on black box // 25 May 2012

If you missed it, Jennifer Egan and The New Yorker started serializing her new short story "Black Box" on Twitter tonight, coming from the @NYerFiction account. Earlier today, Egan posted a bit on the backstory:

Several of my long-standing fictional interests converged in the writing of “Black Box.” One involves fiction that takes the form of lists; stories that appear to be told inadvertently, using a narrator’s notes to him or herself. ... I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters.

She wrote the story in a notebook that is probably intended for sketching storyboards...but whose black boxes now just look like textareas.

The 140 character limit necessarily impacts her prose and the story she's telling. But what I love is how Twitter turns each of the "narrator's notes" into individual, addressable objects, each with a social life of its own. I haven't pulled stats on every Tweet, but just eyeballing it, several hours after the initial delivery of Tweets the line with the most social heat (RTs and favorites) appears to be this one...

Followed closely by this one:

(I don't disagree.)

At first blush, having this reaction data isn't much different than viewing the most highlighted passages on a Kindle. But the difference is that this is happening in real time, in public, connected to identity, and has the potential to be conversational. And there were a few intrepid readers who were willing to break the fourth wall and talk back to the story. Here are two of my favorites...

On discovering that our story's protagonist was on the beach, @bklynreader shared her weekend plans:

And when the story took a particularly adult twist, @Chocolatemama38 seemed a bit caught off guard:

Egan says that it took a year to "control and calibrate" the story she's now tweeting; her tight prose doesn't exactly invite replies. But the shift into Twitter is a truly modern serialization technique; there's more going on here than simply contemporary fiction meted out 140 characters at a time.