The New Longform

by Jessie Roberts

Last week, Teju Cole published a 4,000-word non-fiction essay on immigration, A Piece Of The Wall, entirely on Twitter. In an interview with BuzzFeed, he talked about why he chose to tell the story in tweets:

What made you decide that this specific essay would be best presented in this medium?

Teju Cole: I’ll answer that by saying I didn’t think this essay could be “best” presented in this medium, but I asked the opposite question:

Why does a serious longform investigative piece have to be in print in a major magazine? In various parts of West Africa, there are different iterations of the idea that “white people like paper so much that they even wipe their butts with it.” You know, you spend your life staring at paper, you spend paper money, proof of ownership of everything is on paper, you fill your house with paper, and when you die, the announcement is in the paper.

I love paper too. I love print. But maybe not everything has to be on it. And in the case of Twitter (and, before that, blogging), I just feel so strongly that there’s an audience here, and audience that deserves to be treated with the same seriousness as the paper crowd. …

I’m not getting my hopes up, but the point of writing about these things, and hoping they reach a big audience, has nothing to do with “innovation” or with “writing.” It’s about the hope that more and more people will have their conscience moved about the plight of other human beings. In the case of drones, for example, I think that all the writing and sorrow about it has led to a scaling back of operations: It continues, it’s still awful, but the rate has been scaled back, and this has been in specific response to public criticism. I continue to believe the emperor has a soul.

Earlier this month, Cole assessed (NYT) how Twitter has affected his writing, noting that “being active on Twitter … means that the literary part of my brain — the part that tries to make good sentences — is engaged all the time. My memory is worse than it was a few years ago, but I hope that my ability to write a good sentence has improved.” Follow Cole’s latest tweets here.