Two of the best young writers today have reiterated the age-old question: “Would this be good to write about?” Instead they asked: “Would this tweet be good to include in a book?” Their reframing of the writer’s conundrum raises an interesting question.
Is Twitter literature?
The tallest tree in the forest of alt-lit is Tao Lin; he’s often referred to as the defining writer of his generation. Author of the novels Taipei and Richard Yates, Lin is also a poet, publisher and essayist. He’s a writer with a voice as easily recognizable as a thunderclap. His work features his observant wit and a primal pathos that hides beneath a flat affect.
Los Angeles-born poet, Mira Gonzalez is an equally singular talent. Her work is as real as a bruise. Funny and yet also flatly acerbic, she’s an artist who’s happily defiant in her sadness. Dazed & Confused called Gonzalez “a phenomenon of the same breed as Tao Lin: she might actually be the only literary social media presence more prolific and more intense.”
Their new book Selected Tweets is a perfect pairing. Split evenly between them and their multiple Twitter accounts, it’s one of the most anticipated books of the year. It comes out June 15th.
In an interview with Playboy.com, Lin (@tao_lin) and Gonzalez (@miragonz) discussed the future of fiction, how they play with their online personas, writing while high, and the alt-lit merits of Twitter.
A tweet is, typically, an ephemeral thing. Assuming you weren’t tweeting with the idea they’d be collected as literature, how did you determine which tweets to transform into a book? Did you both explore themes? And did patterns emerge that amused you?
MG: When creating this book, I viewed all of my Twitter accounts as one big unedited manuscript. I deleted tweets that I felt weren’t that funny or interesting or didn’t lend to the bigger narrative. There were definitely themes and patterns, which I thought were especially amusing because of the unedited nature of Twitter. Those themes and patterns I noticed were essentially unintentional. They were just the themes of my daily life.
TL: I selected tweets in the same manner I would select lines for a really long poem that has a certain unusually high level of non sequitur from line to line, to some degree. I also selected tweets for other reasons — to underscore certain themes and hide other themes, for example. Patterns emerged that made me feel glad I wasn’t publishing all my tweets, because I got annoyed or aggravated or just tired of myself a lot of the time, reading all my tweets. I already delete a lot of my tweets, so this book is kind of like the selected tweets out of the ones I already selected to not delete. I don’t view tweets as ephemeral things. It depends on which tweet I’m looking at — its context, my context, what it says, who is saying it when and other reasons.
How did you arrive at the idea of a book of collected tweets?
TL: It just always seemed like a good idea, like I don’t remember discussing it or weighing it against other ideas. It just always seemed like what we were going to do. This was in 2013, I think.
MG: The idea for the book actually started when my editor, Elizabeth Ellen, asked me if I would be interested in doing a flipbook of tweets. A sort of coffee table book with just a couple of my funniest tweets. Then we thought it would be great to include Tao, because we both always loved his Twitter, too.
Did you have a model in mind?
MG: Once Tao and I began editing our tweets down, it became clear that there was so much content that we both felt proud of, it would be a shame to dumb it down to be a simple coffee table flip book. We wanted something with a bigger narrative. Something that is inclusive of all the content we had created over the years. Something that can be considered “literature,” whatever that means.
TL: I sometimes used the model of other authors’ “selected stories” or “selected poetry” in a way, just thinking of each tweet as a story or a poem, but now it’s just for the Twitter form — whose characteristics include the rule of 140 characters, the automatic recording of time/date, the ability to interact with people — instead of the haiku or poetry or sonnet or short story or whatever form.
Your book reminded me of Pessoa’s ‘The Book of Disquiet,’ especially the way you can flip the book open, read an individual passage and be moved to thought, laughter or empathy. Yet if you read your book in chronological order, a much richer narrative emerges. Pessoa distilled his life on the page into explosively mundane moments of thought and reflection. Did you enjoy working with that same sort of microscopic and telescopic dual narrative?
TL: Thank you. I like The Book of Disquiet a lot. I reread it every few years, it seems. I did think of Selected Tweets as both offering the thoughts/reflection and little observations/scenes of a book like The Book of Disquiet while also offering the chronological, fragmented narratives of a novel like Why Did I I Ever by Mary Robison.
MG: It’s really flattering to me for you to compare our book to The Book of Disquiet. That is one of my favorite books and definitely an inspiration for this book. Not so much in content, because the content of the two books are very different, but I was deeply inspired by how Pessoa created a larger narrative, while at the same time allowing the reader to zoom in on one or two sentences and see the beauty in those apart from the larger picture. All of my favorite books are books where I can turn to any page and find a line or two that stands on its own, apart from a bigger narrative, while at the same time maintaining a novel-sized narrative when you zoom out.
With this book are you suggesting that all of your tweets are or could be considered literature? Is this a conscious reevaluation of tweets and their place in the culture?
MG: For me, this is absolutely a conscious reevaluation of the place of tweets in culture. Though I was not tweeting with the idea that they would one day be collected into a book, I have never considered Twitter to be more or less literary than say, poetry or short stories. I never viewed tweets as inherently having less value than something that is widely considered literature. The way you are able to express something different in a poem than in a short story, you can also express something different on Twitter than in any other platform. I think the fact that (until now) tweets have existed solely on the Internet scares people into thinking it’s not literature because the Internet is relatively new in literary history. With this book I hope to show that there really is no difference between Twitter and literature on the printed page, and therefore there should not be a difference online either.
TL: I don’t know what the culture thinks about tweets, and I’ve never evaluated my tweets on a scale with my poetry, my short stories, novels, emails, art or anything else I’ve done, so to me it’s not a reevaluation of anything. I don’t have a definition for “literature" either. So it is not a conscious reevaluation of tweets, I think, then.
Here are some things that might answer your question indirectly: when I look at Selected Tweets, I like that there are month and year divisions, and that each Twitter account could be viewed as a chapter. The content of this book, and the way it’s separated into single lines, and the way there’s a certain level of variety and non sequitur from line to line, from idea to idea, from image to image, that’s hopefully sustained and, throughout, reminds me of some poetry I like by Ben Lerner, Joshua Beckman and others. So I like to think of Selected Tweets as a sort of novel/story-collection/poetry-book hybrid. Also there’s the interaction with Mira’s book, and the interaction with my fiction. I’m interested in those interactions also.
What about the drugs? You both tweet about drugs. How much of this is performative, and how much is reported fact? How important are drugs to your daily and creative life?
MG: I tell people this pretty often, and they usually don’t believe me for some reason, but the way I portray my drug use in my tweets is more or less completely accurate. Yet, I feel strongly that my drug use isn’t that abnormal for a person in their early 20s. I think it’s just so surprising to people when someone, especially a woman, is so publicly (and sometimes brutally) honest about their lifestyle that it’s difficult to not view it as over the top or ‘performative’. I don’t think I have ever considered drugs to be important to my creative life. I generally can’t write unless I’m sober, with the exception of caffeine, which I am terribly addicted to, and my creative life has always been more important to me than my drug use. I use drugs because they are fun and I like the way they make me feel, which leads me to not want to take drugs in a way that is permanently harmful. I use drugs pretty rarely these days. I smoke weed, I take Xanax when my anxiety is crippling, and I love red wine when it’s available, but that’s about it.
TL: For a while I feel like Twitter became strongly associated with drugs, death and bleakness in and around 2012. Noticing this, it may have encouraged people, including me, to tweet about drugs, death or bleak things more. Reporting facts like that seems good on Twitter because you get the time and date on each note automatically.
Tao, you seem to wrestle with your public identity as much as you play with it. Does a project like this allow you a chance to have fun with words, to play and creatively refresh yourself and your identity before returning to something more time-intensive like a novel?
TL: I try to have fun with words and to play in all of my writing. I like to try new words and phrases and sentence structures in all my writing, so I don’t feel like I’m returning or going away from anything. I don’t view this book as something separate from my other books or my novels. If someone paid me like $100,000 to ghostwrite a football player’s biography, and they gave me instructions on exactly how to write it, and I had rules, then I might view that book as something separate from my other books. To me, Selected Tweets is sort of like a novel. I’d be interested in reading it as a novel, like if I wasn’t me. I’d be interested in someone else publishing it as a novel and not mentioning Twitter at all, just having the years and months and the tweets.
Mira, you were raised with the Internet. Do you feel that tweets and the Internet at large have caused you to develop your personality with an audience in mind?
MG: Well, for as long as I can remember I have loved reading and writing, and if you are a writer who isn’t exploiting yourself for your art then what the hell is the point? Being raised with the Internet has given me a really unique and interesting platform to present my writing to a large audience. But without the Internet I’m confident I would still be doing the same thing I am doing now, just on a different platform.
I do what every artist does, which is craft myself into something that both feels creatively satisfying to me and is appealing to an audience. I am essentially taking a piece of my own life and saying “Here, this is yours now” in hopes that I can make a few people feel less alienated in the world. Embarrassing myself through my writing in front of a lot of people is absolutely worth it if I can make even one person feel less alone.
That said, I am not as selfless as that last sentence made me sound. I need writing. I would go insane without writing. But also, writing makes me insane. Does that make sense? This is a paradox that plenty of writers have already explained better than me. But, essentially, I need to write. I can’t stop myself from writing. However, writing, whether for Twitter or somewhere else, also causes me to view my real life in this terrible lens of ‘Would this be good to write about?’, which has made me put myself in some seriously questionable situations. That thought, ‘Would this be good to write about?’ is a prison onto itself, but it’s a much more comfortable prison than the prison I would be in if I didn’t write about my life at all. Everyone has their own way to cope with non-stop sentience. This is mine.
Zaron Burnett III is a roving correspondent for Playboy.com.