R. N. Morris: Twittering a Novel | Reading a Mystery, Tweet by Tweet

Mystery writer R. N. Morris is an audacious guy. The proof is in his choice of protagonist, Porfiry Petrovich, a character created by Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment.

Time for a true confession: Your humble scribe has not read Crime and Punishment. Indeed, he has not read an embarrassingly wide swath of the work by the authors reverently referred to as “The Russians.” This column will not, therefore, delve into the question of whether a 21st century English mystery writer has faithfully recreated and expanded upon the character of Porfiry Petrovich.

Instead, it will delve into the question of whether or not one can enjoy reading a novel on Twitter.

The question arises because Morris has been “tweeting” his 2007 novel A Gentle Axe 140 characters (or less) at a time.

A quick Twitter (twitter.com) primer: Twitter users have 140 characters to express a thought, provide a link, ask a question, and the like. If you “follow” someone on Twitter, you get their updates on your Twitter home page. The folks who follow you get yours. You can think of it as micro-blogging, or you can think of it as Facebook with just the status-update functionality.

It would be difficult to argue that Twitter is a natural environment for a novel. Twitter works well for a variety of things—quick updates from friends, breaking news items from media sources, giveaways and trivia contests for followers of restaurants and other businesses—but the sustained storytelling of a novel doesn’t seem like a good fit.

Yet Morris is making it work. His follower list keeps growing (as of this writing, he’s up to 643 from fewer than 300 when I started getting his updates in the early going of the project).

That is, in a large part, a credit to Morris’s writing. Sentence by sentence and tweet by tweet, he delivers sharp, memorable images that hold their own even in the sea of other updates that surround them throughout the day. To pluck just two from the recent updates:

"Kezel himself was not in, but his wife was—a silent, cowed woman whose face bore the marks of her last beating."

"It was almost as if he had been expecting him. But perhaps he was simply incapable of registering any emotion."

I have found it quite pleasant (despite some unpleasant content) to have snippets of fiction arrive throughout my day. Morris seems to have set things up on an automated system so that his tweets appear about every hour around the clock, providing the briefest of fiction fixes.

The process hasn’t worked perfectly, however. Challenges range from those built into Twitter (miss your updates for a couple of days and you have to scroll back through a lot of stuff to get caught up on the story, a problem exacerbated by Morris’s decision to have the tweets go out day and night) to those attributable to Morris (typos and tweets that get cut off mid-word when he doesn’t stay inside the character limit) to the simply mysterious (tweets that fail to appear on my home page but are on his page when you click over to see all of his updates presented sequentially).

Dialogue has proven to be particularly tricky because Twitter doesn’t allow for the paragraph breaks that signal a change in speaker in more traditionally presented prose. For example, it took me several moments to glean that it was not Porfiry, but rather a salacious interlocutor, who speaks the words between the second set of quotation marks in each of these tweets:

“I have no wish,” said Porfiry quickly. “Of course, I understand. The unique pleasure of the solitary method.”

“Sir, I am outraged,” said Porfiry. “And I am at a loss. From your other reading matter, I took you to be a rationalist and a materialist.”

Speaking of outrage, back on March 19, Morris sent out this tweet: “INTERRUPTING TWITTERISATION. Apologies for the missing tweets. I fear I am being censored.”

I suspect Morris might have been encountering technical difficulties rather than censorship, but his concern raises an interesting question about whether novels with challenging content can, in fact, be tweeted. But first, I suspect, authors who are considering following Morris’s lead will ask themselves whether giving away their content in 140 character bursts is a good publicity move. When Morris finally tweets “The End,” he may want to ask his followers how many of them are moved to purchase a more traditional copy of his latest effort, A Vengeful Longing.

You’d have some catching up to do, but if you’d like to follow the novel, search “rnmorris” on Twitter. And if you’d like to follow me, search “Rob_Cline.”

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