The Bytesized Stories

Jorge Luis Borges never wrote a novel because “…to go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes” appeared to him dreary, needless labour. Borges preferred the elegance of the short story, spanning a dozen pages, at the most. Had he been alive today, would he have taken to Twitter to tell his stories?

To a small but growing tribe of people, 140 characters are about as long as needed, apparently, to express a rich idea in the form of fiction. Mainstream writers like Teju Cole (@tejucole) as well as Twitter-only writers like Arjun Basu (@arjunbasu) have been using Twitter to create moments fraught with drama, discovery and despair with consummate skill.

In Cole’s hands, real news turns into stories that defy labels. For instance: “Twenty is a bit young for a man to be married, so, with a kitchen knife, Usman, of Rijau, north of Minna, made himself a widower.”

As for Basu, he probably makes his up, but with a sharp instinct for pinning down a brief moment that sparks off a trail of thought. Consider: “The rain ended and we walked the wet pavement to the car. She called me stupid just as I realized I’d left my keys inside and she said, See?”

So far, so short-sweet-and-snappy. Enter Manoj Pandey, 27, who invites writers to create stories within 140-characters with the hashtag #talesontweet (a little redundant, since the Twitter handle for the project is, well, @talesontweet). His objective is to compile them all into a free e-book – which means that Twitter, for him, is not so much a theatre of performance for an audience for these stories as it is a content management system.

Pandey’s tales are not the first, of course. Other hashtags like #twitterfiction abound on Twitter, with people plugging their 140-minus-hashtagnumber-character stories constantly in an endeavour to get noticed by someone, somewhere. Blogs can become books (ask India’s own Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan). Online fan-fiction can become bestselling legends (50 Shades etcetera). Why not tweets?

On their part, gatekeepers of literature have also tried to instigate established writers to try their hand at microfiction through tweets. The Guardian, for instance, gets one famous writer to tweet a story every week. Here’s a recent one, by Gill Hornby: “Too many cooks,” she once cried, tapping hands with the flat of her knife. Now she stood alone, tracing lines with the blade upon her wrist.

On the face of it, therefore, Pandey and other curators of the tweeted short short short story should be on to a good thing. #talesontweet has even got Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) – besides thriller-genre middleweights like Roger Smith and Lawrence O’Bryan – to add to the stream. Also, this form of fiction needs the lowest reader investment in the world. Don’t like something? No need to plough through pages and pages before deciding. Discard in seconds.

Why, then, am I left cold as a reader when I read most of these tweets-masquerading-as-fiction?

First, because a one-liner, a bon mot, a witty drawing-room aphorism may be fun to read, but they cannot do what good fiction does. Take Shashi Tharoor’s (@ShashiTharoor) contribution: “Gandhi saw the misery of Partition & broke his vow of silence. He wept.” Fully worthy of retweeting over and over, and even of inviting trolls – but fiction? An insight into the human condition? A breathtaking leap of imagination? Perhaps not.


“The fault, dear Twitter, is not in the writers but in yourself. That is to say, you never set out to be a space for fiction.”


In 140 characters, there are, ironically, no characters; only pronouns that tell me nothing about the individualities of people or their back or front stories. Try putting those in, and you’re out of space. Can there be a story without people? The best one can hope for is an idea, clothed in clever writing. Like the infamous “The last man in the world was alone in his room when there was a knock on the door”.

Rushdie, because he is Rushdie, does just that. His shot: “She died. He followed her into the underworld. She refused to return, preferring Hades. It was a long way to go to be dumped.” A chuckle? A rueful shake of the head? Admiration for the normally verbose Rushdie’s ability to actually build something in so few words? All of the above, yes, but where’s the spirit of the story that haunts you hours and days after you’ve finished reading.

It’s no different with the brilliant Stephen Fry, whose writing is often as entertaining as his acting. Here, he turns dark: “Gina, knowing that a new sorrow had broken into his life, went to visit him. He was writing, unmoved. She left.” There is a brief intersection between the people in this tweeted story and your perception of the inner lives of individuals – but so fleeting that it is gone before you can pin it down.

The fault, dear Twitter, is not in the writers but in yourself. That is to say, you never set out to be a space for fiction. You told the world to use you for short, timely updates. Or, more recently, to “find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about.” Here, we scroll through a feverish stream of information ranging from rants and raves, through useful reading links and pictures of food and rain, to incredible personal minutiae. Not exactly the place for fiction.

Maybe I’m jumping ahead of myself – and the ideal sort of story for Twitter is yet to be invented. If a haiku can do as much as it does in seven syllables, if a sher can be so rich in two lines, why not fiction in 140 characters? Let’s wait. And meanwhile, remember whoever – Ernest Hemingway, or someone else – wrote: “For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.”


Disclaimer: I have written two shorts on Twitter. Both dissatisfying.

Translator of classic and contemporary Bengali fiction by night, online professional by day.

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