Turning on the Radio 4 Today programme yesterday morning, I found myself in the middle of an interview with the novelist David Mitchell explaining why he was publishing his new short story on Twitter.
Given our experience with Such Tweet Sorrow several years ago, I was both interested in the project and keen not to be too critical of it. I remember how sensitive many of us were to what looked like stupid criticism from some people who were really creating their own bandwagons and weren’t giving themselves a chance to see all the ambitious things we were doing with the project: its live-ness; its “acted-ness”; its woven appearance into just about every emerging or emerged social platform we (mainly the wonderful Tim Wright) could think of. Not to mention all that interactivity.
We had to listen to stuff about betraying Shakespeare’s poetic language, as if Shakespeare was both utterly sacrosanct and terribly vulnerable.
So I wanted to give what sounded like another bold literary experiment with social media (and Lord knows that there aren’t many of them) a chance. But there were things in the Mitchell interview that just felt wrong. He was so guarded – so priggishly above the medium he’s chosen. He doesn’t tweet. “I’m not really a social media animal… I don’t want to add to this ocean of trivia…” If it was just a marketing ploy he wouldn’t do it… “I don’t want to feel like a gimmick chaser”. Already, this doesn’t sound bold – just cautious.
Then the thing itself. Again, a minority of critics fell on the first day or two of Such Tweet Sorrow without giving it a chance to get into its stride for the best part of another 5 weeks, so I am reluctant to cast aspersions, but…really? Really?
He has simply crafted a narrative in a series of tweet-sized passages. And played them out over Twitter.
There’s a ten hour gap between two tweets that clearly describe the same set of instances. And then more this morning – still in the time frame of the story, but not of the medium.
Mitchell so far fails to realise that the quality of Time is crucial to Twitter – its currency, its spontaneity, its asynchronicity, its ability to be both live and of record. If you don’t play with all of this you might as well give up.
The Right Sort is not “of Twitter” in any interesting way at all. The only people the account is following are a handful of publishing (and Twitter) marketing types. It’s not that cynical to assume one of them is pushing out the content for Mitchell, out of the sausage machine.
Not that this delivery method matters – there is no interactivity to mention. No interactivity at all. In fact there is no argument for it taking this form other than that the hero experiences much of the story in bite-sized, trippy “pulses” and that the author found it very demanding.
His claim that he’s been through “escapological challenges posed by diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjackets” may be true for the experience of composition, but none of that jeopardy appears in the tweeted result.
Maybe he found it so difficult because he feels so lofty about the medium through which he’s chosen to push his message – and he hasn’t bothered to understand it.
From Mr Cloud Atlas, this is just disappointing. It’s not even a gimmick, and hardly a stunt. To me it reads terribly safe, maybe the most un-experimental thing of Mitchell’s I’ve come across.