WE all know what a novel is. Following a tradition dating back to Dickens, Austen, the Brontes and beyond, the novel is a good long read with an author’s name on the cover.
Most of us hope for a page-turning narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. We might not always get it but with the author playing God, we know who to blame if a novel fails to deliver.
The world, however, is changing. Starting today – at 10am to be precise – is an experiment in novel writing that tears up the rule book and scatters the fluttering pieces to the four winds.
Tyneside Novel is a project initiated by three American writers and new media artists, Jon Winet, Peter Likarish and Molly Gallentine, working with Newcastle-based Isis Arts and New Writing North.
The aim is to see if a recognisable novel – or at least something worth reading – can emerge from an unknown number of people chipping in on Twitter.
Jon, who teaches new media at the University of Iowa, has visited Tyneside some 10 times in the past.
In 2002 The Journal reported on his Monument project, a web-based portrait of Newcastle and Gateshead which looked a bit like a sociological survey but was actually more personal and anecdotal.
It was commissioned by Newcastle arts organisation Locus+ and coincided with the opening of Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.
Jon and collaborator Margaret Crane trudged our streets chatting to people, taking photos and gathering material for their idiosyncratic city profile.
Jon even interviewed me and took my photo. Probably I was a little sceptical. This week he was back to tell me about Tyneside Novel and probably I was looking sceptical all over again.
Patiently, he explained the rules of Twitter – that it mimics text- messaging, allowing people to send 140-character messages (a character being a letter, a space or a punctuation mark).
Accepting that in the “Twitterverse” there was much that was forgettable and banal, he persuaded me there were also nuggets of informative or entertaining information to be found amid the junk.
“We use the term novel but it’s really a new approach to writing. I don’t think Dickens or Marcel Proust need feel their place in literary history is threatened but we are thinking about a new way of producing fiction.
“We know there will be multiple plot lines and there’s the danger of the occasional rascal who wants to take things off in a different direction. But we hope most people will want to help each other and contribute things that take the story along.”
If the traditional novel is the work of a dictator – the single author bossing the characters around – Tyneside Novel sounds like democracy run wild. Anarchy, perhaps.
Can it work? Jon was characteristically optimistic, telling me about last year’s Iowa City Novel back home in the United States.
“We started with six to 10 writers who we knew would participate and we ended up with more than 70 who contributed around 900 tweets. It developed quickly as more people got interested.”
And the content? “It was about inter-personal relationships and communicating. There were romantic aspects and there was a lot of sitting around in bars and cafes.
“There was no particularly dramatic thing that happened.”
To encourage a bit of plot momentum in Tyneside Novel, Jon and his colleagues have taken Tyneside gangster movie Get Carter as their inspiration.
“We liked the idea of it starting with a train journey. Also, in the first 40 minutes of Get Carter there’s hardly any dialogue. The characters are not long-winded academics – it’s film noir.”
So presumably Jon would supply this morning’s first terse, noir-style tweet, giving people a steer?
“Not necessarily,” he smiled. “Someone else might get in first.”
Twitter-literate writers from the North East, Dublin, Edinburgh, Germany and the United States were primed to chip in to Tyneside Novel but it’s a free-for-all. “There are no blocking mechanisms in the Twitterverse,” said Jon.
“But we hope people will write with passion, with conviction and a willingness to experiment with this new form of writing.”
He also hoped the character and flavour of the region – its places and its people – would shine out of the fragmented narrative.
Let’s hope the result is a right riveting read.
I don’t think Dickens or Marcel Proust need feel their place in literary history is threatened