Arts & Culture
Susan Orlean 'literary queen of the Internet' speaking at Macworld
Maybe you're a huge fan. Or maybe most of what you know about Susan Orlean comes from the movie "Adaptation." If you haven't even seen that: she is a writer. She is a writer's writer. She is the kind of writer who wants to write "long stories about interesting things, rather than news stories about short-lived events." So says her website.
In short, this means (a) the New Yorker, (b) a 320-page book about a botanical fanatic (which Charlie Kauffman's character in the movie attempts to adapt while struggling with his fictional twin brother, both played by Nicholas Cage (are you interested yet?)) and (c) her latest book, a biography of Rin Tin Tin, famous canine actor.
Don't be fooled. Her trip to Macworld is far from purely anthropological. She is a geek, one of us -- in Macworld's words, a "technophile." She blogs for the New Yorker so well they called her the "literary queen of the Internet," and she almost definitely has a larger Twitter following than you (just under 209,000, last I checked.)
While micro-blogging doesn't seem quite right for a "long" writer, Orlean has really made it work for her. Her character in "Adaptation" moves so slowly and so gracefully, and so does her prose, which is a marvel. Yet here she is, cranking out 36 separate tweets yesterday, one from a Wilco concert while I poured over the xml file displaying her tweets.
That's right. I thought I'd give those readers more familiar with her analog side a better taste of the Orlean we'll be hearing from Thursday by diving into her digital presence. And I thought, in true technophile fashion, I'd do it armed with a modest bit of code (the Twitter API is delicious, by the way).
You can examine them above. I went light. I only used her most-recent 100 tweets without her @replies included (when those are considered, they make up 80 percent of the corpus: her digital persona is very friendly). And to compare that corpus to longer prose, I took the New Yorker article, “Orchid Fever,” which she expanded into a book, which Kaufman contorted into a movie.
Takeaways: the retweet to tweet-length relationship is pancake flat, at between nine and 10 retweets per post. However, of the four outliers with more than 30 retweets, three are on the longer side, over 100 characters. And they all straddle the fence between word nerd and geek:
“The minute I realized my printer lies about being "low on ink" just to make me buy more ink my whole world fell apart.”
“Whoa: the iPhone was introduced just five years ago today. Has any product become so ubiquitous and so essential so quickly?”
“When I'm too lazy or tired to have an original thought -- oh my do I love the RT. #thankyoutwitter”
“Very unique. #wordcrimes”
Also, the hundred tweets span about a month's time, during which it appears that Orlean has had an almost non-existent sleep schedule. Up at all hours of the night, aren't we Ms. Orlean? (I realize that this might be the digital equivalent of rooting through somebody's garbage, so hopefully she's a good sport. Everything I've read seems to indicate as much.)
In terms of comparing her vegetable self with her digital self, it's what you'd expect. When she's writing about flowers, she prefers longer sentences, clocking in at around 17 words on average. On Twitter, it's half that. While wordlength itself doesn't vary much, she uses far rarer words in "Fever" than when tweeting. (Also, on Twitter, her favorite bit of nonsense is “la.” In “Orchid Fever” it's “larouche.”)
Glen Fleishman, tech writer for The Economist, is going to be interviewing her Thursday at 11 am. I'd bet the barn she's going to say beautiful things about technology, and Lord knows no nation needs a poet laureate more than the Internet.
For more of Allvoices' coverage of Macworld | iWorld 2012, check out allvoices.com/macworld2012.