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Why it's hard to tweet literature

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Last week I posed the question of whether journalists make good authors. Responses from readers were provocative. In short, there seemed to be an agreement that journalists include details in service of the story or argument; writers are more willing to use details and language to create atmosphere, to allow a reader to be in a moment, or capture an idea or image.

In my experience, reading a novelistic (whether fiction or creative nonfiction) work often feels like swimming. I can’t see any one thing clearly, but I have a sense of an entire experience washing over me. I feel submerged.

Funnily enough, just yesterday I indulged in exactly that sensation, starting Lynne Cox’s autobiographical "Swimming to Antarctica." Cox is a professional long-distance swimmer, perhaps best known for swimming across the Bering Strait to ease tensions between the US and the USSR during the Cold War.

She writes about some of her early experiences swimming off the coast of California and across the English Channel, describing the Pacific at midnight and the way her shoulders turned the color of lobsters. An hour, two hours passed, and I spent a beautiful summer afternoon on the couch in my sun porch, but I might as well have been underwater.

Then, this morning, on the front porch, where I read the newspaper, I saw a column by journalist Gideon Rachman hypothesizing that even great books could be reduced to a 140-character tweet. Marx: “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”; Machiavelli: “Nice guys finish last.”

I wondered what Cox’s book would be reduced to. “Swimming is nice.” “The ocean is cold; strange.” Nothing I could think of did the book justice, and it occurred to me that all the peripherals –  the sensory images, the internal – were exactly what made the book worthwhile.

The realization made me feel rich as a reader, as if I had in my possession something too complicated to be summarized. As a literary writer, however, I cringed. Marketing is everything in book selling, and if atmospherics can’t be summarized in a single phrase, then what chance do authors have on the increasingly technology-driven market?

 

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