is and the woman who runs it, Rachel Fershleiser, once described by Lydia Kiesling here at The Millions as “an energetic person whose job at Tumblr (Literary and Non-Profit Outreach) seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology.” Nicole Cliffe at The Toast recently took things a delightful step further by saying Fershleiser “represents for books on the Internet like an avenging angel who is also very nice.” Fershleiser (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve met many times in bookish internet circles over the years) is a former book publicist who came to Tumblr from Housing Works, where she ran events — and got the bookstore onto Tumblr, one of the first institutions to create an analogous physical-to-digital space for readers to gather around books. At Tumblr, she encourages other organizations and writers onto the site; in a room full of publishers at the FutureBook conference in London a few months back, I seriously enjoyed watching her rep for Tumblr with enthusiastic and hyper-intelligent zeal. She curates a broad, book-positive discussion on Tumblr — and the Reblog Book Club, a year and a half old and now in its fifth round, is at the very center.

“I wanted to do a Tumblr book club from the day I started,” Fershleiser told me a recently when I stopped by Tumblr’s offices near Union Square in Manhattan (the address is one that loyal Tumblrites will recognize instantly from every email they get about new followers). “I love to talk about books — that’s what I’m doing here — and I love to talk about books on the Internet, and Tumblr is such a rich place for engaging with art in a creative way. My actual lifelong dream is to be the Oprah of the Internet. So this seemed like a good place to start.” She launched the Reblog Book Club in the fall of 2013, and the first title was Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, a book (that I happen to be obsessed with) about a girl who writes fanfiction about the Harry Potter-like Simon Snow novels. “I got really in my head about choosing a first book,” Fershleiser said. “There were no rules: is it YA or is it adult, is it serious, or dystopian, or funny, and how can I choose one book for a hundred million people? It’s a really big community.”

But Rowell proved to be a perfect choice. Her previous novel, Eleanor & Park, had come out earlier that year and had been a huge hit, and she was an active Tumblr user and unabashed fangirl — and, of course, she’d written a novel about loving books and celebrating them online. There weren’t a lot models for a massive-scale online book club — some sites set titles and interviewed the authors, and maybe opened up a comments section or discussion thread. But Tumblr is all about peer-to-peer exchange, and Fershleiser wanted to reflect that. She set a fairly loose schedule — dates by which chunks of the book would ideally be read — and an open format: all the tools of Tumblr, from gifsets to multimedia to chains of reblogged meta, were put to use. The ask box was always open, so Rowell could drop in and answer questions whenever was easiest (rather than the formally scheduled Q&A sessions we see with a lot of authors online).

This kind of thing is relatively new territory for authors — how many times have you cringed in the past decade seeing writers forced to start blogs or Twitter accounts or somehow engage with their readers online when it didn’t come naturally, or worse, when it clearly made them uncomfortable? But these days plenty of writers do shine in digital spaces, and Rowell is one of them — and when Tumblr called, her publisher embraced the opportunity. Stephanie Davis, the marketing manager at St Martin’s Press, told me, “Working with Rachel to launch the Reblog Book Club was really exciting because the community on Tumblr is so expressive, creative, and authentic.” Davis cited the fact that Rowell was on Tumblr, and enthusiastically so, that made her an ideal first choice. The club was an experiment — and it was a successful one. It showed off the very best of the Tumblr book community: “It was thrilling to be able to approach a traditional book club in a new way,” Davis said. “And to see how the Tumblr community jumped in and participated — I’m still blown away by how talented her Tumblr fans are!”

The conversations in the Reblog Book Club are nearly always civil, and usually pretty warm and engaged — something that’s particularly notable online. Perhaps it’s because Fershleiser is there to moderate, or perhaps it’s because the author is there, too, or perhaps it speaks to the kinds of readers attracted to the group. “This is my own little push-back against the idea that online conversation has to be mean and shallow,” Fershleiser said. “Not only are people kind and thoughtful, the conversation is nuanced and in-depth and we read complicated books about complicated characters and have complicated responses to them, and I think that’s wonderful. I want to smash it in the face of people who think that enjoying the Internet is the opposite of people enjoying real books.”

The titles that followed Fangirl transcended genre labels and age designations. In the book store they’d be classified as middle grade, YA, and adult, verse and prose; in reality, they’re more like a collection of books about complex female protagonists getting things done. There was Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, our own Edan Lepucki’s California, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, for which she won the National Book Award late last year. It felt fitting to get in touch with Edan for a Millions piece, and she told me, “The Reblog Book Club was one of the most satisfying parts of publishing my book this summer because I got to see readers interacting with my work in ways that I couldn’t elsewhere. (A writer should always avoid reading their Amazon reviews, for instance, unless she wants to feel like a pile of shit in three seconds flat.)” She continued,

On Tumblr, even if readers weren’t loving my novel, they were still engaging with it in these thoughtful ways, wrestling with how they felt about the characters, why I’d made certain choices, guessing about what was going to happen, etc. And when a reader loved my book — oh how they loved it! I feel like the internet has brought back sincerity and enthusiasm, made it acceptable, and that is refreshing. It’s not cool to be cool, it’s cool to get excited about stuff and to be a fan with a capital F…It truly made me feel like my book was alive for people in the way it had been for me, when I was writing it.

And now, to start 2015, there’s Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple at the End of the World. I’ve never met Coyle in person, but we followed each other on Tumblr about a year ago, and I feel like I know her deeply, from her enthusiasm for Doctor Who gifsets (it’s all about Peter Capaldi on that front) to her long, thoughtful essays, including a wonderful post last year in which she described the genesis of this book: Neil Gaiman had posted about the Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize on his Tumblr, and she’d seen it, entered, and won — and eventually got to thank him in person. The book was published as Vivian Versus the Apocalypse in the U.K., and was released there along with a sequel, Vivian Versus America, last year; the newly-titled version came out in the U.S. this month. Coyle seems to like Tumblr as much as I do, if not more. “I feel like there’s really no better place on the internet to be loud about the things you love than Tumblr,” she told me. “I’ve used it for my personal blog for about six years now, and in that time I’ve really noticed that it’s helped change my tastes, and open my eyes to new things I wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.”

It was pretty hard for me to keep from falling in love with Vivian Apple at the End of the World: the characters — particularly the heroine, Vivian, who grows progressively bolder as the novel proceeds — are smart, dynamic, and seriously funny, and it’s a whip-smart satirical take on contemporary America, from religion (the big one — it’s about the Rapture) to consumerism to feminism to homophobia. And these past few weeks, Coyle watched her readers react to her work as they read it, something most authors never get the chance to do. “Overall it’s been really great,” she said. “I’m a debut author and basically had no feeling of assurance whatsoever that anyone other than my parents was going to read this book. To be able to go on Tumblr and see people not just reading it, but engaging with it, picking themes and characters and quotes they particularly liked or were interested by, has been overwhelming. It is a little weird to watch it unfold in real time. I’ve seen posts where people say, ‘I have a question about this, can’t wait to see how Coyle addresses it’ and I’m like ‘oh no oh god I never addressed that thing.’”

She doesn’t have much to worry about, though: the Reblog Book Club seems to be loving the book, and engaging with it in typical fashion, with fanart and meta and playlists for the apocalypse. “I am a huge fan of fans,” Coyle said. “If there was a fandom fandom, I would belong to it, because nothing is more beautiful to me that goofy outrageous creativity being applied to movies and television shows and books, especially. So the idea that someone would read the book and make a playlist, or draw a picture, or paint their nails the color of the cover, was and is almost too wonderful for me to bear. I have long said that my only authorial goal is to inspire someone else to write fanfiction about my work. I’m not sure if that’s happened yet, but I feel like I’ve gotten a bit closer.” (I’ve advised her to watch her inbox on this front.)

For the readers, some of whom come via the authors, others who show up for every title Fershleiser picks, the Reblog Book Club is a unique space on the web. Lauren Bates works in a library in Florida and has a dedicated book Tumblr, and she found out about the club through Rainbow Rowell’s Tumblr: “I was newly post-grad and unemployed and really very desperate to stay engaged with literature without the excuse of schoolwork,” she told me. “The literary community can sometimes be intimidating or inaccessible to people who don’t have connections to the industry or an active literary scene in their community, and even if you do live in a relatively literary community, it can be difficult to find people with a similar taste in books.” The Tumblr book community, she said, is a beautifully egalitarian space: “We have no idea what each other’s backgrounds are or where (or if) anyone attended college or what their major was or any of that. Your credentials don’t give your opinion more weight than anyone else’s.”

Another active member, Sarah Smith-Eivemark told me that she “owe[s] her publishing career to the Bookternet:” I joined Tumblr a little over three years ago, but I didn’t start actively posting until about two years ago, when I realized that so many of the people who I respected in publishing, the people whose careers I wanted to emulate and work with, had a Tumblr of their own. I’m completely addicted now. I’ve met and connected with more people who share my love of reading and independent publishing through Tumblr than I have with, well, anything else.” Smith-Eivemark is now the publicist at Coach House Books in Toronto, and she still uses Tumblr in her professional life. If anything, the Tumblr book community shows her all the people out there incredibly excited about reading: “…it can just seem so challenging to simply get people to buy a book,” she said. “The Reblog Book Club encourages me, and reminds me that not only are there readers out there, they’re smart, funny, and exactly the kind of people I’d want to know (as we say) IRL.”

It’s a little coincidental that this round of the Reblog Book Club coincided with the launch of another online “book club” at another behemoth of a social network: Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s resolution to read a book every two weeks led to the announcement of Facebook’s “A Year of Books,” in which 278,000 (and counting) members will “discuss” a new title once a fortnight. The inevitable comparisons to Oprah came and went — for an eloquent analysis of why exactly Zuckerberg is not and will never be Oprah, I’d recommend Anna Wiener’s fantastic piece on the subject in the Gawker Review of Books. “Oprah built an entertainment and media empire that trades in feelings; she is the definition of a successful personal brand,” she wrote. “Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, a website buttressed by targeted ads with a well-intentioned but often emotionally clumsy experience. Oprah can make one’s life feel like an important journey to the center of the soul. Facebook can make one’s life feel inadequate, ephemeral, and commoditized.” But while the first meeting of the club was reportedly a mess, the first featured title, The End of Power by Moisés Naím, skyrocketed in sales. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether it’s possible to have a real discussion in this kind of space: Facebook merely suggesting a title will lead people to buy it (though not, it should be noted, to necessarily read it.)

The contrast between Facebook’s book club and the conversations I see on Tumblr are striking. As much as the book industry needs — perhaps even is desperate for — a solid and regular base of book-club consumers, this big, dedicated driver of sales (on that front, Zuckerberg and Oprah will likely have much in common), people who make and distribute books also want passionate readers, the sort who will evangelize for a book that they love. Fershleiser agrees — during our conversation, she echoed some of my thoughts from my last fan culture column on the topic, on how book fandom is more about depth than breadth. She said:

I think that some people think of fandom only as people who already have millions of people hanging on their every word. A lot of what we’re doing here starts smaller. For the books we choose for the Reblog Book Club, the authors are on Tumblr and they have some kind of following but it’s not because they’re the biggest authors on Tumblr, it’s because it’s going to be something interesting to talk about. It’s not that there are huge numbers of people participating in the book club, it’s that they’re really, really engaged and excited and when you have even 50 people on your platform who are talking about a book, every day, who are making incredible fan art, nail art, getting really excited, getting into heated debates about things, especially on a network like Tumblr, with the reblogging and the following, it reverberates through the network and it feels like, ‘What’s this thing that everyone’s talking about? It’s exciting and I want to be a part of it.’ It doesn’t take six million people to create that kind of feeling —–it grows organically.

Is the Reblog Book Club the future of books online? I sure hope so, or at least that it’s a big part of it. It represents some of the best of what the web can offer — genuine connections and discussions, between groups that can’t realistically interact in the analog world, and a sort level playing field, bookstores and authors and librarians and readers sitting side by side, one post after another. And perhaps most importantly, the Tumblr book community gives permission to get deep into the world of a book: it’s cool to love it for a while, and to try to press it into the hands of everyone on your dash. With a few well-chosen gifs, of course.

The London Book Fair: Many Tote Bags but Few Industry Solutions

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I have been at the London Book Fair for approximately eight minutes when I officially decide that I am not meant to be at the London Book Fair.

Don’t worry: I haven’t snuck in or anything. Well, it is a little iffy — at the entrance, I manage to bypass some sort of elaborate form-filling-out process when they ask for my press card and I say, almost by way of a challenge, “I’m American?” as though Americans do not have press cards. (Obviously it’s just this particular irresponsible American who doesn’t have a press card.) Miraculously, the helpful woman behind the desk nods, takes my letter of intent, and whips off a press pass. I stride blithely into the main hall at Earls Court Exhibition Centre and stop short.

It’s not the books — there are, admittedly, a lot of books, but I expected that. If anything, I expected way more books. Every stall has some sort of display of new titles, lined up and facing outward, and the big fancy stalls of the big fancy publishers have enormous images of dust jackets and headshots of celebrity authors lining their walls. There is a whole other enormous room, I learn later, and a corner of it is devoted to wholesalers and remainders and they’ve got plenty of books. I’m not exactly sure why, because I presume they have warehouses stocked with millions of them somewhere; a few-odd hundred on display strikes me as strange. But who knows — I don’t actually know much about book fairs. That much becomes abundantly clear.

What’s most noticeable in the main hall are the little tables — hundreds (thousands?) of small square tables populated by groups of two or three, heads bent close together, scribbling in notebooks. (I have never seen so many notebooks in my life, at least not in the past five years.) The conversations all look so serious, and so intimate — though the collective sound of a thousand intimate conversations is deafening. I feel adrift amongst all of this, utterly out-of-my-depth, so when I see the escalator in the center of the hall, I make a beeline for it. But it’s the second level that seals my fate: row upon row of long rectangular tables, with the names of literary agents and agencies printed above each row, and hundreds of people sitting face-to-face in deep conversation. It looks like a massive speed-dating event, except everyone has a whole lot of papers strewn around them, and they appear to actually want to talk to each other. I walk up and down the rows too quickly — no, I don’t have an appointment! — and then I do the sort of quick retreat of the overly paranoid as I rush back towards the down escalator.

I’d come to Earls Court to observe the book industry, and here it was, very “industry”-like — I am eventually given the full run-down, that the London Book Fair is specifically a rights fair, for things like international publishing rights to be orchestrated or, in the case of some of the big books of the week, for previously negotiated rights to be announced. There are author events, but not terribly many; this is primarily about business, for people who create and sell books, not for regular consumers. I’m in some sort of weird liminal space here: mostly a consumer, but a critic, of books and of the industry that makes them more broadly. Perhaps my sense of unease comes down to the fact that this isn’t the ideal place from which to do any of this criticism.

The special guest is the Korean publishing industry, and they have a huge, slick set-up in the international section, sort of like what a first-class lounge at an airport looks like in my mind, all futuristic white furniture and elegant stemware. The Sultanate of Oman has a kind of Arabian castle structure; Russia’s got this really aggressive looming thing that looks like propaganda, written in red: READ.DEEP. READ.SMART. READ.MOSCOW. I feel like I am at Epcot, but there are no rides, not even educational ones. “This is an especially large fair, right?” I ask one man. He looks a little weary as he sighs and tells me that Frankfurt is by far the biggest, twice as long as this three-day affair. All around me, I see books as pure product, and it’s a little startling. In the café, my friend and I are flanked by people making business deals while they eat lunch. “We’ll take 3,000, then,” the man to our left says to his negotiating partner, and they both make neat marks in their notebooks. On the other side, a man swipes through something on an iPad, a children’s book, maybe, or some kind of interactive platform. (There are gaming people here, too, partly because digital storytelling is blurring the lines between traditional books and games.)

The occasional appearance of an iPad — and eventually learning that in that second enormous room, there’s a whole area devoted to literally all things to do with technology, from Nook and Kindle and Kobo to metadata management platforms to print-on-demand and ebook production outsourcing services — reminds me that I’d come to the London Book Fair with a bit of an agenda: I want to figure out exactly what was going on with tech in the book industry.

Because back in October, I’d attended a day-long conference in Oxford for young people in the publishing industry, once again as more of an observer than anything else. It was illuminating to look at books from somewhere other than my usual perch, but I was more than a little alarmed by the way most people were talking about digital things. “It’s time to admit that we have to adapt,” the general line went throughout the day, which I found, frankly, shocking: the time to admit such a thing must have been a decade ago, at least. I sat and fumed when one presenter urged publishers to “try to get on Facebook and Twitter.” (Pinterest and Tumblr? Too “experimental”.) At the end-of-day reception, I interrogated the circle of people sipping wine around me. “I get the sense,” I said slowly, “that you guys actively fear incorporating technology of any kind into your working lives.” I expected an argument, but people were nodding. One woman admitted to me, “I think that we’re all hoping someone else will come along and do that work for us.”

This doesn’t make book publishing unique, by any means. But it’s strange for me, after most of the past decade embedded in the growing pains of magazines’ difficult transition to digital. The equation there seemed simpler, at least on the surface: old revenue models failed, new ones were tested, publications shuttered and others adapted — in the end, it’s all just another way to share the same information, the physical page or the tweet on a smartphone. I’m deeply biased when it comes to digital publishing, but then, I spent the past five years in a magazine department that regularly got as excited about digital design as print — perhaps more so, where design and great functionality intersected. (One of the biggest losers in the shift-to-digital magazine equation is, of course, me the writer, not me the digital production editor: when the models changed, they made room for more of our words for less of their money. But that’s another issue entirely.)

With books, the endless debate about the medium, the cheap and dirty ebook versus the august printed page, always seemed to obscure the book publishing industry’s somewhat shaky revenue models to begin with: attempts at changing the industry, the bare-minimum embrace of technology, look like weak computerized bandages on older, deeper wounds. At the conference last fall, Amazon loomed like a specter over literally every panel and talk, but it wasn’t just anger and resentment — there was a sense of real regret, too, that a company could understand the digital realities of selling books so well and still appear to actually hate books themselves.

(It’s worth noting, too, how both the LBF and the Oxford conference really hammered home what a tiny fraction of the book industry my colleagues and I interact with — publishing includes every type of book, far beyond literary fiction and what we broadly call “genre,” and there are travel books and books about dogs and sticker books and comic books and tie-in merchandise and whole enormous structures that only an industry analyst could really tackle. So it’s all well and good that I choose to buy my literary fiction at independent bookstores, but I am the tiniest fraction of a tiny fraction; there are millions of books that are being sold every year through channels that hurt writers and publishers, and, in the long run, readers, too.)

Worrying about how we’re going to read books feels like more of a distraction than anything else, the debate of an industry that sees change as something to fear, and nothing more — and I’d kind of hoped we were moving past it. But in the weeks before the London Book Fair, Tim Waterstone, the founder of the eponymous bookstore chain — one of Britain’s largest, even as outlets continue to be shuttered — made news by smugly declaring that ebook revenues were dropping and that print books were returning to exclusive dominance. “I think you read and hear more garbage about the strength of the ebook revolution than anything else I’ve known,” Waterstone told the Oxford Literary Festival. Later, he asserted that, “Anyone who tells you they know the future is telling you the most grotesque lie, because none of us do.”

In The Guardian, Nick Harkaway managed to gently chide Waterstone with a relatively even-handed response. “Digital will continue to grow for a while at least, and continue to exist, because it is becoming part of the world we inhabit at a level below our notice, no more remarkable than roads or supermarkets. Ebooks are here to stay because digital is, and quite shortly we’ll stop having this debate about paper vs. ebooks because it will no longer make a lot of sense.” The conversation that develops in the comments (I can’t believe I’m complimenting a Guardian comment thread here) is full of thoughtful, cogent points — and someone brings up Stephen Fry’s remark that, “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”

I’d argue that Harkaway’s “quite shortly” should be right now — this debate makes zero sense to me, and I’m not some sort of technocrat — I do prefer reading a book on the printed page. (I read books both ways, simultaneously, and I mostly don’t think about it much. If a book is mailed to me or is sitting on a shelf in front of me, then paper; if I’m sent a digital galley or I don’t feel like leaving the house and need something ASAP, ebook it is.) But this old, sad debate talks about print and digital books as if they weren’t two sides of the same coin. Worry about book sales dropping more broadly, and start to think about the real ways that digital can reshape books. The sorts of things that were written and printed have always evolved with technological advances in printing and distribution. I want to hear more conversations about breaking structures as they exist now — the size and shape of works that get published, or connecting writers and readers in webs rather than long, bulky, top-down chains, or using technology to make the industry as efficient as possible — to free up everyone to simply publish the very best writers.

It’s easy for me to say. And I don’t actually have any concrete ideas, just some sort of utopian vision of the future of publishing. At my second day at the LBF, I attend a panel on digital copyright, and they, too, see the problems and abstract solutions — but no clear way to implement them, at least not yet. At the “digital hub,” there are some dispiriting presentations, one of which appears to be a woman showing images of her imprint’s print and digital books, side by side, and that’s about it. But there are innovative gamblers from tech companies all over the world, too, pitching new ideas that work to break down the old structures. Some of them seem gimmicky, but some seem like things we might actually need. We just need to get everyone interested in considering breaking the mold a bit — shucking off Band-Aids for a shift in perspective.

The biggest takeaway from the London Book Fair? The free tote bags. Yes, you heard it here first. There are pens, too, but the totes are where it’s at. I collect four on the first day, even though I own duplicates of two already — one from Granta, one from Foyles. It’s near the end of the second day that I see a spate of official LBF totes hanging on peoples’ shoulders — with my seasoned tote-bag eye, I can tell by their stiffness that they have just been removed from a box and distributed within the past half hour, maybe even less. I assault a woman carrying one in her hand, and she points me to the information desk. “It looks like there’s one left,” the woman there says, pointing to a rack maybe thirty feet away. “You might have to —” I break into a sprint.

Image courtesy the author

Appetite for Risk: At the Intersection of Video Games and Literature

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As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.

I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.

When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.

My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.

In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.

There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.

By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.

In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.

What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.

The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.

The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.

Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.

Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.

When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”

Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”

At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.

“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.

Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”

Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”

I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.

“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”

Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.

Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.

Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.

We should try to write some novels for them.

Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.

This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.

We should try to make games for them.

We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.

Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.

At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.

Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.

In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.

Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.

In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.

While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.

When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.

“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”

With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.

Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.

Oh, The Favorites You’ll Give: Literary Twitter’s Best Tweets

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Last year, we took a look at the affinity for Twitter in certain quarters of the literary world. A handful of well-known authors have acquired big followings on the platform, a result not just of their name recognition but of their mastery of the tweet, as well. Readers now also turn to twitter for book news and comment from a number of sources who are active on Twitter. Our previous piece looked at the very first tweets of these now-popular practitioners. Nearly all were halting “Hello World” efforts, and none seemed likely to win over those unconverted to the various (and admittedly sometimes maddening) wonders of Twitter.

So, to present literary Twitter in its best possible light, we are returning again to those most widely followed on literary Twitter, but this time, looking at which Tweets got the most favorites, we are highlighting each literary Twitterer’s best tweet. Here you’ll find much wry humor, gossip, lots of politics, Margaret Atwood flirting with a Twitter-famous comedian, and even a surprising amount of insight crammed into 140 characters. They may be enough to win over some fresh converts.

(For the Twitter regulars out there, we found that tweets with more RTs tended to be more about disseminating news to fans, while tweets with more favs captured some essence of the Twitterer, so we went with the latter when compiling this list. Also, if you find tweets by these folks with more favorites than the ones we’ve listed, let us know and we’ll swap them in.)

Why do people keep telling us to "get a room," @robdelaney? What's wrong with our usual dumpster out back of the #etobicoke MacDs? Cheaper!— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) November 13, 2013

Every 60 seconds in Africa, a minute passes. We can put a stop to this. Please retweet.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) May 9, 2012

Fox is now like, "What if we took states that Obama has already won and gave them to Romney – how would that change the map?"— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) November 7, 2012

As #AWP13 starts today, it's a fine time for @VQR to post my massive treatise on the biz of lit Thx 2 @JaneFriedman— Richard Nash (@R_Nash) March 7, 2013

Ironic that I am a judge for the Truman Capote award when Capote in a druggy interview said he hated me & that I should be executed. LOL.— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 14, 2013

For those curious about the mystery event that happened in my parlor last night, here's a clue.— Ayelet Waldman (@ayeletw) January 3, 2011

On a positive note, both can pronounce the word "nuclear".— Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) October 23, 2012

Kid at our door in a suit and tie. "What are you?" we asked. Him: "The 1 percent."— Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) November 1, 2011

Next Schoolhouse Rock song is called "How a Bill Becomes a Law and Then Gets Held Hostage by Sore Losers Willing to Destroy Our Economy."— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) October 1, 2013

Thomas Pynchon's new novel BLEEDING EDGE will be published on September 17, deals with Silicon Alley between dotcom boom collapse and 9/11.— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) February 25, 2013

Wouldn't it be fun to just totally ignore Ann Coulter? It would drive her crazy.— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) October 23, 2012

A hard essay for me to write, and to publish. On being heartbroken and putting on a good show, on @the_millions.— Emma Straub (@emmastraub) July 11, 2013

Because I can lie beautiful true things into existence, & let people escape from inside their own heads & see through other eyes. #whyIwrite— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) October 20, 2011

Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops. Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949-December 15, 2011.— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) December 16, 2011

Sad day, man. I never really understood how sad the book is until now. Why did I make it so sad? Why have so many people read it?— John Green (@realjohngreen) September 25, 2013

Found this genius quote on Reddit today: Getting offended is a great way to avoid answering questions that make you sound dumb.— Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) September 2, 2012

Affordable Care Act means health care for artists, writers, poets, dancers, filmmakers, and others in the arts without insurance now.— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) October 1, 2013

The gorgeous and talented Charlie Hunnam will be Christian Grey in the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.— E L James (@E_L_James) September 2, 2013

This Twitter post, from @JohnDonoghue64 last week, still makes me laugh. Sometimes Twitter really does amuse.— Erik Larson (@exlarson) January 4, 2014

Whitney Houston: Yes, somewhere tonight Patrick Bateman is weeping, shocked but not surprised, and ordering three hookers instead of two…— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) February 12, 2012

People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don't yet have a fully adult concept of scary.— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) October 2, 2013

Not doing #twittersilence b/c I don't think the response to those who want feminists to shut up and go away is to shut up and go away.— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) August 4, 2013

Want to become a better writer? Then read this free essay: 'Developing a Theme' by Chuck Palahniuk –— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) October 12, 2010

Via @SciencePorn This is what a child's skull looks like before losing baby teeth. [Happy Holidays, Love, Joe]— Joe Hill (@joe_hill) November 27, 2013

I'm going to wash Joe Biden's car tomorrow. With my tears of gratitude.— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) October 12, 2012

o no i mistook mascara for concealer again! My eye sockets are black and greasy also idk what's going on in Eritrea. Can a website help plz— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) August 14, 2013

100 Notable Books of 2011— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) November 22, 2011

How to write fiction: Andrew Miller on creating characters— Guardian Books (@GuardianBooks) October 16, 2011

Sun Ra used to perform for catatonic schizophrenics. One broke a years-long silence to ask, “Do you call that music?”— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) October 11, 2013

Little, Brown to publish JK Rowling adult novel— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) February 23, 2012

The New Yorker brings back Haruki Murakami story for Japan issue— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) March 21, 2011

Library acquires ENTIRE Twitter archive. ALL tweets. More info here— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) April 14, 2010

Print free 'Go Away, I'm Reading!' book covers for Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games & more:— GalleyCat (@GalleyCat) March 17, 2012

SO FUN: A First Read of @bjnovak's new story collection w/readings by Novak, Emma Thompson, and Mindy Kaling!— NPR Books (@nprbooks) January 21, 2014

Our average member has read 7 of the #ALLTIME100 Best Non-Fiction Books. How about you? #BestBooks— goodreads (@goodreads) August 31, 2011

“Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person."-Nora Ephron #RIP— The Paris Review (@parisreview) June 27, 2012

Incredible landscapes carved into books: // @twistedsifter— Electric Literature (@ElectricLit) January 2, 2012

An unpublished shorty story by David Foster Wallace has been posted on tumblr:— The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) October 29, 2010

(•_•) <) )╯I've actually / \ \(•_•) ( (> Read / \ (•_•) <) )> Infinite Jest / \— The Millions (@The_Millions) January 9, 2014

This picture is so important.— Nick Moran (@nemoran3) October 17, 2012

A 2013 Cheat Sheet for All You New Kindle (And Other Ereader) Owners

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With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books.

Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, 45% of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year it was 33% and the year before it was 25%, so the trend continues unabated.

So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.

For starters, The Millions published a pair of very highly regarded and very affordable ebook originals in 2013. If you are new to the ereader game, we hope you’ll pick up these titles:

Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by Mark O’Connell ($1.99)

The Pioneer Detectives: Did a distant spacecraft prove Einstein and Newton wrong? by Konstantin Kakaes ($2.99)

They are also available on Apple and other platforms.

Here are some of the most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2013 (which you’ll see are very similar to our Hall of Fame and most recent top-ten which take into account books in all formats). Publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry (all prices as of this writing).

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ($7.50)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner ($10.99)
Selected Stories by Alice Munro ($10.74)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton ($8.59)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon ($10.99)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri ($9.99)
Tenth of December by George Saunders ($8.99)
Fox 8 by George Saunders ($0.99)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer ($8.99)
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda ($11.04)
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood ($1.99)

Other potentially useful ebook links:

Editors’ Picks
Best of 2012
Top 100 Paid and Free
Kindle Singles

And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.

Happy Reading!

Call Me Twitterer: Literary Twitter’s First Tweets

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Twitter had its big moment last week, but unlike so many other technology start-ups in the seeming parade of millionaire-makers over the last two decades (with the obvious exception of, Twitter has developed a special following in the literary community, from high-brow to low. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Writers revel in words, and Twitter, nearly alone among hot technology start-ups, is mostly about words, crafting them to meet the medium’s peculiar restraints and sending them out into the world to be engaged with or ignored. Twitter is like some atomized version of the writer’s process. With Twitter, ideas go out piecemeal, the whole process taking a millionth the amount of time it would if you were to glom all those ideas together into one big whole and turn it into something as unlikely-seeming by comparison as a book. This speed, then, may be deeply satisfying — even addictive — as writers bypass so much of the toil of getting a book out of their brains and off to readers (New York’s Kathryn Schulz elaborated smartly on this idea last week.)

There is no uniform stance on Twitter in the literary community, of course. Some, like Teju Cole and Colson Whitehead, find it vital; many others — led by a certain one-time Time coverboy from the Midwest, do not. Some writers have more prosaic feelings about Twitter. Novelist Peter Orner wrote, “Some are talented at it; others, less so.”

Zadie Smith is not on Twitter. Nor are Jeffrey Eugenides (though his vest once was), Michael Chabon (not really, though his writer wife Ayelet Waldman is), George Saunders, or David Mitchell. Jennifer Egan is, but just a little bit.

Nonetheless, Twitter appears to be here to stay, for a while anyway. And it will remain a pastime for writers looking for book news, inspiration, distraction, literary puns, and every other thing they might want. But it wasn’t always that way. In the not too distant past, the literary lights of Twitter pecked out their first 140 characters and waited to see what Twitter would bring.

Curious, I dug back into the Twitter archive to see how these writers took their first steps into Twitter. What follows are the very first tweets of some of Twitter’s well-known practitioners from the literary world.
Finishing the website entries for my fall novel The Year of the Flood.

— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) July 8, 2009
How does a petty trader come by N30 million worth of cars? Police hope Israel Ubatuegwu, of Ajah, has a good explanation.

— Teju Cole (@tejucole) June 7, 2011
@R_Nash proud to be a part of ennui 2.0

— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) March 15, 2009
Preparing for Book Expo America in the office in Dumbo. The last time we’ve to schlap boxes ourselves. Next year we pay the Teamsters…

— Richard Nash (@R_Nash) May 30, 2007
Last night at the Norman Mailer Award Ceremony in NYC, Oliver Stone said beautifully: “A serious writer is a rebel.”

— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 5, 2012
trying to figure out if someone does a decent MP3 workout, which will magically transform my iphone and my body at the same time.

— Ayelet Waldman (@ayeletw) January 27, 2009
@JaneGreen I talked to Rufus just this morning…ok, I interviewed him for T+L

— Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) April 24, 2009
Slaughtered by Sam A. and Jefffery Y. at post-diner breakfast ping-pong. Licking wounds.

— Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) February 13, 2009
Here’s a video of my speech at the NBCC in NYC last week:

— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) March 17, 2009

— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) April 24, 2007

— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) December 23, 2007
doesn’t want to be an editor. oops, too late.

— Emma Straub (@emmastraub) December 3, 2008
I just opened my present from Dave McKean, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. Heavy as a stone and beautiful. “See?” he said. “I do read your blog.”

— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) December 26, 2008
@ShitHomemaker – this is my first tweet and it’s your fault.

— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) September 15, 2011
Fine, then. I’ll twitter.

— John Green (@realjohngreen) December 11, 2008
No matter what I do there are always 5 emails in my inbox that I am avoiding.

— Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) April 1, 2009
I’ve reached the limit on how many Facebook friends I can add. So here is a new page.

— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) August 12, 2010

— E L James (@E_L_James) April 12, 2011
First Tweet ever, prompted by Jeff Howe’s essay in Sunday’s NYTBR. Velly interesting. Helloooooo?

— Erik Larson (@exlarson) May 22, 2012
Does anyone know who @BretEastonEllis is?

— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) April 10, 2009
@erlson You just got me to join Twitter.

— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) April 1, 2009
coveting Susan Lewis’ hair.

— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) April 3, 2009
@chuckpalahniuk This is Dennis, webmaster at Please contact me via my site email address. Thanks!

— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) January 28, 2009
Becoming far more wired than I probably really need to be.

— Joe Hill (@joe_hill) January 4, 2009
hi, i’m gary shteyngart, a furry 39-year-old immigrant man trapped in a young dachshund’s body. LOVE ME!!!!!!!!!!!

— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) December 1, 2011
I’m going to do it right this time.

— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) May 21, 2009
today felt like the unabomber but i wasn’t plotting anything or planning anything or trying to bomb anything and i was wearing 4-inch heels

— Kate Zambreno (@daughteroffury) June 29, 2012
Wessex Man

— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) March 18, 2007
News: Netherland wins PEN/Faulkner award: It was overlooked for the Booker prize and the prestigious US Nat..

— Guardian Books (@GuardianBooks) February 26, 2009

— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) July 2, 2008
Check out our feature on the best audiobooks coming this spring.

— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) January 31, 2009
Mario Bros. meets Macbeth: What do a pixelated plumber and a murderous king have in common? Nintendo DS — in En..

— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) December 10, 2008
Hello, world! Official Library of Congress Twitter feed here. So nice to see 215 followers before so much as a single tweet!

— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) January 27, 2009
Welcome to the new GalleyCat Twitter feed, regularly collecting tweets from Senior Editor Ron Hogan, Editor Jason Boog, and Jeff Rivera.

— GalleyCat (@GalleyCat) August 26, 2009
Welcome to @nprbooks! We’ll use to to share our book coverage and hopefully talk about some good books, too. / @acarvin

— NPR Books (@nprbooks) January 8, 2010
We noticed lots of sites use Twitter for feedback. We created this account as a placeholder, but please visit our Feedback Group anytime!

— goodreads (@goodreads) August 19, 2008
56 years after William Styron warned us about chasing the zeitgeist, The Paris Review is now on twitter. From issue 1:

— The Paris Review (@parisreview) September 4, 2009
Culling together work for Electric Literature no.2, planning events for October, spinning splendidly through another day at the office.

— Electric Literature (@ElectricLit) August 31, 2009

Rick Moody on running out of luck:

— The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) January 29, 2009

What will be named top book of the decade? What’s your pick?

— The Millions (@The_Millions) September 21, 2009

What’s the best part of B.G.’s “Bling Bling” video? Pre-tattoo’d Wayne, zooming red VW Beetles, or the crew’s outdoor fine china picnic?

— Nick Moran (@nemoran3) February 2, 2011

Two Years After Timeline: Facebook and The Neverending Story

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On Facebook’s website, the company advertises Timeline as a tool to “Tell your life story with a new kind of profile,” and informs users, “This is where you can tell your story from beginning, to middle, to now.” It’s been just over two years since Facebook first replaced walls with timelines (the redesign was unveiled September 22, 2011), and the anniversary begs reflection. Might it truly be Facebook, and not the e-book, that threatens the paperback? What are the implications of conflating a Facebook account with an account of one’s life? Has Facebook made us all storytellers?

The simple answer to the last question is “no.” We’ve always been storytellers. From a young age, we demand and create imaginative representations of experience — careful prose describing characters, settings, plots. The best storytellers give us art, and a Facebook profile is nothing if not artifice, the long word for art. There can be craftiness in crafting one’s Facebook image. “Selfless Portraits” (, for example, is a project that is explicit and playful about this fact.

As far as the implications of taking each Facebook timeline as a story, literary criticism offers some illumination. A story is, according to M.H. Abrams’s classic reference work A Glossary of Literary Terms, “a mere sequence of events in time.” There is no doubt that Facebook facilitates the telling of stories, strictly defined as such. Coders even provide tools to help you break through writers’ block. You can share a “Status,” “Photo,” “Place,” and/or “Life Event.” Instead of using your own words, you can borrow theirs. Stuck for a “Status”? Choose one from the drop-down list of verbs and suggested nouns — you can be “Eating” “lunch,” “Feeling” “sad,” and “Listening To” (according to some ungodly algorithm) “Savage Garden.” If you are experiencing something more momentous than a sad, 90s-themed lunch, select from “Life Events,” neatly accessible by categories like “Work and Education” (most storytellers need day jobs) and “Family and Relationships.” Timeline provides an empty, homogeneous time into which these events can be deposited. These are the elements of a basic story.

But are we really storytellers when we use Facebook? Among many account holders, there is undeniable artistry in descriptions of events, but in terms of time, we lose control. The chronological frame for this living anthology of stories is not as neutral as it seems. J.M. Coetzee once said, “For the reader, the experience of time bunching and becoming dense at points of significant action in the story, or thinning out and skipping or glancing through nonsignificant periods of clock time or calendar time can be exhilarating…As for writing…there is a definite thrill of mastery — perhaps even omnipotence — that comes with making time bend and buckle.” The omnipotence Coetzee describes here becomes eerie when the writer is a hugely influential corporation with ever-changing privacy policies. Regarding the events Facebook stores, the site’s Data Use Policy tells us, “Your trust is important to us,” while it warns, “We try to keep Facebook up, bug-free and safe, but can’t make guarantees about any part of our services or products.” In other words, any omnipotence or mastery users experience is illusory.

Also troubling is the fact that Facebook’s temporal orientation puts undue pressure on its users to conform to its system. At the broadest level, Facebook offers no official options for describing the moment we are in beyond the Western, secular designations we use in America. Algorithms may do their best to approximate emotional rhythms, and users may try to make time appear, in Coetzee’s words, dense and bunchy at highly active points, but Timeline is always indifferent to the multiplicity of lived experiences of time.

Timeline-keepers may choose to represent dips and bunchings of time by posting more frequently or in greater volume, but they are always operating in the given framework of linear progress. The video ad for Timeline zooms, in a couple of minutes, from one Andy Sparks’ birth, to his fatherhood. The power of this arrow-straight framework is visible in the fact that each individual Timeline has an index, like a traditional autobiography. But instead of indexing topically, the points of reference are chronological. What happens, though, to the identities we take on in moments of freedom from the sort of temporality Facebook advocates — the first two weeks of college; a short affair with someone regrettable while traveling; isolated months spent thinking about a dissertation? What does ennui look like? Nostalgia? Deja vu? Unreflected by our timelines, these circumstances do not appear to the public as part of one’s story. Mark Zuckerberg and his team live in a world defined by innovation, and the temporality of Facebook reflects the pressure to “make it new” to the exclusion of facts of who we are.

Facebook, then, becomes our co-storyteller into perpetuity. There is an unspoken power dynamic to which we submit as soon as we turn past a title-page or acknowledge a by-line, or even as we listen to a story over coffee or around a campfire — these storytellers will control our experience of time, but only for a little while. Part of what is so appealing about stories that we conscientiously read or listen to — even serials that leave us hanging off cliffs — is that we know they will end eventually. Not so, Facebook.

Timelines are neverending cliffhangers. Print newspapers and magazines (the traditional venues for serials), books, the spoken word, and even long-form internet writing are finite; the miscellany of Timelines that is our Facebook news feed is unremitting. There is something comforting and life-affirming about the neverending story. The simultaneous escapism and connection Facebook affords is seductive, and the awareness of always living at the edge of history is thrilling. But when that thrill is ever-present, it can add up to anxiety, and anxiety about keeping up with Facebook can replace anxiety about contributing to posterity in other ways. The preoccupation inherent to the activities of reading and writing is ever-present in the world of Facebook, and too often, slacktivism takes the place of activism as a result.

As long as Facebook’s clean, steady, and decisive linearity discloses important experiences of time, its users will never be storytellers in the fullest sense of the term. What if we took other visualizations of time as templates for our stories? Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton present lots of alternatives in their book, Cartographies of Time. And Ralph Waldo Emerson mused in his essay “Circles,”
If the world would only wait one moment, if a day could now and then be intercalated, which should be no time, but pause and landing-place, a vacation during which sun and star, old age and decay, debts and interest of money, claims and duties, should all intermit and be suspended for the halcyon trance, so that poor man and woman could throw off the harness and take a long breath and consider what was to be done, without being fretted by the knowledge that new duties are gathering for them in the moment when they are considering the too much accumulated old duties!
Moments after I found out my uncle died, I sat in numb, helpless shock as Buzzfeed articles and photos of dessert filled my screen — there was no way to record or make communal the pause I felt.

Facebook offers many suspenseful plots, but all of them inculcate in us a linear personal timeline that is simultaneously compartmentalized and continuous. The website’s template for how time works is not the only possibility for structuring events. It’s one that works for the coders and marketers of Silicon Valley, but our hurried, abrupt, languid, lunar, cyclical, sentimental, rooted, broken, repetitive lives deserve better storytelling.