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The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
hitRECord, HarperCollins, 88 pages

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Joseph Leonard Gordon-Levitt (born February 17, 1981) is known for his roles in the 2009 indie film (500) Days of Summer (for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination), a supporting role in the 2010 science fiction film Inception, and for starring in the 2011 drama 50/50 (for which he earned his second Golden Globe nomination). Beginning in commercials as a young child, he made his film debut in 1992's Beethoven. Gordon-Levitt subsequently co-starred in the television sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun (19962001) as the young Tommy Solomon. After a hiatus during which he attended Columbia University, Gordon-Levitt left television for film acting, appearing in films like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Manic (2001), followed by critically acclaimed performances in 2004's Mysterious Skin, 2005's Brick, and 2007's The Lookout. He runs an online collaborative production company titled HitRECord.

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A review by Seamus Sweeney

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Virginia Woolf famously said that throughout history, the author "Anonymous" was usually a woman. An equal if not greater case could be made that Anonymous was usually more than one person. While the pendulum of scholarly opinion as to whether there really was a historical individual called Homer who wrote the epics now attributed to that name goes back and forth, there can be little doubt that many of the classics we enjoy were collaborative efforts.

The romantic notion of the writer as a lone genius struggling to bring their unique consciousness to light -- James Joyce's A Portrait of the Author As A Young Man being the exemplifying text -- is of course a misleading one. For starters the whole process of an individual's inspiration finding its way to book form in the reader's hand obviously involves a whole chain of people -- eBook revolution or no eBook revolution -- from the publicists to agents.

And yet, while no writer is an island, collaborative fiction has been a minor feature of the last couple of hundred years of Western literary history. Science fiction, perhaps more than other genres, has seen fruitful collaborations (usually on the part of a duo of authors, or on a "shared world" basis) -- nevertheless, the act of literary creation is by and large attributed to an individual. There are exceptions from the avant garde, such as the Italian collective Luther Blisset, and occasional experiments online (such as Penguin Books' A Million Penguins and the almost self-explanatory www.wikistory.com, which unfortunately last time I checked was overrun with spam).

hitRECord (www.hitrecord.org) is an online collaborative website curated by the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Using the nom du hitRECord ordinaryJOE, Gordon-Levitt himself participates on the site. According to his Wikipedia entry, Gordon-Levitt originally founded hitRECord as a place to explore some of his own artistic and collaborative interests in a relaxed site somewhat removed from the scrutiny of Hollywood; the decision to open it up to all comers came later. From a look around, hitRECord is a fresh, easy-to-use and exciting site and one which clearly has a strong community spirit. Anyone interested in playing around with collaborative ideas and perhaps stumbling (as a by product of having interesting fun) onto The Future of Literary Art should really have a look around and dive in.

Gordon-Levitt announces on the site, "I direct our community in a variety of collaborations. When one of our productions makes money, we split the profits 50/50 between the company and the contributing artists." Volume 1 of a projected trilogy of tiny books of tiny stories, this is one of those productions. It is a beautifully produced and illustrated book, which features 67 of the 8569 contributions to the Tiny Stories collaboration.

A randomly selected sample of the text of some of the Tiny Stories gives a flavour of the purely literary element of the enterprise:

  "When people have insomnia, they lie awake all night watching TV. When racoons have insomnia , they go catch a matinee."
www.hitrecord.org/records/416748

"In winter, when the leaves have gone, the owls swoop in the keep the trees warm."
www.hitrecord.org/records/439847

"The motes of dust in the window's light danced with such delish delight that she joined them."
www.hitrecord.org/records/442837

 

Of course, the above quotes isolated from the illustrations give a false impression. Perhaps it is fairest to say that this aims to be an integration of text and illustration. The links above connect to the textual part of the collaboration; you can get a sense of how the rest is put together. For instance, for the racoon story the final "result" as it appears in the book is here: www.hitrecord.org/records/695395. There are a few Tiny Stories which work as standalone pieces:

  "The doctor's wife ate two apples a day, just to make sure. But her husband kept coming home."
www.hitrecord.org/records/123588

"One day before breakfast, an orange rolled off the counter and escaped its fate, bounding happily through the kitchen door. Filled with hope, the egg followed."
www.hitrecord.org/records/220621

 

This story, my favourite in the book, appears as so: www.hitrecord.org/records/698178

Almost any consideration of "tiny stories" will inevitably, and rather predictably, turn to Twitter. Most of the stories contained herein would certainly make the 140 character or less mark. The aphorism has long preceded Twitter and the various other means of compressed, instantaneous self-expression which are so popular nowadays. Various attempts have been made in the English-speaking world to revitalise the aphorism as a literary form, one of the most notable being the Scottish poet Don Paterson's various books. Paterson has, in a way typical of our time, often reflected on the aphorism itself.

In his recent collection Best Thought, Worst Thought, Paterson writes: "Despite our attempts to imbue them with some flavour, any flavour -- aphorisms all turn out so... generic; they all sound like they were written by the same disenfranchised, bad tempered minor deity." This is a common effect of any literature that strives for universality by omission, including the science fiction story set in an abstracted, nameless world. Paterson, to my mind, could easily be describing even the wittiest Twitter feed; after a while, even the most fascinating personality becomes shrill and predictable when reduced to 140 (or less) characters. A few towering geniuses such as Borges and Daniil Kharms nthposition.com/reilluminationii.php could produce short pieces of genuine power, and concision is a worthy enemy of flabby longwindedness, but all too often the limit of concision becomes as stultifying as the overinclusion of detail.

Perhaps the above is too more freight to put onto this slim, beautifully produced volume. The illustrations save the Tiny Stories in this volume from the pitfall of over genericness (generality? genericity?)

tiny stories themselves are variously charming, moving, whimsical, thought provoking, at times a little twee to my taste but generally diverting. Combined with the illustrations this is an beautiful little artefact. Future of literature or pleasant diversion? I can't help thinking that this would be a nice present to let someone else decide.

Copyright © 2012 Seamus Sweeney

Seamus Sweeney is a freelance writer and medical graduate from Ireland. He has written stories and other pieces for the website Nthposition.com and other publications. He is the winner of the 2010 Molly Keane Prize. He has also written academic articles as Seamus Mac Suibhne.


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