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Dead pen's shoes

You'd be surprised by the number of long dead writers who have active Twitter accounts. Jon Bounds follows them — more closely than most.

You often have to wait quite a while between the tweets of Harold Pinter. But not quite as long as you would think. Despite dying in 2008 the playwright rarely pauses for too long online.

Of course, it isn’t really him. But it also isn’t an excruciating parody account nor a ‘link to the merch’ PR stream attempting to entice followers to hump the corpse of a dead but still valuable artist. What it seems to be to me is an act of love. Every new online platform creates a goldrush, for the every content hole is a financial goal, but there simply doesn’t seem to be a way to monetise tweeting quotes from a dead writer.

Not that dead writers don’t make money. Recently we’ve seen writers publish novels masquerading as the famous deceased: Sebastian Faulks as PG Wodehouse, William Boyd, and Faulks again as James Bond author Ian Fleming. The BBC are about to air a season of ‘unmade’ screenplays by Pinter himself on Radio 4. The motivation for these is simple, everyone from the publishing house, through the shops to the author likes money. And the BBC like making radio programmes that they know will have an audience. But I couldn’t quite work out why the Tweeters would do it, so I started asking.

Harold Pinter was one of the first to respond, or rather Tim Robins — a theatre lighting technician — who told me that being Pinter online has “made me look at the plays in a different way. To love them all over again.”

“My best friend stated tweeting Larkin Quotes is very popular, so I thought I would give it a try. I have been in love with Pinter’s work since I read The Caretaker as a 14 year old.

“Every word I use is from a play, poem, a piece of prose or an interview with Harold. I pick the lines as and when I want to tweet. I often use them to react to a world event it’s very easy to engage in a political happening with Pinter’s words because he wrote so many political pieces.“

“What amazes me the most, and obviously purely by accident, are the amount of followers who tell me they see a tweet which exactly fits their mood at that moment. The best bit is when a young person will tell me they’ve read a play because of the account.

“Many - particularly from lonely hearts who consider Harold to be a bitter and twisted lonely man. One tweeter thought every tweet was aimed at them and I’ve had the odd person telling ‘Harold’ he needs psychiatric help.”

“Twitter seems to particularly attract would­ be writers and the kind of people who love Plath’s work enough to want regular quotations.” says Sarah­-Louise who tweets as @itssylviaplath.

I digress, but apart from (pretentiously according to my wife) really liking Plath’s poetry, I followed the account mainly because ’It’s Sylvia Plath’ sounds like a fantastic ‘70s variety show vehicle along the lines of Marc Bolan’s TV show. I expected musings on the nature of feeling and death, and then a duet with Cilla Black.

“Quite simply I started just posting lines I enjoyed from her work, and following a bunch of people who were tweeting about her. Soon they all started following back and it kind of exploded within a few months. It was almost an accident, I just wanted somewhere to post some memorable quotes for me more than anything.

“It can be fun, and it rarely feels like a chore. It’s a little lame I know, but it’s really great how many people follow it now… and also the number of people I admire that follow and interact with it on some level. It pleases me that they also enjoy her work and also want to share it. Sarah Silverman, Russell Brand, Caitlin Moran, Marilyn Manson… are just some that spring to mind. It never stops being cool.”

Walt Richmond is a professor of Russian at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and also for the purposes of Twitter Leo Tolstoy. This account is the hardest work — the Tolstoy quotes are in Russian before Walt gets to them — but perhaps that makes it the most original of them all.

“I wouldn’t say it’s fun at this point; it’s more just a part of my daily routine, something I’m committed to doing because so many people seem to enjoy it.

“I started reading For Every Day in Russian, but some of the passages were hard to really understand so I decided to translate them into English for my own understanding. As I continued the project I realised it would be a potentially important work if I translated the entire book. Then I got the idea of tweeting some of the shorter ones.

“I go through the rough draft of the translation, which is now done, and find quotes that are short enough to fit on Twitter. As there are over 3000 aphorisms it’s possible to keep drawing from them without seeming repetitive.”

“One person even told me they had a terminal disease and that the tweets were helping them psychologically. That’s the best thing I’ve gotten out of it.”

I wondered if there were pattens across Twiter with other sorts of creative accounts. Luckily I had access to a one of the foremost experts in the game — my mate Jon. Not only can he do a fine line in hyperlocal satire, but he’s a Senior Lecturer in New Media at Birmingham City University. More pertinently knows a bit about why people feel able an willing to give voice to creations that are not their own online. Here’s what he said:

“When my colleague Inger-Lise Bore and I were investigating the community of people tweeting as characters from The West Wing we knew that there would be a number of justifications and intentions.

“What was really interesting for me was some of the reasons people gave for tweeting as those characters. One told us he worked in Washington — he was an insider — and tweeting as this fictional political character gave him freedom to talk about work online. Two of the characters specifically said that they started their character as a creative writing exercise, to get their writing sharper. At least one of those has gone on to get at least a few little gigs off the back of their tweets. And then there were those who chose characters because they had a political project in mind: they used the voice of the characters to amplify things they wanted to say, because otherwise they were never going to be heard. And it seemed to work for them.

“They did it for fun and because they were fans. That’s important too. And then they became part of a group, all of them playing characters, so then that group, that belonging — that’s important too. But for many of the people we spoke to the being part of something, that came afterwards, the motivation came from something else, something personal.”

Perhaps to look for a deeper meaning, a unifying motivation, to these accounts is to look for something that isn’t really there. Of the tweeters that talked to be I detected that there was mostly an enjoyment in seeing the writers’ work in a context that offers new meaning and extended it in different situations. The act of curating the works helping to foster understanding, it seems to me that these tweeters are guardians of something important about the spirit of the authors.

But maybe we’re thinking too deeply as our Plath was told the other day: “After reading few Tweets I’m sure your inner self has pain and an unstable soul. Instead of twitter you need calmness and relaxation… try meditation.”

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