While writing â€œInvisible Man,â€ Ralph Ellison was said to have picked up his trumpet when he hit a snag so that he could sound out his thoughts in music and then right himself on the page. When the fifty-seven-year-old Lebanese-American novelist Rabih Alameddine is struggling, he takes to Twitter, and posts pictures of works of art. Signs of his inching progress appear in the images he shares while in the creative throes. â€œThe more beautiful the image, the more frustrated I am in my writing,â€ he told me recently. â€œIf I post a whole series of Matisse, then Iâ€™ve reached a dead end. If I do Monet, Iâ€™m going nowhere.â€
Twitter can, at times, be a cesspool, with rants, insults, and grim news sloshing together in a muck of looping text. Alameddineâ€™s feed springs from the swamp like a rare flower. He posts paintings (Paul Klee, Chris Ofili, Yayoi Kusama), drawings (Leonardo da Vinci, Egon Schiele, EugÃ¨ne Delacroix), and photographs (William Eggleston, Vivian Maier). Sometimes the works are organized by theme (nighttime, waves, landscapes); other times, they are ancient and exquisite curiosities, dusted off for our enjoyment, like a page lifted from the Tibetan Book of Prophesies, or an eighteenth-century watercolor from the Indian Punjab.
Alameddine, who now has about twenty-five thousand Twitter followers, has become a kind of online cult celebrity on account of these strange and mesmerizing threads. The critic Jerry Saltz has called his Twitter feed â€œa work of art.â€Â â€œNo one is posting better pictures online,â€ he said. â€œHeâ€™s an artist. Heâ€™s thinking with an extra wrinkle in his brain.â€ At times, the novelist is eclipsed by his handle: some of his most spirited followers are surprised to learn that he is also the author of a story collection and four highly regarded novels, with a fifth, â€œThe Angel of History,â€ due out next month.
â€œThe funny thing about my Twitter account is that I do it to avoid writing,â€ he said. When he writes fiction, every sentence is a special sort of agony, he told me, and while the welter of distractions on the Internet is a liability to many authors, Twitter settles him. â€œWhat I do is write a sentence or two, and then I post an image; it distracts me. It calms me down, then I go back. I work a little bit. I read the sentence. I hate myselfâ€”so I post an image. Then I come back. And itâ€™s really disgusting. I write another sentence. Then I post an image!â€
For his first two novelsâ€”both about paintersâ€”Sudoku was Alameddineâ€™s workaday tonic, a way of drawing down the anxiety between sentences. Then, a few years ago, a young friend set up a Twitter account for him as an act of millennial generosity. He demurred at first. â€œI never cared to put up personal stuff, like, oh, â€˜Iâ€™m going to the bathroom now,â€™ or â€˜Here is what Iâ€™m eating.â€™ â€œ This wasnâ€™t just a matter of resisting the banalities of social media: Alameddine had always been mindful of the dividing line between personal edification and public consumption. He is a painter, too, but he stopped showing his work in 1997, because, he told me, â€œit just began to feel weird,â€ too much like a riven intimacy. For a time, his Web presence was limited to a blogâ€”which he still maintains, under the title The Art Divasâ€”where he posts pieces by his favorite poets. (He began reading poetry seriously about ten years ago, and devised an exercise for himself: â€œI tried to figure out how a poem works and why by typing it.â€ Now, his spartan personal blog attracts thousands of hits a day.)
After a spell of sporadic Twitter posting, another friend, the artist Kara Walker, introduced him to the work of Oliver Wasow, a decorated American photographer who had been collecting and curating images online for years. In one project, called â€œArtist Unknown,â€ he assembled hundreds of images from the twentieth centuryâ€”portraits, family photos, curiosâ€”that had been uploaded to the Web at one time or another and released into a kind of Internet limbo; the connection between the person who took, or owned, the image and the image itself had fallen away completely as the photos made their rounds online. They were images in search of an author. As Wasow wrote, â€œTheyâ€™ve been rescued from physical deterioration and at the same time opened up to the potential for endless manipulation and digital redistribution.â€
Alameddine was enthralled, and he began scouring the Facebook feed of the artist Carl Ostendarp, whose posts range from the wacky and cartoonish to the bizarre and arresting. An entire community exists on social networks, Alameddine discovered, in which people catalogue images in vast and searchable archives. (Invariably, their accounts are temporarily suspended when a posted imageâ€”say, a drawing of Erasmusâ€™s open handâ€”chafes with Facebookâ€™s algorithms screening for nudity.)
Every morning, Alameddine searches for images to post, and throughout the day heâ€™ll continue looking for more, confecting his feed with a zany spread of GIFs, for good measure. He spends about two hours, all told, collecting and posting the images he finds. Mostly, he mines the Facebook folders of two social-media archivists, an Englishman named Stephen Ellcock and the Dutch artist Patty Struik. Each of them maintains folders on Facebook that are full of images organized under a range of different headingsâ€”colors, subjects, genres, time periods. â€œOften, I just use their folders. I curate their images. Iâ€™m the messengerâ€”I just put it out there.â€
While fans marvel at what he strings together, Alameddine takes a more modest view. â€œIâ€™ve still not been able to go beyond being a writer who just happens to waste time on Twitter.â€ But he does cop to having an artistâ€™s intentionality. Some of his favorite artistsâ€”Agnes Martin, Robert Rymanâ€”donâ€™t translate well to the medium (â€œtheir work comes across as too flatâ€), so, with a heavy heart, he avoids them in favor of â€œpainters that Iâ€™m not necessarily crazy about but who look good onscreen.â€
In a strange way, Twitter has helped Alameddine negotiate a boundary that has always preoccupied him. While posting, he feels himself to be in a kind of protected netherworld, neither public nor privateâ€”even though, of course, Twitter is plainly the former. â€œItâ€™s as though Iâ€™m hiding behind the screen,â€ he said. â€œI feel as though I have control over my interactions with people. Itâ€™s really funny, actually, because, as a writer, it drives me absolutely crazy that people can read my work and critique it. But with Twitter, if someone doesnâ€™t like what I like, I block them!â€