What Would Twitter Do?

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Welcome back to What Would Twitter Do? where I speak to some of my favourite people on Twitter about their feelings and thoughts about the medium. In this, our sixth week, I speak to speak to Christian Lorentzen (@xlorentzen) who is a cultural and literary critic, former editor at Harper’s, and current editor at the London Review of Books. 

When I first started getting into his tweets, I thought, “Ah! A novelist of twitter!” Though Christian doesn’t, as far as I know, write fiction, his feed seemed like what someone who only expressed himself as a fiction writer within the universe of twitter might come up with. Not to say his tweets sound like fiction—I mean more that I had the feeling of reading a great cult novelist as I read his tweets.

His feed has a surreal, funny, deadpan, mysterious quality—and sometimes an odd soberness. There is a sort of ubiquitous “twitter tone” one ends up being really familiar with, but Christian’s feed never falls into cheap irony or knowingness or self-seriousness or aggressive weirdness. A recent spate of his tweets read:

They’ve fallen out of favour in recent years, but there’s nothing like a really great tree fern.

There’s something in New Zealand they call ‘the vegetable sheep.’

I was inspired to grow vegetables in new parts of the garden: squashes. Some have thrived but some have wilted, withered and died.

And so on for another eleven tweets. While an earlier tweet read simply: Going for a stroll to an antiquated book store.

I never know how to take his tweets, but I always love reading them. 

- Sheila Heti

SH: When you tweet, do you have an audience in mind, and who is it? 

CL: I imagine my audience on Twitter to be tripartite: 1) people who actually know me independently of Twitter or know of me either through hearsay or else through reading things I’ve published in magazines and newspapers; 2) people who know me only via tweets yet somehow ‘get’ me; 3) people who know me only via tweets and react to them with a mixture of confusion, annoyance and disdain. To the last to groups I might add people who only know me via retweets, and I’d imagine their ‘getting’, bewilderment or disdain to be heightened. I’d like to imagine that there are some who belong alternately to the second and third group, and that these are people who have followed me, then unfollowed me, then followed again, which seems to happen sometimes. But probably there’s a larger group of people who have unfollowed me and thought, ‘Good riddance!’ 

SH: Sometimes you will (or you used to) send out twenty, thirty tweets in a row. It seemed more like a performance, or performance art, like you were trying to show a certain state you were in, that at times was manic, or a comic routine that spanned a twenty-minute period. Is this true? Do you see Twitter at all like a stage?  

CL: I’ve not been able to load my old tweets, so I haven’t been able to look back over the last few years to count, but I believe the majority of these strings of tweets haven’t been genuine reflections of my states of mind but adaptations of found texts that I put together to create the illusion of a narrative, more or less, and sometimes that narrative has simulated a breakdown, or at least the sort of thing that only a mad (in the English sense) person would say. The found texts have varied, but one frequent source has been catalogue copy summarising novels due out in the next season (as an editor of book reviews and a book reviewer, I read a lot of that kind of thing). I often alter the summaries to put them in the first person. This isn’t a very original conceit: both Charles Bernstein and Brett Fletcher Lauer have published really good poems drawn entirely from television listing summaries of movies. In other cases I’ve done long strings of tweets imagining things people might be saying at Paris Review parties that I haven’t been able to attend because I live in London, or simply what I might spend an evening doing if I were in New York instead of London. (I guess you could call this ‘fake livetweeting’.) Mostly in these instances, I’m trying to be funny, or weird and confusing, or ‘fake sad’. If I’m really sad I’ll try to stay off Twitter (once after a bad date I didn’t do this and tweeted some genuinely sad things, and the next day I had a few nice notes from friends asking if I was OK; I deleted the tweets), and the way I’ll cheer myself up is to go for a walk in a nearby park and sing the Beach Boys version of ‘Sloop John B’ to myself, though not so loudly that I’ll disturb anyone. That usually does the trick. 

SH: How do you imagine your tweets fit into the tweets around your tweets? 

CL: It’s my understanding that most people are more selective about whom they follow than I am. I currently follow 3,562 accounts. I’m a promiscuous follower. People who aren’t as promiscuous as I am probably are apt to see many of my tweets as irrelevant feed pollution. Others, those who like them, perhaps view them as welcome comic relief. 

SH: Was there a certain point at which you found your “voice” on Twitter? A certain tweet, or was there an evolution of your understanding of the medium? Can you take me through this? 

CL: The first year or so I was on twitter I was living in New York, working at a newspaper and could be said to be living for better or worse within the New York media and literary Brooklyn bubble. I was also writing a weekly column in which I would attempt to parody the voice of a celebrity or public figure (a concept I lifted from the British press, especially the brilliant work of Craig Brown in Private Eye). So it was natural from the start to throw my voice around, to be ‘me’ or ‘not me’ in tweets. I was also in the beginning more frequently mean and troll-ish. There was a post on the Awl about the rise of ‘hate retweets’, and not to be all ‘I bet you think this song is about you’ about it, but someone in the comments section asked if they were talking about Christian Lorentzen, and certainly I did a bit of that. I also followed all the people on Twitter with my last name and would frequently retweet them. Some of them are Scandinavians and seem to just think this is odd. A few of them seem to be very religious Midwestern fitness fanatics who’ve found being retweeted by me offensive, perhaps because they’re more comfortable within their own zone of normality. I retweeted them because I liked the randomness factor, and some of them seem to have blocked me, which is probably the right move. Three years ago I moved to London, and aspects of homesickness and alienation started to become prominent in whatever voice or voices I was doing. I would tweet about how many foxes I saw walking home in South London (once I saw six different ones!); I would tweet about the absence of limeade, my favourite refreshing beverage on a hot New York day, in the UK; or my shoes would start falling apart and I would tweet about my cobbler as if he were my nemesis (in fact he’s a really good guy, and quite stylish). I was also tweeting towards New York to remind people I used to see around town that I was still alive (I still do a lot of that). In terms of meanness, I became aware last year that I hurt someone’s feelings, so since then I’ve tried to be less mean, or if mean ‘fake mean’. If I could work toward an ideal, which I’m not willing to put in the effort to do on twitter because I’m not being paid for it, it would be a voice of fractured comic bewilderment. 

SH: What do you enjoy reading on Twitter?  

CL: Because I follow so many accounts I think of it as watching a stream of garbage flow in order to see what colour the trash is today. So often it’s only a few different colours because everybody’s tweeting about the same stuff! But at the same time isn’t it possible that a landfill might be beautiful if you looked at it from a helicopter? Most of my favourite twitter accounts are those of friends or of poets. I suppose friends become harder to distinguish over time from Twitter entities. Early on I noticed a guy called Matt Hunte (@matthunte) who lived in the Caribbean and was tweeting a lot about DeLillo, livetweeting his reading of Underworld. Eventually he wrote me a couple of book reviews, and then when he was passing through London on a layover we had lunch. Then he didn’t have a place to stay for the night, so I put him up. Unfortunately, I already had two houseguests at the time, so he had to sleep on the floor. (Sorry, bro.) As for the poets, it’s them I’m probably ripping off half the time with cut-and-paste stuff and decontextualisation tweets. Sorry to them too! 

SH: Do you feel there is a “character” you are playing, or are you aware of what your persona is, or is it “just you”? 

CL: My persona is deliberately unstable. If it was ‘just me’, most of my tweets would be commentary on YouTube links to 1990s rock videos, stuff like ‘Friends of P’ by the Rentals or ‘Pets’ by Porno for Pyros. I channel that ‘genuine’ side of myself into emails I send to my little sister: it’s an interest we will always share. 

SH: What do you think it is about Twitter that allows you the kind of freedom—almost the sort of freedom a lot of great writers have with fiction—you seem to exhibit?

CL: That’s very nice of you to say. Disposability, and ephemerality and the lack of a money factor all probably make me feel free. This is good evidence that I am delusional because tweets stay online forever unless you delete them, they can be used against you in a court of law, and twitter is a giant corporation, moneywise, whose product is all of us who use it. I’ve really been duped!

SH: Do you crave more followers or couldn’t care less? Does it make you happy when people follow you? I always imagine you don’t quite pay attention or notice.

CL: For me to wonder why I don’t have more followers would be akin to an inveterate bachelor who most enjoys long spans of productive solitude punctuated by bouts of hedonism to wonder why he doesn’t have a happy marriage and children; or like a person who doesn’t exercise and enjoys tobacco and whiskey to wonder why he has a belly. For plants to grow you have to water them and expose them to sunlight, not just darkness and ash. That’s a metaphor pileup and if this were I piece I was editing I wouldn’t allow it. The first two metaphors are narcissistic, and plants are on my mind now because the flat I live in is a sublet/bedsit/lodger situation where I am responsible for the watering of several plants in pots on the balcony. It’s a responsibility I’m not suited for, perhaps because I’m not suited for any responsibilities that don’t involve reading or writing. I can’t bring myself to care about the plants, except in the sense that if they die I’ll have to spend hundreds of pounds to replace them (as I did last summer; they died while I was away playing high-stakes backgammon on the beach in Bermuda and the sub-sublettor was locked out) and their death will make my landlord sad (as he was last summer). The only plant I’ve ever owned myself was a gift and turned into a metaphor. It died because I neglected it. It was a cactus.  

SH: What do you really hate on Twitter?

CL: Obviously much on twitter is lame, but I don’t pay close enough attention to hate anything. Even my ‘hate retweets’ are done out of a simple spirit of silliness.

SH: What sorts of interactions do you enjoy on Twitter?

CL: I enjoy almost all the interactions I have on twitter, even or especially the seemingly hostile ones. Early on I got into a Twitter war with Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow) about the movies. We seemed to disagree strongly about most things. Then he had me over to lunch at the Death Star (the Condé Nast cafeteria), it was great fun, and soon enough we found ourselves on a panel together defending a filmmaker we both admired. In general though, most people don’t seem to be down for fighting on the internet in the way I enjoy. Some of the moral maxims one learns as a child don’t work for me. ‘Treat others the way you’d like to be treated’ doesn’t work if you’re thick skinned and find it amusing to be denounced. Similarly ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ backfires if you practice self-loathing.

SH: What do you see Twitter becoming, ideally?

CL: One of my character flaws is that I lack a utopian impulse.

Week 1: Kimmy Walters

Week 2: Kate Zambreno

Week 3: Teju Cole

Week 4: Mira Gonzales

Week 5: Tao Lin

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