When I first read “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, the thing that caught me the most off-guard was not the language or the rules of the world, but rather the story’s structure. I didn’t understand the way it was formatted; all of the individual boxes and almost fragmented sentences were not what I was used to when it came to short stories. Out of curiosity, I looked it up, and I found that the strange organization came from the fact that the story was originally written through a series of tweets from the author.
The whole thing made a lot more sense when I thought of it coming out in that context. Using Twitter to tell this story actually fits the plot very well, considering that it was told from the point of view of the “beauty’s” mental information log, which has a similar condensed style to a tweet. Although we had to read the story as the New Yorker published it, I could imagine reading it in real time, feeling like you were getting updates from the woman’s black box itself.
Aside from its application to the actual story, I thought the method Egan used was interesting because it reminded me of old serial novels. Many years ago, authors used to publish their stories in fragments in magazines or newspapers, almost like episodes of a TV show. It was a popular technique among science fiction writers, but it was also used by famed authors like Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway. The appeal back then was that it was more profitable for the authors than exclusively selling full novels, but it also allowed their stories to reach a wider audience, seeing as more people could afford to buy magazines than books.
While tweeting out “Black Box” may not have been more profitable for Egan, it did have the same effect as publishing serials did for the authors of the past in that it went out to one of the widest audiences in the world: social media. A vast majority of the world, regardless of social or economic status, participates in social media to some extent, and using it in this way allowed Egan to reach so many more people than she would have if she had published it in book form. And who knows, maybe this will lead to Twitter stories becoming the 21st-century form of serialization–though I’m not sure if I’d be willing to read a Harry Potter novel 280 characters at a time.