Q: To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.


A: And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

Here’s a concern I wasn’t expecting to encounter this year in a Q & A with Robert Silvers, founding editor of The New York Review of Books. New York Magazine, April 7.

International Tweet Grace Paley Day, December 11

All that is really necessary for the survival of the fittest, it seems, is an interest in life, good, bad or peculiar.


Recently, I set out for a short stroll through Twitter. I follow too many people, for too many reasons I’ve long since forgotten. I’ve made lists to filter my feed and increase the odds of productive loafing, but my general feed has become a sometimes scary, ugly thing, closer to a stroll down my neighborhood expressway. Soon, I’ll sit down on the side of the road and do some curating.This week, however, I’m contemplating the possibility of some kind of twitter muse because I cannot fathom the odds of my logging in just as this tweet appeared.

@emilynussbaum Monday night drunk Grace Paley tweets are the best.

— Jason McBride (@jasonmcbride68) November 26, 2013

Jason is like an old camp friend, who I know from the month we spent in the Banff Centre Literary Journalism Program. Nussbaum is the TV critic for the New Yorker. I don’t know her, but I shared her suffering at HBOs ending of Enlightened, so I feel a certain bond. And Grace Paley is, pretty much, my favourite writer.

As testimony I offer the above sketch, from the cover of her collected poems Begin Again. I did this that summer I decided to finally learn how to draw (and enjoyed this exercise so much, I don’t think I’ve ever drawn anything since.)

Paley is best known as a much anthologized short story writer, but her stories seem so autobiographical at least one has been listed as an essay. I was fortunate enough to interview her when she visited Montreal for the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, and I suspect she identified mostly as a poet, but this is just a hunch.

Whatever she is, I was in:

And so was Emily,

@JulietWaters It’s true. There should be a whole Tweet Grace Paley Day. The maybe one for William Blake.

Next exit Wikipedia, where I discovered Grace Paley’s birthday was December 11. (Blake’s was November 28. I love him too, but not enough to have spent American Thanksgiving as the lonely Canadian tweeting to tigers on turkey day.) This seemed like a great day to declare a sort of pre-Christmas virtual holiday on which to honour the writer who inspired me to be a writer, and gave me advice I have tried, though too often failed, to follow. “Keep a low overhead, and never live with anyone who doesn’t respect what you do.”

So, if you hear from me on Twitter over this week or next, it’s probably because you seem the kind of person who might be interested in participating in this project with me. I don’t expect anyone to take the day off. But if you want to take an hour off to read a story (or even a half hour, some of her stories are very short), or even just a minute to read a tweet, I’ll be there.

On December 11, my plan so far is to:

  • Tweet links, factoids, best lines, and tweet by tweet, at least one poem.
  • Live tweet, during my personal viewing of Grace, a documentary produced by her friend Sonya Friedman.
  • Re-read “Wants” for the hundredth time. I already tweeted a few lines of this last week, but forgot to hashtag them, so I’ll re-tweet those.
  • Head out to La Grande Bibilotheque de Montreal where I will return, on time, Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. And NOT take it out again. (Read “Wants,” if you haven’t)
  • Think fondly about all my co-workers in the mother trade, and the men, the rock of whose reason, I have not always been able to “get under” (Yes, this includes you, Ray Kurzweil.)
  • Re-read “An Interest In Life” for the thousandth time.Then drink at least one beer, while making a list of recent lucks I hope might bring a smile to God’s eye, if he has a minute.

And finally to pretend, for this one day at least, that Twitter is not all that different from an urban park, and that we’re not all that different from Faith Darwin sitting in a tree, thinking, “What a place in democratic time!’