The Ivory Twitter

How a Shakespeare professor accidentally revolutionized academic criticism

Photo by Ben Sutherland
Photo by Ben Sutherland

A couple of weeks ago I sat down to read a book I had anticipated with a mixture of dread and amusement: Brian Vickers’s The One King Lear. The work had received a good deal of advance notice in the UK press for its argument that the two seventeenth-century editions of Shakespeare’s King Lear do not, as most scholars believe, represent an original and a revised version of the play, but are in fact simply differently corrupted printings of the one and only King Lear Shakespeare ever wrote.

Vickers’s central, genuinely novel claim is that the printer of the first edition, the Quarto of 1608, underestimated the amount of paper he would need to print the manuscript and was forced to cut over 100 lines from the text to make it fit. His take on the second edition, the Folio of 1623, is less surprising. Vickers rejects the notion that the cuts and additions in that later text originated with Shakespeare himself: the “new” passages weren’t new at all; the cuts were made by the acting company that first staged the play and should be disregarded as mutilations. Blaming the actors is a familiar scholarly reflex; inventing a paper-shortage scenario is much more original—but also considerably more eccentric.

It was its very lack of nuance that made The One King Lear so easy to tweet about—and if Vickers’s argument had become more subtle as it progressed, I may well have abandoned the project.

Vickers has a long and proudly established reputation for finding fault with most of the work produced in English departments over the last three or four decades. He frequently publishes reviews in the Times Literary Supplement that are renowned for their extreme hostility, regularly deplores the corrosive influence “theory” has had on the study of literature, and has carried on some feuds for decades. His new book is a case in point: it’s his second full-length attack on the work of Gary Taylor, the co-editor of the Oxford Shakespeare and the most vocal proponent of the idea that the Folio version of King Lear represents Shakespeare’s revision of the play.

So even before The One King Lear was published, it promised to be full of vituperative prose; its central thesis hailed from scholarship’s deepest left-field; and on top of all that, its author had chosen to present himself on the title page not as a mere scholar, but a Knight Bachelor. To be sure, Sir Brian had every right to do that, but it smacked a little of the “PhD” that self-help authors like to flaunt on their book covers.

In short, there was no way I was not going to read it. When the book arrived in May, I cracked it open, got two pages in, and realized I couldn’t do this alone.

The academic community has changed in the age of social media. It’s as normal for me to “speak” to colleagues in London or Berlin as it is to chat with the ones in the office next door. In some ways, it’s easier to talk to collaborators across the Atlantic than it is to find my colleagues in Toronto. Professional intellectual exchanges now often take place in the comments sections of blogs and on Facebook—and on a different day, with a different book, I might have turned to one of those venues. But as I stared at those opening pages of Vickers’s book, it seemed to me that this was going to be a kind of reading experience ripe for a live-tweet.

Using Twitter to share scholarly work is hardly cutting-edge. Most major conferences now have hashtags (the Shakespeare Association of America taking the cake with its #shakeass16); papers get summarized and annotated on the fly, and when everything works out well, Twitter becomes a space for extended Q&As. Over the last few years, this has become the new normal: some scholars essentially take their notes at conferences in the form of tweets. Conversations develop, the summarized author might jump in to correct or clarify, other attendees might finesse or contradict, spin-off exchanges take place. None of this makes Twitter a medium for slow thought: it isn’t. But as this practice has evolved, it has allowed academics to begin and extend discussions in a forum that is in some ways more suitable for this kind of dialogue than the lobby of a conference hotel.

That was the model I had in mind when I decided to take to Twitter to document my real-time responses to Vickers’s book. I expected pushback; I expected agreement and disagreement; I expected correction and affirmation. I also anticipated that as the book went on, I’d have to reverse myself—one of the things that makes Twitter entirely unlike a blog is that a tweet, once sent, can only be deleted, not edited. So if I responded rashly and wrongly to something Vickers wrote and later changed my mind, readers would be able to watch me double back on myself.

That didn’t strike me as a bad thing—if nothing else, it felt intellectually honest. And, lastly, I saw no need to approach the entire exercise in a spirit of sober seriousness. For one thing, I simply couldn’t help but make fun of the author’s titled title page appearance (he consistently became “Sir” in my tweets, which had the added advantage of saving four characters: I proceeded in a fashion quite like Vickers’s Quarto printer). But I also didn’t want to mirror Vickers’s own harrumphing mode. Irony wasn’t just more medium-appropriate: it was what the book deserved.

The form of the tweeted critique evolved as I went along. The One King Lear made me want to comment so often that if I had proceeded the way I did through the Preface, I’d still be at it now. Instead, I switched to reading one or two chapters at a time, scribbling in the margins as I would normally do, and tweeting more selectively about the most noteworthy moments. I also began to build chains of tweets that allowed me to spell out broader objections or go into more depth on particular points of contention. And, predictably, conversations on the sidelines started taking place: an exchange about how commonly stationers began or ended a printed play book with a blank page, for instance; or a brief debate about the relative status of the first and second quartos in recent textual accounts of the transmission of Lear’s text.

A little less predictable: as I proceeded through the book, the ironic tone became harder to sustain. As Vickers’s errors piled up, the contrast between his hectoring of other scholars and his own scholarly shortcomings got to me. I may have tweeted a few Sir-ly harrumphs. And I found myself switching more rapidly between making fun of Vickers and noting, with as much seriousness as I’d aspire to in a “proper” publication, the multiplicity and frequency of his misconceptions and distortions.

I also decided that the book really needed a full long-form review—not because a sequence of tweets couldn’t do justice to the complexity of its arguments, but because its inadequacies needed to be spelled out in a format more easily accessible than a very, very long string of 140-character-filled boxes. The One King Lear was offensive enough in its shortcomings that the virtual faculty lounge of the Twittersphere no longer felt sufficiently public.

And then things took a very unexpected turn. First, a reporter from the Times Higher Education Supplement emailed me to say he wanted to write about my tweets. Then Brian Vickers emailed me to say he’d heard about them; could I share them? I said that they were publicly visible, but that I’d Storify them for him.

This was all a little weird. I hadn’t really thought I’d reach much of an audience. The relatively small circle of fellow scholars of early modern literature on Twitter were pretty much the only readership I had considered.

I’ll admit it may seem slightly deranged to write hundreds of tweets about a book few people will have read at this point with an audience of a few dozen readers in mind. But this kind of talking into the void is what most of us in the academy are used to, across all disciplines: it’s what we do. MLA panels at 8 pm, for an audience of five? Been there, done that. We spend decades of our lives writing books that are counted an exceptional success if they sell more than 500 copies. It’s in the nature of highly specialized discourse, whether in neuroscience or classics, that your audience is as small as it is engaged and knowledgeable. Getting exercised in a couple of hundred bite-sized chunks of text online, with my strictly limited interpretative community listening in, seemed like little more than an extension of standard operating procedure into a slightly different medium.

That the THE would take an interest surprised but didn’t shock me. When the Guardian picked up on the story, I was rather more baffled. When the Daily Telegraph published a piece that was essentially an orthographically challenged paraphrase of the THE article by a writer who clearly hadn’t looked at my tweets at all, I was perplexed, and a bit dismayed. Then a tech website I’d never heard of, The Verge, carried a fairly hilarious item about what it described as “probably the world’s longest act of tweeted criticism.” And if things hadn’t got surreal enough yet, I then discovered that the (London) Times also ran an article—hidden behind their paywall. Three of those publications had interviewed the author of The One King Lear; only one, the THE, had also spoken to me. By the time of his third interview. Sir Brian had learned the term “troll,” and was misapplying it to me.

While reading Brian Vickers cheerfully misusing Internet lingo was pleasingly congruent with reading him misuse bibliographical terminology throughout The One King Lear, the journalists’ angle on the story was less delightful. Clearly, the amusing idea that anything serious could be said in a medium limited to 140-character chunks was the hook for most of the articles. And since Vickers’s inaccurate description of my tweets reinforced that assumption, it was left unquestioned. “‘I read a page and send a tweet—haven’t read the rest of my chapter—doesn’t matter,” is how the Times quotes him, and all the articles have him describe what I wrote as “abusive.”

It wouldn’t have taken much research to counter, or at least contextualize, those claims. It might have been interesting to interview a third party to discuss the gains and losses of the Twitter format. It might have been appropriate to get Vickers to name at least one of the “errors” with which he says my tweets were “laden,” or to respond to at least one of the many substantive points I raised.

But doing any of those things would have disrupted the narrative of the ranty tweet storm in a highly academic teacup—a narrative that I don’t even want to dismiss as completely inaccurate. Of course it is a little absurd to write well over 500 tweets about a book. Guilty as charged. But it isn’t simply absurd. Just as it’s not wrong to report that one of those tweets was about our puppy chewing my slippers—but it is misleading to act as if that tweet were representative, in tone or content, of the entire lot.

Now that the tweeting is done and I am in the middle of writing a “real” review, I have started to think about what exactly those Storified chunks of text are. Did it make sense to live-tweet #1Lear? I think it did. Sure, the medium affected the message: my tone on Twitter is not my tone in a formal review. Writing well over 10,000 words in 140-character units is a challenge, and a recipe for fragmentation.

But I don’t think that Twitter is, as one commentator on the THE website put it, “inherently a non-reflective, off-the-cuff medium for sound-bite anti-intellectualism.” On the contrary. As I am turning my tweets into long-form prose, my points are getting duller, my examples are becoming less poignant and are being reduced in number, my ability to cross-reference is diminished. There are advantages, too, of course: I can describe in more detail precisely what the problems with Vickers’s book are, especially for an audience not entirely made up of experts. And I can hide the fact that I’m getting sidetracked by slipper-chewing puppies. I have not had any occasion, I am happy to say, to revise my judgment: the book remains as riddled with errors and misrepresentations as it was when I first read it. Reflection can’t change that.

Still: reviewing academic books on Twitter probably shouldn’t become a trend. For one thing, I don’t think my tweets are quite the same thing as a review. They are extensive notes towards one. For another, most work published in my field isn’t like The One King Lear. Much literary criticism operates at a fairly elevated conceptual level—and I am not convinced that nuanced interpretative manoeuvres have a natural home on Twitter. Conference tweets reporting on papers often fail to capture precisely the subtlety that makes a brilliant new reading of a text exciting. By the same token, it was its very lack of nuance that made The One King Lear so easy to tweet about—and if Vickers’s argument had become more subtle as it progressed, I may well have abandoned the project.

Those, however, weren’t considerations on which the media narrative came to focus. The reports instead seemed fascinated with the perceived distance between social media and the “genteel” world of academia, as typified by the Times Literary Supplement’s letters page. But that is a strange distinction, and not only because things can get almost equally ugly in both forums. The suggestion seems to be that anyone can write tweets, whereas “proper” critical writing about academic books is vetted and carefully edited. But it isn’t really. One of the ironies of academic reviewing is that while most books undergo peer assessment for publication, the articles in which those books are subsequently evaluated for a professional public do not.

In the end, it seems to me that arguments should be evaluated on their merits, not dismissed because of their medium. We might find intellectual value in the measured back-and-forth pace of the weekly installments of the TLS letters pages. Or we might conclude that the faster, more interactive world of the Twittersphere is at least as conducive to a robust testing of ideas. After all, as one respondent to the #1Lear tweets put it, “anyone who thinks Twitter is anti-intellectual should try getting something wrong on here.”

Holger Syme
Holger Syme (@literasyme) teaches at the University of Toronto, where he chairs the department of English and Drama on the Mississauga campus.