The Never-ending Curiosity of the Twitter Novel

I wrote a Twitter novel. Apparently, Small Places is the first ever, or close to it. It’s second if you label Jay Bushman’s Twitter tale, The Good Captain, a sci-fi re-telling of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, as the first.

Doesn’t matter to me who you put at the forefront. They’re both experimental fiction. Both use Twitter as a publishing platform for nouveau storytelling. Both were soundly beaten by Japanese cell phone novels which preceded Twitter.

The September 2015 Italian edition of Wired Magazine features an article by journalist-novelist Fabio Deotto about literary experiments on social media, particularly about Twitter. The Google-translated verbiage hilariously goes like this:

Then there is Nicholas Belardes, American author who, after obtaining a certain profile in 2008 bragging that he had written the first Twitter novel (a love story in 900 tweets), is now trying not to slip into oblivion . . . and will become the king of the narrative projects . . .

Yep, that’s me — “the king of the narrative projects.” Crown, please. If this literal translation is accurate (why would I seek any other?) Deotto goes straight for the liver, claiming I want to be king, suggesting I’m a braggart, and my absolute favorite, that my embarking on other literary experiments, like on Ello or Prisma, somehow has nothing to do with my interests. To him I am merely “trying not to slip into oblivion.”

Who wouldn’t try not to slip into oblivion?

Seriously, his article was merely leading up to saying how great Italian experimental writers have been at tweeting literature in 140 characters or less (*Twitter has changed since he wrote his article. Updated 280-character limits feel like a huge canvas by comparison). Anyway, nothing wrong with great tweeters from any country. As for the Italians, if their micro-narrative work is great then they deserve credit.

At the same time, Deotto seems to be saying between the lines: “Dammit, Nicholas, why do you have to be part of the conversation?” and “Dammit, why did you Americans have to be first?” Further between the lines, I also read: “I love you. Thank you for writing experimental fiction. Now fade away. It’s our turn.”

Believe me, I tried to fade away. But that’s what’s so curious about Small Places. It won’t die. It’s never-ending. No matter how much I ignore my Twitter novel, it won’t go away. News sources keep talking about it even though it’s been eight years. In 2018, two related articles about digital literature came out that mentioned Small Places. One in Spain (TicBeat), another and Taiwan (United Daily News). Students keep mentioning Small Places in their dissertations and essays (Try this un-essay by a St. Johns University student). Wikipedia even has a Twitterature page. In 2020 it was mentioned in Vogue.

Some explanation about writing my Twitter novel

Recently I realized about Small Places: it’s far better to be remembered in literary-tech pop culture around the world for lampooning an office job I loathed (that was the autobiographical storyline of the Twitter novel), than to simply wallow in corporate America loathing myself.

It’s probably easier to explain why I wrote Small Places to begin with. The story starts sometime in late 2007…

It had already been half a decade since I stopped working for the animation department at the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’d taught some art, then history at a junior college, but felt out of place, weird even. That’s another story, but has to do with me probably not knowing who I was, or what I really wanted to do with my life. I’m a writer now. That’s who I am. I finally get it.

After teaching history, I sold my soul to the corporate devil and worked in graphic design. Found myself in the marketing department of an industrial-automation company. The corporation was housed above a bank in the dusty gothic urban landscape of Bakersfield, California, a place where the massive agricultural industry crashes with those of manufacturing and oil. The heat is oppressive. Streets are cracked and pot-holed. A refinery in the center of the city belches clouds of smoke and gases. Asthma rates are off the chart as the city is battered by at least one dust-storm per year. Didn’t take long for me to start feeling the oppressive atmosphere of corporate life. All the peering over the shoulder, micro-managing, obsession with timeliness, regulations like keeping the office lights on. I preferred to work in the dark. Lots of creative people do. Just ask many animators and graphic artists who need to see their computer screens without glare.

The girlfriend I had in Vegas was long gone. I took on a lover, a co-worker from the company whose husband was a semi-pro basketball player in South America. They were on the outs. We were on the ins. She was one of few bright spots at the company, which oddly was filled with a cast of characters worthy of a Dilbert-ish corporate cubicle tale. As you know, in the corporate sector, there’s no real individuality. Decorate your cubicle as originally as you can. Big deal, stripped of such decorations your cubicle is still just a box. You’re stuck in it.

The corporation owns that box. They own how you operate, how you think, how you check your phone, where you put your eyes, your fingers, your ass.

Everything about you.

Often times phone lines are even tied to corporations you work for. No matter what you say, you become a wage-slave, a replaceable entity that can be watched via your web cam, spied up with other devices. You’re thus owned by the masters you work for.

Sorry for the reality check. There’s more…

Your supervisor is not there to like you, but to deride you, force you to seek higher output, better your all-around efficiency so you’ll inevitably please your master over and over again. It’s a vicious cycle, and this company, which turned over marketing managers like worn-out dishrags, was a revolving door of stale air, stale people, and total corporate assholes. In the marketing department these were the networkers, the ass-kissers, those with the glorified resumes, the ones who said, “I worked for Adobe.” Big deal. Or, “I invented this or that splash screen.”

Whatever.

Ding ding ding!

You’re hired!

Something I learned from my corporate years is that I really only cared about writing fiction and essays. Unfortunately it wasn’t the kind of writing I was doing while working at that company. It especially wasn’t the kind of writing the company forced me to do while on the job.

The company had me writing pro-oil-industry articles about a pipeline that was ruining the Camisea area in the Amazon rainforest, ruining water supplies to indigenous peoples, and displacing indigenous peoples as well. You’ll find a rabbit hole of horror stories on the Internet. I didn’t write many articles about it. But it was enough to embarrassingly cement some of my words as oil and automation industry corporate propaganda.

Along Peru’s Lower Urubamba River, parallel curves of the dual Camisea pipelines shoot into the surrounding Amazon, making their way through the jungle. From underground reserves more than a mile deep, natural gas and natural gas liquid will flow through two Camisea pipelines under the control of a flow computer that will help exploit underground resources so natural gas can travel to Peru’s coast, where natural gas and natural gas liquid will get processed and sold . . .

When I walked away from that company, it was from pent up anxiety, shame, bitterness at the ridiculous injustices that — if I were to list them — would make me sound like some kind of delirious corporate work junkie in desperate need of a self-help group.

Why join one of those when you’re a writer?

By the time I broke off from that job, I still had a corporate mindset. I was living life to please others. This happens in the corporate world. You work to please your boss, your co-workers, your family, your friends. You want acceptance. You strive for it. You do everything to be a perfect machine-like organism. Everything you do has to get you as close as you can to that pat on the back that you know your supervisor is never going to give you because she’s just read 1,001 Reasons Not to Give Corporate Subordinates Pats on the Back.

There were so many stories from that job. Justin Berry — who eventually ended up on Oprah — was their “web guy.” He was the weird dude setting up sex cams for Mexico trysts. There was Adriana from South America who had been in a telenovela. Julietta was always raging, her face about to explode. Milt was my first marketing manager there. He claimed to have eaten macaroons with Bo Derek. There was the health-conscious worker who died from a heart attack, though it was covered up that she OD’d on coke. Mike was an overpaid graphic artist who liked to do five-minute drawings of all the workers.

And so on. It was all right there for the taking when I happened to finally join Twitter. I’d been reading about Japanese cell phone novels . . .

Suddenly I saw a chance to tell a story. There’s truth in fiction, you know.

I also saw a chance to make some of those bizarre real-life characters animate in an entirely new way. A chance to make literary history. I wasn’t sure if I would be the first, though I did do some research and it seemed like I might be. What I did know was I could write and publish a story from the comfort of my own home.

I could send out a few tweets at a time.

I could rail at corporate America through my characters! Social commentary here I come!

I told myself: “You can do this!”

So I did. I started tweeting Small Places on April 25, 2008.

It was surprisingly tough going from the start. I’d become a sort of Twitter automaton trying to send out regular story tweets. I wanted to stop. What had I gotten myself into? Did I really want to send out story tweets every day? Hell no. It wasn’t like I was getting paid or had a sponsor.

But then newspapers started covering Small Places. Tech blogs were the first. Then the Christian Science Monitor wanted to do a story for their technology section. A dozen or so news stories came and went in places like the Telegraph, U.K. Guardian and more. I later found there had been more articles around the world than I ever realized. Had I known, I would have been further motivated to finish tweeting my story sooner. Instead, I took nearly two years to complete Small Places. It concluded on March 8, 2010.

People do care about Twitterature

Journalists who first wrote about Twitter novels seemed mainly interested in the intersection of technology and pop culture. Social media is not a traditional creative writing platform by any means. It’s primarily used by individuals and groups to communicate daily thoughts and humor, self-promotional material, memes, advertisements, news sources.

Unfortunately, tech journalists leave out literary analysis and commentary about the story itself.

Deotto, though he has written one novel, which means he has some kind of love of prose, still only illustrated in his Wired article the intersection of technology and entertainment. In doint so, he like many others has missed the point: that the writing is often more about the writer and his work than about the paper it’s written on, or in this case, the platform that was used.

A casual student of my work might see that I write a lot of nonfiction, as well as fiction, essay, even poetry. They might look at some pieces from my body of work and discern that I’m often telling or alluding to stories about myself.

Like I said earlier, “Who wouldn’t try not to slip into oblivion?” It is the simple task of writers to create. And that’s what I’m always doing. Writing stories, submitting those to journals, and so on.

Can I blame Deotto? He’s more interested in technology than story, or in his case, Italian storytelling. He’s not reading Small Places as a tale, or as a fraction of a personal legacy (if he even read it at all). He’s not concerned with how the story thumbs its nose at corporate America while trying to make office workers laugh and see their own irony.

Arielle Hubbard, a student at the University of Versailles outside of Paris, contacted me in 2016 about the passive consumption of literature in regard to twitterature. “While reading Small Places,” Hubbard said in one of her letters to me, “I was drawn in by the humor (the wacky names!) and the crisp brevity. Not knowing what I would encounter beginning this project, I was delighted to discover a strong narrative and veritable accomplished piece of short fiction.”

The term twitterature had been coined in regard to a portmanteau of Twitter and literature, which is a literary use of microblogging. These terms, like micro-narrative, weren’t around in any form while I was tweeting Small Places. The phenomenon of viral literature in any format seems rare, and the idea of yet another university student studying the idea of twitterature was astounding, a testament to the power of experimentation and words — in this case, words typed from two living rooms, an ABC television news room, and a coffeehouse.

Deotto doesn’t get it. Hubbard does.

Deotto and I may be missing, or completely getting, each other’s intentions — but who knows? Miscommunication between two cultures is commonplace. It’s why some wars are inevitably fought, why some people are gunned down by police on American streets. It’s why many of us often bicker in the first place. We seek to be understood. Our often-screeching Facebook posts, blogs and tweets are a testament to that.

Not long ago, I received an unsolicited tweet from Deotto, part of which said, “I don’t seem to understand what you mean.” Can’t for the life of me recall what my tweet was about that he commented on. Fitting? Maybe. A lot of that conversation was left unsaid too.

More and more, I’ve spoken to English professors and students who are delving into digital forms as a viable means of literature. Digimodernism, Carmen Bozga, a student at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München calls it.

She wrote an entire literary analysis of Small Places in 2019: “Digital Literature in the Contemporary Society: Looking at Twitterature Through the First Twitter Novel, Small Places by Nicholas Belardes.”

Until she publishes that article, you’ll just have to analyze the story for yourself and come up with your own deeper conclusions.

In the meantime, Twitter novels new and old aren’t going away any time soon.

Nicholas Belardes works as a ghostwriter and instructor of fiction and writing. His latest work includes short fiction in Southwestern American Literature (The Center for the Study of the American Southwest at Texas State University), The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press) and Carve Magazine. He’s written for CNN.com and has been on-air with Coast to Coast AM with George Noory. You can find him on nicholasbelardes.com and Twitter.

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Nicholas Belardes

Chicano writer. Opinionated. Fiction, essays, twitterature pioneer. Ex-ABC News guy. Loves birds. nicholasbelardes.com