Jonathan Franzen Is Wrong Again: Why Twitter Is Great for Writers


I need to start with an admission: I’m not on Twitter. You’ll probably think me naïve for thinking I can write about it with any authority without yet having been seduced by its promise of an instant and presumably attentive audience. I think the opposite to be true. My distance allows for at least the semblance of objectivity, and in any case, I’m no Twitter neophyte. There are multiple Twitter users whose feeds are so striking that I have them bookmarked and visit them daily. I know how it works.

In response to Jonathan Franzen’s recent dismissal of Twitter and Salman Rushdie’s subsequent response, questions have arisen surrounding the legitimacy of Twitter use amongst writers. Alexander Nazaryan made quick work of dispelling initial concerns, noting that “writers do waste a lot of time — it’s almost part of the creative process, a sort of strategic indolence that lets the mind work out its problems.” A recent bout with I-have-a-month-to-finish-my-thesis flu resulted in countless hours in front of an iMac, where one window was always open to some photographer’s oeuvre for me to sift through when the right word wouldn’t come loose or when I became too damn tired of my own voice. Stratifying our own distractions as being either more or less useless than those of others is unnecessary. The fact that we all, nonetheless, classify them as “distractions” should be enough. It is, invariably, all relative.

Twitter’s 140-character limit is another point of contention for detractors like Franzen. Despite his objections, constraints, verbal or otherwise, are some of a writer’s greatest tools. Distilling an idea down to its basest component doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s left will itself be base. Rather, in the whittling-down process you may find the very essence of what you intend to say. It is in realizing what we don’t mean that we come across what we do. The character limit imposition forces something quite out of the ordinary for the Internet: verbal economy. The limitless expanse of cyberspace has been interpreted by many as license to express all of the minutiae populating their neural pathways. The mind operating on infinite scroll is a weaker one.

The economy of language required by Twitter is nothing new for some writers. Earlier this year, Lydia Davis, known for her propensity towards pith, said, “I do see an interest in writing for Twitter…While publishers still do love the novel and people do still like to sink into one, the very quick form is appealing because of the pace of life.” Davis makes an important point: Twitter responds to the speed at which we conduct our lives. We’ve turned up the dial a few notches in the past decades. The full range of consequences are yet to be seen and can still be debated upon and endlessly prophesied. The reality that it happened, that it is happening, cannot.

The aversion to Twitter is an understandable one. There is no need to list the numerous ways people have used social media to, for lack of a better word, stunt. Yet, let’s not forget how relatively young all these social media are. Twitter only went public in July of 2006. Consequently, we are still figuring out how to most propitiously integrate social media into our lives. Reluctance and trepidation are healthy and natural but such staunch opposition to a technology that is showing absolutely zero signs of leaving will eventually become Luddite. A more productive use of our time would be spent figuring out how to use something like Twitter intelligently.

And some have.

Teju Cole has refused to allow the character limit to curb his ability to deliver incisive cultural commentary. And in lighter, and yet no less noteworthy, fare, the KimKierkegaardashian account constructs a tight amalgam of low and high culture that seems more emblematic of our times than most other Twitter output. Is it this blurring between high and low culture (an ultimately unnecessary division) that secretly propels discomfort with Twitter and social media at large?

The process is irreversible. For better or for worse, we have moved towards a middle ground where just about anyone can hold the gilded megaphone.

Our president tweets, our writers tweet, and pretty soon, I may tweet, too.