Discussion: “Black Box,” Jennifer Egan

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Jennifer Egan story “Black Box”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • This story was initially published via Twitter (you can read a tweet-by-tweet archive of it here).  What sort of opportunities and constraints does such a format present? How do you see the influence of this form on the story?
  • What is defamiliarized in this story, and how? What tools does Egan use to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar here?
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13 thoughts on “Discussion: “Black Box,” Jennifer Egan

  1. The idea of writing and presenting a piece of fiction entirely as a series of tweets, even a work of short fiction, is an incredibly unique and admittedly bizarre concept to wrap my head around. An individual tweet can only contain at the most one hundred sixty characters, so this puts the author, in this case Jennifer Egan, in a very strange conundrum, which is an admittedly redundant description since the entire situation being posed here is in fact a “strange conundrum.” Due to the fact that tweets are so restrictive in their character limit (and yes, that is “character” and not “word” limit so spaces are included in this limit) that in order for her story to still remain coherent and easily read, Egan would have had to write this story either as she tweeted it (which could be called “live tweeting” the story) or she would have to write the story before hand, with the intention being to present it as tweets, which means she would have simply written out each tweet as she wrote her story, and then when she was ready she would have posted it. What this means is that she could not have simply just taken one of her previously written but unpublished stories and sent it out in tweets, because the story would have made no sense. She had to write her story with the intention of tweeting it. This is incredibly impressive because the highly restrictive and strict format of a tweet does not lend itself to flexing the “creative muscle.” A tweet is essentially the textual manifestation of the average human’s spontaneous thought, so a piece of fiction written in this format will reflect this. This is very characteristic of Egan’s Black Box because you can take almost any one of the relevant tweets (I say relevant because the tweets pertaining to Black Box are obviously not her only tweets), put them out of context, and they perfectly represent the idea of a stereotypical generic tweet. To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, I’ll list a few tweets that I chose at random: “People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures,” “The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible,” and “Sunlight on bare skin can be as nourishing as food.” These are lines taken at random from Black Box and I am fully convinced that if I were to present these to a random person on the street and told them that “each of these is a tweet from a different person,” which implies they have no relation to one another; I would not be met with any objections. This theme of each tweet being the piece of a larger puzzle, whose individual meanings are frankly unimportant and uninteresting, while not being present with every line of Black Box is so prevalent that I can understand why Jennifer Egan decided to write her piece in such a way. Not only is it incredibly unique and eyebrow raising, something I believe to be the secret/subconscious goal of every writer, it is a great way to receive viewership as Twitter is one of the most populated social media websites available.

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  2. The second person in Egan’s tweets of “Black Box” works well as tweets. Twitter is microblogging, a way for anyone to say anything that they have in their head: observations, commands, feelings of outrage and excitement, conversations. All of these things are also the point of any fiction, to use your own experiences in life to say something that you have in your head, but I guess that’s just expression. Twitter is also expression. That’s why it doesn’t seem to bizarre to me for a story to be written and disseminated in a series of tweets, its just more planning. The planning side of it I think could not be one of huge impossibility because even Infinite Jest could be, in enough tweets, broken down into 140 characters. The way that Egan does it, however, is what makes it special. The second person immediacy of it puts you right in the middle of a startling spy narrative with emotional nuance and what appears to be social commentary. It becomes more than a book, and it is an experience of being able to suspend your disbelief and imagine what would happen if a spy had the time, and the sentence crafting ability of Egan, to live tweet the most monumental event of their existence. Live tweets are usually reserved for iPhone announcement. The way that we immerse ourselves in the story is a narrative choice and one that works so well to make you feel what she is feeling, almost as it happens. The second person doesn’t let you not believe in it, because you’re just reacting to commands. I think that this is a strategy that many other authors will begin to use, because of the idea of immersion. Imagine a series of profiles created for characters that communicate in the form of tweets, and tweet out their experience, an experiment of fiction in social media, a fiction that we could argue already exists with the normal users. The confines are imminent, but isn’t that always a part of creativity. Creating your own blocks, in characters, in plot, in reactions, so that you can work within them? It may seem like an exercise that some bullshit writing website tells you to do, writing a story 140 characters at a time, or it could be a powerful tool to show the same information that fiction is ever trying to show. I don’t know. The inventiveness and the writing style and content of Egan I think are what make the story come alive, not the medium. Still the idea is interesting, and I’m excited to see what creative blocks other artists put themselves into, to practice their craft and maybe encourage another breakthrough in fiction that becomes so effective that the reader doesn’t even have time to consider the medium. We never think about the stretched cloth of a canvas.

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  3. There are many opportunities that can come from posting the story on Twitter. There are millions of people that are on twitter that can read this story, and maybe Tweet about it which continues the cycle of it becoming popular. I am not on Twitter myself, so I am not sure if there are any constraints that could be there, but I am sure there is at least one. The form of this story is very unprofessional, but it talks to the young adult crowd very well, considering that all they do is Tweet or play on their phones or computers.

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  4. By Samuel Antezana

    I think the approach that Jennifer Egan took in crafting her unique story, “Black Box,” through the realm of Twitter was an interesting decision. “Black Box” serves as an instruction manual for females who are dealing with men. However, the way these instructions sounds and the certain allusions she makes to the time period at which they are being presented seems to indicate that these instructions are not entirely applicable to women of this day and age, although perhaps some instances may be very relatable to some, while not as much to others. This instructional tone, even cautionary at times, as if there is some type of secret agency or organization that is whispering orders through a hidden microphone within the woman’s ear, makes the defamiliarization more apparent, in turn making the story seem more alien, although this is perhaps the way many women were taught to behave by society back in the day. Nevertheless, I thought it was crazy that this story was published entirely through Twitter. I think that if you did not know this was a story being published one piece at a time, then you might mistaken it for some type of poetic segment or something of that sort. The bold move Egan took could lead to a trend in piece by piece stories begin written on Twitter, maybe even a new phenomenon.

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  5. Having a story be put in the format of tweets for Twitter is incredibly unique and gives the story a lot of opportunities to catch the reader’s attention. When I first saw this formatting I was very confused but intrigued by it and what it meant. I think that having this format allowed Egan to create meaning in each tweet that was separate from the whole of the story. By posting it on Twitter, anyone who started scrolling through her tweets could find these separate parts of the story and still successfully take something away from the tweet regardless of whether or not they read the entirety of the story. I think that also from a publicizing standpoint sending your story out via Twitter is a great way to have your story spread really quickly and reach the masses.. The Twitter theme and use of technology to get out the story also kind of went along with the odd technology use in the story as the protagonist beauty/spy had different technologies attached to her body that she used while on her mission.
    In this story the things that were defamiliarized were aspects of life that we are normally familiar with, such as life back home in America with family and loved ones. The main beauty we followed had been away from her husband for a while and tried to use him as an anchor to stay strong during her mission but it was clearly an aspect she had been removed from for a while and it felt uncomfortable and foreign. Egan makes these aspects of the story defamiliarized by making it literally far from the protagonist so it isn’t something the reader gets to experience firsthand with the beauty, just something we hear about from the narrator. By writing in this second person command style (similar to what we read by Junot Diaz) we feel that the uncomfortable aspects of the story must be the norm because the narrator is commanding the beauty to comply to these demands as if they are normal. The whole situation and all of the technology and plot seem very out there to the reader once you step back and think about it, but while you’re in the midst of hearing the scenario and taking in the commands you feel compliant as well and assume that these are the acts that must be carried out in order to successfully complete the mission.

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  6. There are definitely pros and cons to publishing via twitter. For a story like this one, I think that the way it was written actually did work with twitter. However, there is something about reading a literary piece through a series of tweets. I personally don’t enjoy that method of publication as a reader. From a structural standpoint, it is interesting and different; a very unique way to publish. A huge asset that comes with publishing a story on twitter is the amount of viewers that have access to it. Anything on social media automatically has an almost uncountable number of viewers and everyone has the opportunity to see it. Even the people who haven’t yet clicked on it have the chance to. This allows for it to be re-published and shared over and over again on multiple different platforms. People share tweets on Facebook, Instagram, and all forms of social media.
    I didn’t enjoy it personally just because I felt that I wasn’t able to get the same things out of it as I would have, had it been all together in a single published story. I still think that social media could have been used to publish even if it wasn’t through the use of several 140 character tweets. I appreciated the change and challenge to the publishing norm, but I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would.

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  7. I enjoy stories written via twitter. There was even a more recent autobiographical encounter published by a stripper named Zola detailing her experience in the sex industry. The difference between that story and this is that this is fictional and fantastical. However using twitter as a medium to tell this story would have worked mainly because of the way they story is narrated.

    The second person narrative is very casual and instructional. I enjoyed seeing how the narrator linked defamiliarized experience with memory lane shifts. How we as readers could connect with the way the character remembered stuff even though we couldn’t relate with some of her experiences.

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  8. I really like the idea of constructing a story via twitter. Obviously, this presents many challenges, most obviously, the character count being so limited. I think, however, that it would really force the writer to be concise and think about every word that is included in the story, because there is simply no room for unnecessary content. I also like the idea of a story on twitter because I think it adds to the feeling that this is a live story, happening in the present. It is as if the narrator is live tweeting events in her life, and as each event occurs, the reader is made aware. This form is clearly evident in the stylistic display of the story, with each “tweet” being separated into its own box and numbered accordingly. I’m not sure that it was necessarily my favorite story or my favorite form to read a story in, but the concept really intrigues me and I think it definitely does a good job of building interest.

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  9. By publishing the story on twitter, I think it offered a way for the story to be radically serialized while still being accessible to a lot of people. I think it would have been interesting to read it over the course of the weeks it was posted because it would allow you to meditate on each individual “instruction” as they were released and create more suspense. I think because of the format, each 140 character limited paragraph had to almost stand alone in a way, and have some meaning both within the context of the story and outside of it. Because of this, the language felt very dense and impactful. Relationships themselves are de-familiarized in the story because the nuances of human interactions are reduced to a few simple procedures and algorithms through the presentation of the “instructions”.

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  10. My interpretation of Egan’s piece seems very similar to what my classmates also walked away with; sharing this story in the form is really strange and at first it was unsettling. To really appreciate the story though I had to understand what she was doing and read the story in the context of Twitter. Twitter is a platform for people to share ideas that are spontaneous and in the moment and in a short blurb (I believe the character limit is 140 characters) individuals convey entire thoughts. My normal experiences with stories is that an entire story, a full novel, is dedicated to conveying an idea. No individual part of a traditional story can really stand alone because they all work to compliment each other. A complete and full story is usually an emergent property. Using Twitter post was unsettling because each individual post is a full idea, so the story wasn’t some cohesive mixture of literary elements and piece of a story that were brought together but instead individual ideas that stand on their own placed together to kind of form a mosaic. The story read differently.When I was reading this story however I was aware of how it made me feel, but I was much more interested instead in how writing the story must of been like. I’m really curious as to how Egan went about constructing this story because typical word vomit, plot construction and character development don’t apply to a non-traditional story like this one. I’m also curious to what the benefit would be if I tried to take a similar approach and write my story or conveying my idea in the format of a whole bunch of other little stories or statements weaved together.

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  11. I don’t know about the experience of reading a story in tweets as it is happening. I think it would be exciting. It has risks, including loss of interest when it is difficult for the reader to navigate posts, but I have no idea if anyone would have experienced that, as I don’t really use twitter. In this story This story was made up of progressive analyses of people and perceptions of the people around the female protagonist towards her. Parts of the story could be read like the speaker was saying, ‘if this happens, it means this,’ and, ‘if that happens, it means that,’ but presumably, she only had one target or ‘Designated Mate,’ so it makes more sense if everything actually happens.

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  12. This Twitter format is very interesting, albeit difficult to take in. Normally, each tweet would convey all you would need to say, but to write a story in this format means that each tweet would be dependent on the last, which is somewhat difficult to absorb. It’s as if every tweet after the last would have “#lt” on it, referring to “last tweet”. However, I really do appreciate the thought put into doing a story in this format. It’s very ambitious, and although it was difficult to take in, was definitely worth it.

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  13. I think It’s always interesting to read a story told in an unconventional format. The formatting in “Black” by Egan was intended for each line to fit into a tweet; I learned this after reading the piece, but it definitely made sense. I admire whenever authors go outside the normal conventions of storytelling to convey their story in a unique manner such as this; I think it takes a lot of creativity, guts, and having a good sense of whether or not it will work with the story and not hinder it. With this particular story, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it wouldn’t have been better when told in the conventional format; it might have been. The format used reads like an instruction guide – it goes along with the “Field Instructions” concept outlined in the story. I think it’s good that the story itself explains the reasoning behind the format, so it doesn’t seem very out of place. It’s written in second person but tailored to the narrating person’s specific experience, so we learn her story through this “guide” intended for future people on the same mission of finding a “Designated Mate” and then pretending to be their love interest while secretly gathering intel on them, such as recording their conversations and taking pictures of relevant objects. It was actually an interesting story, and although I understand why the author used the format and I think it fits fine, I probably would have enjoyed this story more if it were told in the conventional format; there was a lot of room for suspense and specific sensory details and character development that could have made the story so much richer, but because of the limitations of the unique format these could not be conveyed. It would have been a different story though, if told this way.

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