Twitlit: The twitterature revolution

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From classics described in breathtaking brevity to the collected wit of myriad microbloggers, bookshops are awash with 'twitterature' this Christmas. Is this the future of the printed word? Tim Walker reports

Mass web collaboration has generated online encyclopaedias with levels of accuracy that rival an unabridged Britannica; it has fuelled popular political movements from Washington to Tehran; it has given us the multi-billion-selling iTunes App Store. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before internet users used their collective energy to create a truly collaborative work of literature. Or, at least, a loo book.

This Christmas, among the Harry Potter parodies and pub-quizzable miscellanies that litter the humour shelves in Waterstones, you'll find at least four titles that were either "crowdsourced" on Twitter, or written in chapters of 140 characters or less.

The World According to Twitter: Crowd-sourced Wit and Wisdom from David Pogue (and His 350,000 Followers) is the work of The New York Times technology writer Pogue, who asked his Twitter followers questions ranging from "What's your greatest regret?" to "What's the best bumper sticker you've seen lately?", then collected the best of their responses and published 2,524 of them in book form.

"Compose the subject line of an email message you really, really don't want to read," goes the first request. The responses include "To my former sexual partners, as required by law" and "Your Dad is now following you on Twitter". To the prompt "Add 1 letter to a famous person's name; explain", witty users replied with "Malcolm XY: Civil rights activist, definitively male", and "Sean Penne: Starchy, overcooked actor/activist". Since the book went to press, Pogue's follower count has leapt to more than 1.2 million, making its subtitle slightly less accurate than Wikipedia.

A rival book, Twitter Wit: Brilliance in 140 characters or less by Nick Douglas, founding editor of the technology gossip blog Valleywag, was also published in recent months, with an even broader brief. It sells itself straightforwardly as " An Authorized Collection of the Funniest Tweets of All Time" and has a foreword from Twitter's co-founder, Biz Stone. Among Douglas's collected examples of concise comedy are @aedison's "What's the deal with deaf people? Like, HELLO?" and "When Morgan Freeman reads a book, whose voice is in his head?"

While neither book is likely to make the leap onto the literary pages, they do dispel the myth that Twitter is merely for advertising what you had for breakfast.

Another pair of stocking-fillers has hit the shelves masquerading as the work of Twitter users, but in fact both have been produced by regular, common or garden humour writers.

The History of the World Through Twitter, by Jon Holmes and Mitch Benn – with a fore-tweet from Stephen Fry – is a collection of colourful tweets from significant historical figures including: the Virgin Mary: ("mary @joseph did you remember to book the hotel?"); Henry V ("Henry05 New blog entry up; draft of pre-battle pep-talk for tomorrow: http://tinyurl.com/lfzfb9 Thoughts anybody? #agincourt); the crew of the Titanic ("deckhand Arranging deckchairs"); and Winston Churchill ("winstonchurchill Anyone think of anything that rhymes with 'beaches'?"). Meanwhile, Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books Retold Through Twitter, by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, reduces all of classic literature into a slim paperback of 140-character-or-less plot summaries.

Aciman and Rensin were 19-year-old freshmen at the University of Chicago when they secured their publishing deal with Penguin this summer. In fact, they give each canonical work up to 20 tweets, or 2,800 characters, but sometimes 140 is enough. From Oedipus, for instance: "PARTY IN THEBES!!! Nobody cares I killed that old dude, plus this woman is all over me. Total MILF." And who knew that the all-encompassing Hamlet could be boiled down to: "WTF IS POLONIUS DOING BEHIND THE CURTAIN???" Aciman claims that his favourite author is the famously long- winded Marcel Proust.

Money for old tweets, you could be forgiven for thinking. And you wouldn't be entirely wrong. When the publishing industry first discovered the blogosphere, bloggers did at least approach the form with a measure of traditional literary ambition. Julie Powell won the first 'Blooker Prize' for books based on blogs in 2006, for the "Julie /Julia Project", an online account of her attempt to prepare all 524 recipes in Julia Child's classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (Now Meryl Streep is in the running for yet another Oscar after portraying Child in the film of Powell's book, Julie and Julia.)

In the three years since, however, savvy web users have evidently learned that they can get publishing deals off the back of the wit and wisdom of strangers, without having to display any of their own. Then again, these authors aren't all charlatans. Aciman and Rensin probably had to read most of the books that they condensed for their works – or at least read the Cliffs Notes.

At the beginning of December, Rick Moody, US author of The Ice Storm and a short story writer of not-inconsiderable standing, tweeted a fictional romantic tale at 10-minute intervals over the course of three days.

The story was narrated alternately by its two ultra-literate protagonists, who meet online, go for dates to Tarkovsky movies and take care to recycle their left-wing magazines. It opened by defending its own form, with the 108 characters: "There are things in this taxable and careworn world that can only be said in a restrictive interface with a minimum of characters."

The story was published on the Twitter feed of Electric Literature, a bi-monthly fiction magazine that's available in print, online or downloadable eBook form. Moody isn't the first writer to tweet fiction, but he's probably the best-known, and surely will not be the last. Were he alive and writing today, perhaps Dickens would have serialised A Christmas Carol on Twitter and turned it into a Christmas loo book, too: "Scrooge WTF is that clanking noise? #humbug".

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