What Would Twitter Do?

image

In the second week of this series, ten of my favorite people on Twitter talk about what they do on Twitter and why—their Twitter philosophies, their do’s and don’ts, and what they make of the medium in general. This week features the writer Kate Zambreno, whose Twitter feed was one of the most fascinating while it still existed (in December she killed it). In the wake of her third and most controversial book, Heroines—about “the mad wives of modernism"—Zambreno’s feed seemed to be a place where a heated conversation between writers and feminists was always on the verge of breaking out into some greater meaning. Before Twitter, she ran a popular blog (which she has also shut down) called Frances Farmers Is My Sister. Next week sees the republication of her second novel, Green Girl (Harper Perennial) as well as the ebook release of Heroines.

Sheila Heti

SHEILA HETI: I know you’re no longer on Twitter but I’m working on a series about what might be good strategies for being on it; what makes a good tweet, what are good attitudes to display and bad ones, boring ones, off-putting ones… You were so interesting on Twitter and I wondered if you wanted to send me a list of some observations of what works in that medium and what doesn’t, or what you did that you personally feel was successful or not.

KATE ZAMBRENO: I kind of played against what was "good” or “successful” and ultimately quit Twitter because I found myself repulsive, caring and craving so much for witness and recognition, and warring against myself whether to promote myself on Twitter or retweet praise or write about the process of writing, which felt at times like a sort of promotion, a real-time behind-the-scenes I’m Writing! Read my Next Book Entitled Suicide is Amazing in 2016!—even though I like writing about process, and I like reading about writer’s processes. I like reading when the writer Katherine Angel (@KayEngels), my British pen pal, tweets about writing, and tweets other writers on writing, but I think that’s because she’s doing it out of an intellectual curiosity and obsession, not to promote herself. Basically, whenever I think I’m doing something that would be good for publicity, I wind up bailing on it. Maybe I have issues with success. I find failure more interesting. I also think in general the writers who use Twitter to promote themselves or their projects, instead of writing about ideas or writing about reading or posting weird jokes or having a conceptual project, were the ones I found really boring, like being at a publishing party, and it made me cynical about being on Twitter myself.

Some of the writer twitter accounts I find really brilliant or clever or interesting seem to have less followers or don’t have crazy-high numbers—I don’t know why this is. I feel my partner, John Vincler’s (@deviantforms) is brilliant—my friend Laura Fisher’s (@termitetree) is brilliant, so is Sofia Samatar’s (@SofiaSamatar), and Anne Boyer’s (@anne_boyer). Their accounts are full of ideas and agitating against the culture, while also being smart and tender and playful, and most important, honest. I still sometimes go on and read theirs and others. Then some writers have tens of thousands of followers and it’s more of a popularity contest or a cult of personality, and there are writers who are talented at this—talented at the witty retort, the cute punditry or the stand-up comedy of pop culture—but I find it less arresting. I don’t know.

I always loved Elisa Gabbert’s (@egabbert) account. I think both her and Teju Cole (@tejucole) have really elevated tweeting to an art form, and I see the inspiration for her language-obsessed, philosophical quandaries online in her aphoristic collection, The Self Unstable. I like some of the confessional twitter accounts, those performances that play with taboo and ephemeral, real-time nervous breakdowns. I also like writer twitters that are bizarre and gorgeous with sometimes transgressive jokes and sentences and insights and aphorisms, like Blake Butler’s feed (@blakebutler) and Melissa Broder’s (@melissabroder). But in general I think writers have to be already a Name to get a lot of followers, or have enough cultural capital to be ranty or philosophical or bizarre. There’s more of a sense of excluding these names I’ve mentioned—people who have elevated Twitter to something urgent and specific—and that you are supposed to be generally upbeat, apolitical, and perform your brand. Maybe that’s really cynical. For me the most interesting twitters surprise me and are somehow authentic while Not Giving a Fuck, but I wonder whether that’s performing a sort of authenticity that is still about promotion and persona. See, I’m so cynical now! I direct it at myself. 

I certainly never had a lot of Twitter followers, and I think noticing who was following me or unfollowing me based on something I wrote depressed me in small yet critical ways, or made me think of writing something to appeal to more readers—which I found poisonous as a writer—all that sort of currency, or thinking of being a writer as publishing, or as being an author, or as having cultural capital, instead of as reading and writing. Also feeling a fixed identity—a box—and I felt like I was not able to change or refine ideas or be in the process of becoming. That’s why I quit the online world, for now. Also, the culture of reacting so strongly to everything on Twitter. I love and seriously appreciate a brilliant rant on Twitter—I’m thinking of Eileen Myles (@EileenMyles) live-tweeting watching Blue is the Warmest Color, that was genius. But I didn’t want to be constantly reacting to things online, the perennial outrage and punditry of the day’s news. I wanted to digest things more, to go back to notebooking more often. Plus, I tended to react to what was happening to me online—to reviews or things written about me or my personal life—and I also responded to people who were provoking me, and I felt that wasn’t healthy for me, to react so strongly in public, to be so agitated.

After the last book came out, I needed to calibrate things offline, and go back to having a private life, to mourn or complain or read privately for a while. Writer friends or online friends or people who like reading me will still often write me and say they miss my online presence—which is nice, but also a strange feeling, like you don’t exist if you’re not on social media, or that your online presence is what they read of you. There’s this pressure to be continually writing on the Internet in order to stay a writer. But I kind of like the feeling of being invisible, of not existing for a while. I think I’ve been interested lately in a poetics of anonymity, a performance of invisibility. Maybe that’s why I like twitter accounts that immolate themselves and are performative/ephemeral. Like I think Kafka would have been really brilliant at twitter, but he would have had 40 followers and would have been disgusted with himself and quit it often.

I think my personal high point was when I live-tweeted reading 50 Shades of Grey—but I think that was the first week I started twitter, about two years ago. I should have stopped then. But I still miss twitter. I think it can be great for writing experiments and even communities, but maybe not always great personally for the writer. But I had fun there. I had some really stimulating exchanges there. But I am reading The Magic Mountain now, and it’s immense and glacial and discursive and exquisite. I like residing in that space.

Week 1: Kimmy Walters

Week 3: Teju Cole

Week 4: Mira Gonzales

Week 5: Tao Lin

Week 6: Christian Lorentzen

Week 7: Patricia Lockwood

Week 8: Crylenol/Sadvil

Week 9: Various

Week 9 ½: Melville House

Week 9 ¾: Roxane Gay

Week 10: Kenneth Goldsmith