A Brief and Incomplete Survey of New Types of Online Literature

Last week, T Magazine published a game of exquisite corpse featuring a selection of excellent fiction writers, from Jenny Offill and James Patterson to Zadie Smith and Ben Marcus. The game was light and refreshing; the story itself twists into absurdity as some of the authors — notably the insidious R.L. Stine — appear to be pranking their peers and sort of hacking the plot as it grows. I found the form of the story simple but genuinely interesting, so I decided to pool together this chronology (or survey) of recent developments in digital or online literary forms. This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor is it meant to be. (I have, though, included some print projects that derive their form from digital media.) But it could be a starting point for a broader discussion about new literary forms, especially those new types of fiction (and criticism) that are popping up, rapidly, on Twitter and elsewhere.

Prehistory:

Novels in Three Lines by Felix Feneon
1906

Exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of novels that are only three lines long. These are the original tweets (sort of). Félix Féneon published these novels-in-miniature in the Parisian newspaper Le Matin in 1906.

Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson
1995

Jackson’s Patchwork Girl is arguably the most substantial early “hypertext novel.” It was published in 1995, on the verge of the blog explosion that would come to define digital serial fiction for years.

Serialized Blog Fiction:

Feed by Mira Grant
April 2010

Mira Grant’s Feed takes the form of a series of blog posts that chronicle, of course, a zombie apocalypse. More notable as a commercially successful book that takes the form of a digital serial.

The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
May 2011

Valente’s novel is one of the earliest examples of a commercially successful novel written in the form of a blog. Apparently, Valente’s husband was laid off, so she wrote these quickly, posted them serially on her blog, and asked readers to donate money. The book went on to win the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult literature.

Books that are Tweets:

Twittering From the Circus of the Dead by Joe Hill
August 6, 2013

This is basically the Twitter version of Feed by Mira Grant. It’s a zombie story told in a series of “harrowing tweets.” The film rights have been purchased. What is the deal with zombie fiction and new media?

A Sui Generis Story that Reads Like Tweets and TV Episode Guide:

“Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU” by Carmen Maria Machado

This incredible story looks at the beloved TV drama Law and Order SVU by redigesting it in the form of a kind of crazy episode guide. So the invidual chapters or entries are redescriptions of actual episode. It’s hilarious and disturbing.

Twitter:

Parody accounts:

@PrinceTweets2U

Parody accounts are a form of fiction. Often they are long-form dramatic monologues by a known historical personage, so theoretically they could achieve the sophistication of Shakespeare. The Prince parody is my personal favorite, and the one I find most convincing.

Short-Short Narratives:

“Seven Stories about Drones” by Teju Cole
January 14, 2013

Teju Cole has established himself as the narratological master of new media. His digital serial work often begins as a minor technological innovation that eventually flowers into something beautiful and authentically literary. His “Seven Stories about Drones” is probably the early classic of tweet-as-short-story, by which I mean 140-characters that are each (in themselves) a short story. One tweet, in other words, is one story.

Long-Short Narratives:

“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan
May–June 2012

This literary sci-fi entry by Jennifer Egan was commissioned by The New Yorker in 2012. The story, a collection of “mental dispatches” from a spy, is widely considered to be the classic of Twitter Fiction. And it’s probably the purest example of a really long story—it’s more than 600 tweets—composed of many entries.

Crowdsourced Narratives:

“Hafiz” by Teju Cole
January 8, 2014

Teju Cole returned in 2014 with the Twitter long-form story “Hafiz.” Written by Cole, but tweeted by a gaggle of lit-world luminaries in sequence, the story had the weird effect of loosing strange, disparate, and beautiful tweets into your stream like beautiful little fish.

Multiple Characters / Handles:

Twitter Fiction Mystery by Elliott Holt
November 2012

This twitter mystery by Elliott Holt uses multiple accounts to tell a story (about a woman falling from a hotel) from different, sometimes clashing perspectives.

Story-in-Images:

“Time of the Game” by Teju Cole
World Cup Final 2014

More of a documentary project, Cole’s “Time of the Game” opened up new options for image-based narrative art by crowdsourcing images of each minute of the World Cup final. The website is beautiful.

Literary Criticism:

“Working on My Novel” by Cory Arcangel
Feed started: December 2011
Book Published: July 31, 2014

Cory Arcangel’s project, which as far as I can tell began three years ago and culminated in a book in July, collects tweets that feature the phrase “working on my novel.” These collected reach range from funny to sad to inspiring. It’s an indirect critique of the publishing industry, and also a celebration of literary creation.

Film Criticism:

Laconia: 1,200 Tweets on Film by Masha Tupitsyn
May 27, 2011

Masha Tupitsyn helped establish the genre of “micro-criticism” with Laconia, a series of studied, architecturally arranged tweets on cinema.