Growing Pains

How do things keep managing to get in the way of my finishing the second draft of my proposal? Today it’s Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less, a self-explanatory title if ever there was one. An unpromising title too, for the sort of book that puts the twee in tweeting and twists its spine patting itself on the back. Happily, you can judge for yourself by checking out the examples on the website. The Da Vinci Code turns out to be as easy to skewer on Twitter as anyplace else:

HOLY SHIT!!!! We stole the Codex for a large-scale conspiracy that is conveniently in my area of expertise! 

WTF!! A FUCKING ALBINO!! My cushy tenure at Harvard did NOT prepare me for all this action!!!

Oh man, this gal is hot. But it’s harder than I thought to find romance amidst a global plot to conceal the truth about Jesus Christ.

So you’re looking for something. Got a smokin’ hot French babe with you. Then it turns out what you’re looking for IS that babe. Yeah!

Jesus. The lady is a direct descendant of Christ. All good. Oh what? Another puzzle? Bring on the sequel!

(Oh, did I spoil the book/movie for you? Good.)

Shakespeare, though, not so much.

The authors may not have been wise to have chosen Hamlet as one of their samples. You can see the whole thing here, and to avoid charges of abuse of fair use/fair dealing, I’ll only quote the tweets I comment on below:

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
@OedipusGothplex 

Mom says to stop wearing black.

STOP TRYING TO CONTROL ME. I won’t conform! I wish my skin would just … melt.

I’m too sad to notice that Ophelia’s so sexy and fine. And mother also looks rather fair despite all her struggles.

Why is Claudius telling me what to do again? YOU’RE NOT MY REAL DAD! In fact you killed my real dad. 😦

2bornt2b? Can one tweet beyond the mortal coil?

I had a knife to that fat asshole but bitched out. Now he’s alive and still taking to bed with that beautiful wo— … er, my mother.

The gravedigger’s comic speech isn’t funny at all. It’s heavy and meaningful. Just send me YouTube vids instead, pls. I am so borrredddd.

Ophelia just pulled a Virginia Woolf. Funeral is on the morrow.

Judge for yourself. If you thought “Such_Tweet_Sorrow” failed out of the gate because its slangy, texty argot was un-Shakespearean, think again: starting to look good, isn’t it? I’d score this as one brilliant bit that actually relates to the text (“I wish my skin would just … melt”), one clunker in the same vein (“Can one tweet beyond the mortal coil?”), a couple of nice allusions to the subtext (hint: @OedipusGothplex is not one of them), one clunky shoutout to the college reading list (yes, Mrs. Dalloway gets the tweet treatment too), some mildly amusing bits (“Mom says to stop wearing black”), a bunch of stale devices to make these look like real tweets (one emoticon, one txt, one reference to YouTube, the occasional ALL CAPS). In short, shtick by people without much talent for language and no sense of history, like pretty much all humor that’s been popular in the United States since the 1980s and then the 1990s with the dreaded rise of “irony” (I’m looking at you, SNL after the original cast left, Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater, MST3K, David Sedaris, Craig Ferguson, and scores upon scores of others.) As it turns out, the authors are nineteen-year-old students at the University of Chicago. Nineteen-year-old college students are sophomores. And—sorry, no way am I going to pass this one up—you know what that makes their book.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know there’s no way I am going to be sympathetic to this book. But am I being too hard on the authors, killing a spider (something I’d never do, by the way; a room with a spider is a room without the noxious pests spiders eat) with a meataxe? Well, no, for two reasons. First, Twitter doesn’t have to be like this. Again, a lot of people didn’t think “Such_Tweet_Sorrow” was an aesthetic success, but it was without question a success as a first attempt to present Shakespeare in a new medium—even to see Twitter as a medium to present Shakespeare. (If anybody knows of other dramatic works that have Twitter versions, please tell in the comments.) No matter what, it is a precursor to further efforts. After one of them, we’ll be amazed that we ever thought Twitter couldn’t be a way to make art. In this connection the editor’s comments on the webpage are highly illuminating, even apart from their preemptively defensive tone:

Say the word Twitter to a book lover and they will probably roll their eyes at you and sigh. [Um, not necessarily (pointing to self).] Like all good pastiche, Twitterature skewers the original work with pin-point accuracy. . . .The difference, though, and what makes this little collection particularly enjoyable, is that the joke falls just as heavily (well, probably more so) on Twitter. In a face-off between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his Twitter avatar ‘BigMac’, it’s fairly clear who comes off looking worse. So, in a curious way, Twitterature is just as much a celebration of the classics as it is a mockery of them. 

 

They come to bury Twitter, not to praise it. What if the editor asked who comes out better, Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon or his Twitter avatar @CatholicGuilt? But the key assertion—in fact, one of the most important sentences I’ve read lately—is this:

What also appeals to us about Twitterature is that while it is most certainly not a serious book, it is, we think, a clever book, a funny book and also a very Penguin book.

Judging of course only from the website examples, it seems to me that that’s exactly the problem with Twitterature. But more important, and this is my second reason for taking up so much space on this book, this sentence strikes me as the perfect expression of what’s wrong with the contemporary comedy I dislike: it depends on being clever and funny (when it’s either) without being serious. Of course it’s possible to be funny without being serious; it’s called being frivolous. Examples are a lot harder to come across than you might think, though. Most of what passes for humor these days ia actually just shtick, and being funny has become identified with quality of shtick. I cannot think of an A-list standup who qualifies as purely frivolous, funny but not serious. For example, Steven Wright’s gnomic sayings, tweets before there was Twitter, might seem divorced from any subject at all, but when you look at them closely you realize he’s the most ferocious philosopher of language since Wittgenstein. Being funny without being serious is much, much harder than it looks, and there is only one giant in this field: P.G. Wodehouse. That’s how high the bar is set if you really want to write a “very Penguin book,” since there is really nothing more Penguin than Wodehouse. But I don’t think the authors of Twitterature can even look up high enough to see the bar, let alone see that the great thing Shakespeare showed us is that it’s possible, maybe even necessary, to be serious and funny at the same time.

And one more thing (I promise, just one more thing!) Others have actually begun posting classics on Twitter, one tweet at a time. Needless to say, certain works are going to fare better in 140-character bursts, but it is being done. Surprise, surprise, I am being followed on Twitter by “I_AM_SHAKESPEARE.” And search on Twitter for Samuel Pepys to see how many people are posting Pepys’s Diary–and how many others are posting parodies. They’re really using the medium, unlike two nineteen-year-old smartasses who think they can tell the Internet to get off their lawn.

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