Conversation: Rick Moody and Andy Hunter

BY Arts Desk  December 10, 2009 at 12:39 PM EDT

This is our first conversation in a series about the future of literature and literacy,
The Next Chapter of Reading. You can read more about this series here.

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Author Rick Moody has just published a new short story titled “Some Contemporary Characters.” But the delivery system was unusual: The story was “published” on a Twitter feed in serial tweets every 10 – 20 minutes over three days (with a few reported kinks in transmission). The project was sponsored by a new literary magazine called Electric Literature, which has also published stories by Michael Cunningham, Colson Whitehead and Jim Shepard.

Moody, author of the novel “The Ice Storm” and a story collection called “Demonology,” and also a regular music blogger for the Rumpus, said that producing a work of fiction for Twitter “was an experiment I could not resist.”

“It became clear when I decided I wanted to use Twitter that the form itself was going to have something to say about the content,” explained Moody, “and sort of the more I ventured into experimenting with these characters and trying to make something of their lives, by implication, because you can’t have that many dramatic scenes in the story, the more I ventured in, the more I realized that they were going to be completely wired up, these two people, and be a sort of little manifest for how social media and new media work in people’s private lives and consciousnesses.”

I talked to Rick Moody and Andy Hunter, co-founder of “Electric Literature,” about that project, and about how they see the future of writing and reading.

'Electric Literature'

 

Art Beat is now on Twitter.

[Full transcript after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a short story titled “Some Contemporary Characters” by a well-known writer, Rick Moody, author of works including the novel “The Ice Storm” and a story collection titled “Demonology.” But the delivery system was unusual. The story was published by a new literary magazine called “Electric Literature” on Twitter in serial tweets of no more than 140 characters every 10 to 20 minutes. Why? We ask that now of Rick Moody and Andy Hunter, co-founder of “Electric Literature,” who join me by phone, and they are both in Brooklyn. And welcome to both of you.

Andy Hunter why don’t you start, what’s the idea here? Why a short story on Twitter?

ANDY HUNTER: Well, you know, “Electric Literature” was founded by writers, and we founded it because it was a time of great pessimism among literary writers, in particular, about the forces that seem to be threatening publishing and readership. We really wanted to create something new that used new media and new technology in distribution to expand the reach of literature, and basically look at these forces, like the internet or internet distribution, YouTube, Twitter, all these different things that are kind of clamoring for readers’ attention right now and consider how could these forces that seem to threaten literature instead be marshaled in its defense.

JEFFREY BROWN:So, Rick Moody why did this interest you? Do you use Twitter or other social media? Why did you want to write a short story on it?

RICK MOODY: I don’t use Twitter at all, personally. I think I’ve tweeted three times ever, so I can’t say that I’m big daily user of it. I use Facebook, but what was of interest to me was not the reach of Twitter exactly, so much as it was its awkward brevity. I came to feel that the character counter, which monitors you to make sure you don’t go over the abbreviated 140 characters that they permit you, I came to feel that was a very interesting limitation as regards to the possibility of writing a short story.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it was an interesting exercise?

RICK MOODY: Yeah, it was an experiment that I could not resist.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so how did you go about it in terms of the limitations on characters dictating a difference from your normal way of writing. First of all, you didn’t just write the complete story and divide it up into the, into the bits, right?

RICK MOODY: No, that’s cheating.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah. (laughs)

RICK MOODY: This is written with the word processor open and the browser open at the same time and with each section, I would paste it into the character clock on Twitter to make sure that I wasn’t going over the allowable length. So it really was written in a Twitter format with Twitter in mind, and obviously characters and the title of the story refers both to the people and to the limitation on orthographic characters in the piece. So I thought about Twitter, I was using Twitter and that was exciting to me, you know, it was exciting to try to be contemporary in that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just to tell us a little bit about the story, these are two characters who meet online, actually. So you use the technology to kind of dictate…well, how much did you use the experiment or the technology to dictate the characters and their story?

RICK MOODY: Well, it became clear when I decided I wanted to use Twitter that the form itself was going to have something to say about the content, and sort of the more I ventured into experimenting with these characters and trying to make something of their lives, by implication, because you can’t have that many dramatic scenes in the story, the more I ventured in, the more I realized that they were going to be completely wired up these two people and be a sort of little manifest for how social media and new media work in people’s private lives and consciousnesses.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how long did it take you to do compared to…I don’t know if there is a typical way that you write or approach you take or length of time it takes.

RICK MOODY: Well, it took…it was the same as a short story usually is for me, which is probably between two and six months. This took about two-and-a-half months to write, and it went through if anything more drafts than I usually go through, because I had to work with enforced brevity of the character clock and normally I kind of write long sentences, so I had to get comfortable with all that brevity and it took a while.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Andy Hunter what do we know about how people have read this story? Do they read it on Twitter with other tweets mixed in? Do they put it all together and read it? Do you know how they’re taking it in?

ANDY HUNTER: It definitely depends on the individual reader. If the story was tweeted in sections 10 minutes apart, so the real Twitter fanatics who are on all day were able to read it in sequence in real time. I suspect the majority of readers actually came to the “Electric Lit” Twitter feed afterwards and either read it from the bottom-up to see it in sequence or read it from the top down. Rick actually wrote it in such way that it really works both ways in a kind of interesting sense. So, you know, we tweeted it over the course of three days, which was a constant reminder to anybody who has a Twitter account, you know it was going out to about 32,000 people, which is wide reach for a short story in this day and age, and to account for people kind of logging in and out, it was a way to make sure that we hit them at some point when they would be logging in. And then once they were reminded of it, they could go to our Twitter feed and catch up. We didn’t interrupt our feed at all, but for other people it was episodic. And it would definitely would just deliver a little well-crafted nugget of fiction every 10 minutes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, I guess the question I want to ask both of you, and Rick Moody you could start with this, is it a gimmick? And I don’t mean that necessarily as bad thing, but is it aimed at creating really, thinking about new ways of writing or reading literature or is it to attract those who might not read your works in a normal book form and maybe get them to buy the actual book? How do you think about this?

RICK MOODY: Well, it’s gimmicky at the outset, because it’s conceptual, which is to say I am trying to do what I do in this new form, and that would constitute a kind of a gimmick, but the whole thing with gimmicks is that if you don’t try to transcend them and move beyond the sort of one sentence synopsis of what’s happening, you aren’t really making literature. And I tried to work pretty hard to get beyond the gimmick and make something that was a little more lasting. I guess we’ll see in the long run if it’s stays in people’s consciousness at all, and that would be the truth of the tale. If people are still remembering it in a little while from now, then maybe it is more than a gimmick and certainly hope so. I don’t know if Twitter in the end is going to be a great narrative fiction vehicle or not, but it’s certainly worth trying.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andy Hunter, how do you see it?

ANDY HUNTER: Well, logistically, you know, we went through and we tallied the comments from our readers, and it was about 10-to-1 positive. So that means about 90 percent of our followers engaged in the story. We started the experiment with about 20,000 followers on Twitter and we ended it with almost 30,000. So we attracted about 10,000 people throughout the three-day course of the experiment. Our Web site gained 300 percent more traffic; our subscriptions over that time period were about five times the normal rate; and our email list grew by about ten times what it normally grows at. So as far as expanding the reach and kind of injecting some enthusiasm for fiction in a greater sense, it definitely was effective.

JEFFREY BROWN: But let me stop you. I mean, it attracts people to your site; that’s all good. I mean, I am asking, though, about the larger…are these people that might have read a Rick Moody short story or novel previously, or is the idea to reach out for those who don’t or…?

ANDY HUNTER: Yeah, the idea is definitely to reach out to those who don’t. And I think it did. I mean, beyond the New Yorker there’s not that many stories that are going to reach 32,000 people, certainly not in traditional literary magazines. Also through, like, re-tweets, basically a person following the story, if they like a particular passage can then re-tweet it and send that out to the people that follow them, so it becomes this kind of cascading effect where people that are enthusiastic about the story can turn on other people that they know to it. And that’s something that really only could exist on Twitter. As far as the longevity of the story goes, we’re also going to print in our paperback collection, so we’ll make sure that, you know, it gets some kind of acknowledgement and long-term readership as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we’re asking people now here for our series about the future of reading, the future of books. So, Andy Hunter, I mean, I see on your site, you know, you have a sort-of manifesto: We’re tired of hearing that literary fiction is doomed, you write. You see new media as a way of…well, tell me what that means? Tell me what you do see for the future of reading?

ANDY HUNTER: Well, I think that technology presents an opportunity for literature to leave the ivory tower and interact with the world. Now that can mean either, like some of the things we do is cross-pollinate with other genres; we have our writers collaborate with filmmakers or animators and musicians to create short films that we then show on YouTube. It also allows dialogs or even collaborations with readers. There’s much less of a barrier between an author and a reader now via social networking and the internet than there used to be. And it gives literature a potential reach as wide as the world, attracting them and really constantly reminding them that literature is very valuable and worth their time. And so something like a Twitter story is a way to put it in front of their attention and maybe bring them back in. And we want to keep doing that really by any means necessary. And we’re going to use every tool that we can in order to do that, and ultimately all these tools are democratizing, you know. We’ve seen a huge boom in self-publishing. There were 375,000 books published in 2007, and then there were 480,000 book published 2008. So anybody who looks at those numbers can see that the publishing industry is not dying. What it is doing is it’s democratizing, and it’s just less barriers to entry, there’s less barriers between readers and writers. There’s less barriers between publishers and their audiences. And ultimately, I think that that’s going to be good thing for literature and writing, although there are going to be growing pains and certainly, especially, with larger publishers, because I think that this kind of democratizing environment favors small publishers, like “Electric Literature,” for example.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Rick Moody, a last word — as a writer, how do you see this fitting into the future of literary fiction and reading?

RICK MOODY: What makes me really happy about “Electric Literature” is the literature part of it, you know. I mean, I’m sort of a dinosaur compared to Andy. I wrote my first novel on an IBM Selectric II, so I remember what a typewriter’s like, and I loved typewriters. But I’m sort of finding my way into this new world, and what makes me happiest and most enthusiastic is when younger writers and publishers, like Andy and Scott, are really familiar with and consonant with new media and excited by it, but they still love really great writing at the same time. The issue for me isn’t whether people are going to read; people will definitely read. I’m just hoping that they read really good prose, and “Electric Literature” makes me excited and enthusiastic, because it’s so forthright and dogged about making sure that they’re supporting the really finest prose work around, too. So given that that’s the case, I think there’s ample reason to be hopeful.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rick Moody and Andy Hunter. Thanks for talking to us.

RICK MOODY: Thanks so much.

ANDY HUNTER: Thank you.