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January 12, 2010

U of C students kick Spark Notes to the curb with Twitterature

While many U of C students may have wished for the condensation of classic texts as they suffered through Hum and Sosc, second-years Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin have found a way to make this dream a reality with their new book “Twitterature”. Recently published by Penguin, the book reimagines great and popular works of literature into a handful of twitter posts each. The Chicago Maroon sat down with Aciman and Emmett to talk about the publishing process, the reception of their book among Australian women, and the benefits of poking fun at the canon.

Chicago Maroon: When did the idea for “Twitterature” happen and what made you decide to pursue it?

Alexander Aciman: Spring quarter, I think.

Emmett Rensin: Maybe winter. It was still cold.

AA: It was cold.

ER: So you couldn’t go outside.

AA: And the promise of fame, money, and—

ER: Infinite amounts of women.

AA: Yeah.

ER: Beautiful, beautiful Australian women.

AA: Abounding mountains of sirens flowing toward us.

ER: That was the primary motivation.

CM: That was the motivation? I ask because it seems to be like a joke that you came up with at a party.

AA: There was a lot of historically great things that happened from party jokes.

ER: America.

AA: Yeah, America was like—

ER: Look at these fucking taxes, man. Fuck, that. Brandy. Shit’s expensive. The paper. Shit’s expensive. Fuck this, we’re shooting at Lexington. Possibly agriculture, you know.

AA: That was definitely deliberate. That was not a drunken party thing.

ER: No, some protohuman lived in a cave and he had some seeds and he really didn’t understand them. And he valued—he thought they were religious relics. And then his friend got drunk, and hid them in the ground to confuse his friend and a plant grew and they were amazed.

AA: Oh, maybe.

ER: It’s just very cold outside in the winter, as you know. Max Pavlesky—the rooms are very small. I guess that’s conducive to something. Bloodletting, usually, depending on who you are.

CM: That actually gets to something I wanted to know about. How did you guys work together on the tweets? How did the collaboration happen?

AA: You mean when we were writing it?

CM: You know, when you were writing out the whole thing.

AA: There were several ways—obviously, there was a situtation where only one of us had read the books, but those were rare and mostly it was just either back-and-forth. Just shooting line to line. Or—

ER: Typing.

AA: Yeah, typing.

ER: Sometimes it worked terrible and sometimes it was just typed.

AA: Sometimes we would be walking around and we’d be like, “You know what would be a good thing to do? Do this and then have them say this.” And like, “Oh yeah, but then they would go off to do this.” It was just like one big joke session that turned into something productive.

ER: Though more often—and then you would think, “Oh, no, no, we can’t do that.”

AA: Yeah, “we can’t do that.”

ER: “That’s not acceptable.”

AA: “We can’t put that in print.”

ER: Well, it’s shocking that you can’t put that in print since it does still involve Helen Keller saying, “Won’t somebody at least please pity-fuck me.”

AA: We could put that in print, though.

ER: Well, that’s what I’m saying. Things that weren’t in print were—

AA: Way worse.

CM: Were there a lot of those things that you were going to put in print and—

AA: No, there was never stuff that was written down. There was always moments where we were doing it—it wasn’t like they were saying, “You can’t do this.” It never even got to that. It was like, “You know what? We probably shouldn’t be doing this.” Sometimes we let it slip anyway.

ER: Yeah, though the Helen Keller one did, at least in England—was the only that excluded not for copyright reasons, but for character defamation reasons.

AA: We defamed the shit out of her. We defamed all over her face.

ER: I think it was usually more when we didn’t have anything. We hadn’t thought of what was right yet.

AA: But that was a good thing.

ER: It was funny.

AA: We’re just saying this incredibly terrible—

ER: Offensive.

AA: —offensive thing. Let’s try to build up on that using that same kind of humor, but not—

ER: Not with all the racial charge, and the sexism, and the language.

AA: And the anti-Semitism.

ER: And the anti-Semitism.

CM: The anti-Semitism? Uh, was this the first time you worked together on a writing project?

ER: We did a Viewpoints article together last year but that took like half an hour as opposed to—

AA: 45 minutes. It was still the same process. It was making jokes until something good happened.

ER: Yeah. Though, for a few hours, not for a couple months.

AA: That’s true.

CM: On the book jacket, the publisher seems to revel in some of the more negative reviews and I was wondering if you take those as much in stride as Penguin does. I remember one phrase: “Shakespeare is rolling in his grave.”

ER: The important thing to keep in mind is that by virtue of the fact that those are in the book, that means that they were said before there was a book. There are two kinds of reactions, there’s the—because the deal was announced in July. It was, I guess, a thing. And there were a lot of reactions to the premise, which were bad. They were like, “Oh, this is ridiculous—

AA: “This shit’s absurd.”

ER: The Shakespeare line, I think, was just the writer trying to be funny because I believe that the article—

AA: The review was not terrible. Some people think the jokes are crass, or something like that. Because people on Amazon were saying, “I’d never give this book to my mom.”

ER: I think that was because he said that there should be a warning label on the cover for the language. All the reviews that are actually based on having seen the book, like all the publication reviews, have been positive. Those quotations [on the book cover] have been lifted from, like the Wall Street Journal—from their blog someone threw up right after the deal—or like the person who threatens to assault us.

CM: So then are you two happy with the reception?

ER: Well, yeah. Well it’s been like, more or less, for the most part—

AA: Yeah, everyobody who’s seen it understands that’s it a joke and that it’s funny. And you can’t really make fun of something like—you can’t get angry at that thing. Maybe you can get angry because it should have some sort of warning label on it, but it doesn’t really need that either.

ER: No, that’s not even relevant. The language isn’t really that bad.

AA: It’s not.

ER: You can say—anything that’s in that book has been on HBO at least.

CM: So lots of the humor in the book seems to focus on internet behaivor and—

AA: That’s the joke.

ER: That’s the entire premise. It’s 50 percent literary satire, obviously. People always talked about us attacking the classics, but I think we’re attacking Twitter just as much. Not that I want to upset Twitter or—

CM: Well, it would be interesting to see who’s angrier: the Twitter lovers or the literature lovers.

ER: What it comes down to is—the reason that contrast works—it wouldn’t be funny to do literature as, you know, New Yorker articles because they aren’t that different.

AA: It would kind of funny. Pretty dickish.

ER: Maybe. But Twitter is like the opposite of literature. As far as writing things down goes, the difference between “Anna Karenina” and Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter page is about as as vast as you can get.

AA: The thing is, the people who are getting offended probably aren’t literature lovers because they don’t

ER: Maybe they are. I am always confused by them. They have a very weak assessment of how much abuse the classics can take.

AA: It’s not even that. You couldn’t really care that much about something if you’re not willing to poke fun at it.

ER: Also, nothing that can’t be made fun of is complicated or interesting enough to really be valued.

CM: That’s an interesting idea because is the goal—I don’t want to say there’s a goal here—are you just trying to be funny?

AA: We’re trying to bring laughter to the children.

ER: The goal is amusement, primarily. If that humor can be had at the expense of the classics and of internet narcissim vis a vis Twitter, then that’s not a bad thing. Humor has to come from somewhere.

CM: You do other things besides literature in the book. There’s “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

ER: That’s an epic.

AA: We’re trying to make a conceit for some sort of epic, modern thing—it’s not literature obviously—

ER: There are words. There’s music in the background, but certainly some of the other stuff we did had musical quality to it—some Greek drama.

AA: Our editor didn’t know what “Sgt. Pepper” was and we’re like, “You serious? You don’t know what Sgt. Pepper is?” and so we had to explain to him that it was not just some stupid album, it was the album.

ER: Probably the best known, arching, quasi-concept album.

AA: If there’s any album that everybody should know, it’s probably “Sgt. Pepper”

ER: Also, aside from the fact that it’s the Beatles, debatably, it’s better known than a lot of these authors.

CM: When you had this raw idea, did you have a transcript that you brought to an editor?

ER: We wrote 20 of the 82 books [in “Twitterature”] and then the introduction—

AA: And then we shopped around.

ER: And then those were given to an agent who thought it was worth his time to try and sell. And then that was shopped around. What Penguin originally got was 20 of them, an introduction, and some biographical information. They bought it from there and then we wrote the rest.

AA: This is dangerous because 20 percent of our product is not necessarily safe to make a bet on.

ER: Yeah, 25 percent.

AA: There was still a lot of room for obscenity and error.

ER: It was helpful, because if we had just gone to a publisher with an idea, it might have been harder—

AA: Well, of course.

ER: They accepted us for the first 20, so at that point as long as the rest of the ones we do are up to the same standards as the first 20, then we’re doing what’s expected.

CM: And then from there did you have free reign to write your tweets?

ER: Part of the proposal was that we had list of 100 other books that we could do, that was subject to change. We drew from there. There were probably three or four that they aked to be in there that we just didn’t do.

AA: Obviously, there was a list of books that they wanted to have done and then some of these—we’re like, “We haven’t read it, we don’t know it, or we’re not able to do it—

ER: That was very late in the process. They really gave us pretty much absolute creative control.

AA: We were limited basically by character count and by not saying horrendous, horrendous things.

ER: And being funny.

CM: Did you guys have to do some reading to get this book done?

ER: The main limitation, aside from our editors, was what books we had read.

AA: There’s something in our book that we each haven’t read.

ER: There’s the one that neither of us have read.

CM: Which one was that?

AC and ER: “Twilight”.

AA: I haven’t really read “Harry Potter” either.

ER: I read some of them as a child, I’ve seen some movies, but I’ve actually had some experience previous to doing this book with J.K. Rowling’s material. I had no experience with Stephanie Meyer’s material—it’s nonsense. I went to a Barnes & Noble at some point while we were writing and I skimmed it. I’ve seen parts of the film. And I think it’s a piece of shit.

AA: That was not a labor of love there. It’s not like Milton, where we’re making fun of “Paradise Lost”, because I like Milton.

CM: So, on one hand, you’re making of these great works of literature, but on the other hand, did you feel a responsibility to treat the material properly?

ER: Factually. Though, to a certain extent, I think to really feel that I would have had to assume that we had the life of the classics in our hands.

AA: It’s not even like we did anything terrible. Basically, the only damage we can do is to misrepresent their stories. Even still, they’re still a bunch of jokes.

ER: You know what’s funny is some guy on the internet was really upset because he thought our Beowulf rendering was factually inaccurate—

AA: Well, it is kind of factually inaccurate.

ER: Well, yeah, because there aren’t really parts of Beowulf including his high school gym class exploits shitting on people’s faces.

AA: But the point is—

ER: I guess “Sherlock Holmes” we just made up

AA: Even with “Anna Karenina” the point is, when we did stuff like that, when we factually changed it, it was conscious and it was for the sake of the joke.

ER: And some of “Anna Karenina” you just have to cut. It’s more editing. Levin does not make an appearance in our version of “Anna Karenina” despite the fact that he’s a huge character in the novel.

CM: Or, like with “Sherlock Holmes”, there isn’t an actual book called “Sherlock Holmes”.

ER: Well, yeah, there’s a collection of stories. Our rendering isn’t based on any one of his stories, it’s based on the fact that he did a lot of cocaine.

AA: And he made wild friggin’ deductions from nothing.

ER: Well, “Sherlock Holmes”—the problem is that it got bowdlerized really badly in the 20th century. And the “Sherlock Holmes” everyone has read, even the stuff we buy on the shelves now, doesn’t necessarily have the weird drug stuff that was going on that was in the original. It’s one of the most sucessfully bowdlerized books of all time.

AA: There was a lot of drugs in there.

ER: Plus I think, to some extent, we wanted to avoid easy jokes. And drug jokes are easy. So we thought we should just throw them all into one—take that to its extreme. If you look in the rest of the book, there really aren’t any.

AA: There are some.

ER: Some, but very, very few. You can fall back on “oh shit, everyone’s stoned” in every one of them if you really wanted to. But that would be cheating.

AA: But the sex jokes—

ER: The woman who thought our Aristophanes was really juvenile. Some people don’t realize that Aristophanes himself was fairly juvenile.

AA: He wasn’t juvenile. He just liked dick and pussy jokes.

ER: That’s how ours comes across—that is in part because a lot of literature is a lot of dick jokes, very eloquent dick jokes. There’s a good two hundred years of novels that are just, “Oh, I’m a brash young man. Oh, this woman. I don’t care about this woman. Maybe I do. I’ve shot someone. Oh, dear.”

CM: It does sound like, in a certain sense, you guys are trying to reacquaint people with this side of literature—

AA: Oh, I hope not. If someone’s on the cusp of reading “Hamlet” and this pushes them over, then what were they doing with “Hamlet”?

ER: No, that would be great. Our rendering of “Heart of Darkness” is funny. Someone goes like, “ ‘Heart of Darkness’ before sounded sort of intimidating, but now this is so funny. Maybe ‘Heart of Darkness’ is funny.” And they read it, and “Heart of Darkness” isn’t funny at all, it’s quite dark. But, you know, they read it.

AA: We can trick people into reading books but, honestly, I would hope that maybe they would want to read the books.

ER: Hopefully they’ve read some of them first.

AA: That’s true.

ER: Oddly, if you’re going to inspire anyone, honestly you’d probably find the book funnier the more familiar you were with the source material. Some more than others.

AA: Especially the books that we really like, because then we really—

ER: Got more esoteric. The more we liked the book, the more esoteric we were. And the things like “Harry Potter”. That’s more accesible even to someone who for some reason is completely unfamiliar with “Harry Potter”.

CM: So are there any other projects in store?

AA: If they want to give us money to make jokes, I’m up for that.

ER: I’m sure there’s a lot things we could do. We’re still dealing with this.

AA: We have a lot of homework.

ER: I do work. I’m unemployed at the moment though.

CM: Now that you’re at the end of the publishing process, do you have any thoughts about it?

ER: Compared to other entertainment industries, like the movie industry or the record industry, publishing is actually a much more straightforward and honest business. It’s hard to break in, it’s hard to get shit published. But your publishing company is less likely to completely fuck you in the ass like a record company might. I found everyone to be perfectly agreeable. I like everyone at Penguin. I don’t know about other publishing houses. Our editors were both young guys. They were both fun.

AA: I think this book would have been way different if someone had understood the concept of it was funny, but didn’t get the jokes. But these were people who had already read a lot of books. They were pretty involved with the way this worked.

ER: It was a funny process. We didn’t hit any major—other than the weird, British legal thing that happened.

CM: Is this the Helen Keller thing?

ER: No—

CM: What’s the weird British legal thing?

ER: The American version of the book had 82 pieces in it. The British version had 65.

AA: Well, 63 I think.

ER: Maybe 63, yeah. It’s about 20 less. We got a threatening email from J.K. Rowling’s attorney that said something along the lines of, “We read in The Guardian that you’re planning to use the ‘Harry Potter’ properties. Please give us call so we can have some input,” which is a veiled legal threat. So it went over the lawyers at Penguin. In the United States, parody is protected by free speech. No such thing in England. So, the Penguin lawyers were concerned all of the sudden. So what they ended up doing was removing pieces that had current copyright holders.

CM: How much fame are you enjoying?

ER: It’s mostly just under-aged women who happen to be on Facebook, which is super disappointing. I get random friend requests and I’m just hoping that some woman in the Chicago area who is my age and is beautiful will—but nah, they’re all 16 or fat.

AA: On Twitter, if I look at the book, I’ll find a lot of Australian women who love the book.

ER: It’s selling like crazy in Australia. In England and Ireland it’s doing fine. It’s doing as expected. But in Australia—off the shelves. And there’s so many beautiful Australian women and I will never meet them.

AA: You might.

ER: Yeah, I might. We’ll fly to Australia. I don’t think we’re that famous. No one recognizes me. If it comes up in social situations, I find it’s sort of awkward.