Friday, April 30, 2010

Twitter: 1906 - Novels in Three Lines

Short is in these days. Letter writing fell by the wayside long ago, but today’s teens have moved on even from phone calls and email.  For staying in touch with friends, the text is king.  According to a new study from the Pew Research Center “fully two-thirds of teen texters say they are more likely to use their cell phones to text friends than to talk to them by cell phone” and “half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day.”  Though teens haven’t taken to Twitter as widely as adults, roughly 10% of high schoolers are tweeting their lives.

In this landscape of 140-character limits, a French writer from the early 1900s has unexpectedly regained relevance.  Throughout 1906, Félix Fénéon anonymously contributed short blurbs of reportage to the Parisian newspaper Le Matin, filling in space in the paper’s layout.  No more than a sentence or two apiece, these micro-stories offered glimpses into the curiosities and excitement of day-to-day life; murders, celebrations, and romantic misadventure were all common themes.  In the 1940s, after Fénéon's death, some thousand of these items were published as Novels in Three Lines (Nouvelles en Trois Lignes - in translation the title loses its pun; the French nouvelles signifies both novels and news).  (Also discussed from a different angle here!) Read in collection, they offer up a surprisingly comprehensive panorama of turn-of-the-century life.

And yet, in the strange way time can create little circles, this is a stunningly appropriate book for our times as well.  What was Fénéon, after all, but a proto-Twitterer? I follow several Chicago papers online and his faits-divers easily top both the Tribune and Red Eye for attention-grabbing linkbait:

Within a week, a second case of bigamy has been recorded in Bordeaux, that of a laborer’s wife who has become a foreman’s.
There was talk of a pervert, but finally Porcher, of La Grange, near Cholet, was constrained to admit his wife’s murderer was himself.
Sex, violence, scandal - and yet none of it so unusual as to warrant a full story. The presentation of these events as unremarkable allows them to begin sounding awfully familiar. Stories of political protest, of business turmoil and marital disputes could easily be borrowed from CNN with a few names changed around. New York Review Books Classics, the book's publisher, has taken to excepting items in its Twitter feed, and, as if any better illustration were required, they now appear right next to stories from the Times when I pull up my browser in the morning. In the intervening century, the news has stayed the same while the form of presentation has come back around to meet itself.

Form is, then, where we pick up again with teens, denizens of a realm of textspeak, where abbreviations and acronyms try to stuff as much content into as small a space as possible. U no? Against this mass compression, Fénéon's work provides a counterexample, showing how little it truly takes to employ all the tools of language. Irony:
Catherine Rosello of Toulon, mother of four, got out of the way of a freight train.  She was then run over by a passenger train.
In a hotel in Lille, M. H. Hallynch, of Ypres, hanged himself for reasons that, according to a letter he left, will soon be made known.
The adventure and imagination of childhood:
Fearless boys of 13 and 11, Deligne and Julien were going off “to hunt in the desert.”  They were brought back to Paris from Le Havre [a coastal town].
A few words tell entire stories; lacunae contain volumes. Though the world of teens is increasingly dominated by micro-writing, if they can be given strong examples and instruction in thoughtful construction, there is hope that communication does not have to suffer. And, lest I forget, Fénéon is fun. In the space of two blurbs, three sentences in total, he writes an entire short story:
- Nurse Elise Bachmann, whose day off was yesterday, put on a public display of insanity.
- A certain madwoman arrested downtown falsely claimed to nurse Elise Bachmann.  The latter is perfectly sane.
We should all have such remarkable tweets.


Seth Christenfeld said...

Combining the two, NYRB has set up an official Novels in Three Lines Twitter feed, posting a few a day.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Very interesting! Flash fiction has held my interest lately, along with tweeting. I'm intrigued that adults tweet more than teens!

Also: I left an award for Guys Lit Wire today! Just trying to spread the word about your fab blog!