Monday, 16 August 2010

The new lit part one: text's adventures

This is the first part of the short series on emerging forms of fiction that I introduced last week. Inspired by the gradual, struggling, wailing infancy of the electrobook, I've tried to assemble something coherent about fiction that exists in strange shapes - the kind of things that remind us that literature doesn't start in verse and finish in novels. 

Audience participation
There’ve been attempts to make literature interactive for a while. Some of these have taken the form of wild experiments, such as novels in boxes to be read in any order (see the bits on BS Johnson's The Untouchables here) or oddities like Nabokov’s poem/biography/interpretation exercise Pale Fire, which can’t really be described by any single tag except ‘fiction’. It’s presented as a poem with annotation and commentary by a friend of the author, and the plot and characters emerge through the interventions of this friend. And no, I haven’t read it, because it sounds altogether too much like hard work. Like cricket, Cornish or magic mushrooms, I’m glad it exists, but I’ve no desire to have a go at it.

A more recent experiment with structure is Geoff Ryman’s 253, which I actually have read, so can ramble about with slightly more authority. If you pick up the paperback, it feels a bit like a collection of linked short stories: each of the 253 people on a tube train recieves 253 words describing their background, appearance and thoughts. The tiny stories are strangely powerful, all the more so when they interact with or are connected to other passengers in their carriages. Then, when the tube reaches the end of the line, everything changes again. It feels strange and almost pointless if read in order as a conventional novel, and it’s much more fun to flick through it at random.

For all its high concept, the book isn’t tremendously experimental. Where it becomes more interesting is in its original incarnation: as a website. Here it takes on a new dimension, as the entries on each character offer links to other characters, joining them by profession, geography, appearance or simply where they are in the carriages. No longer is this a story sequence for people with short attention spans: it’s an examination of how humanity, for all its diversity and division, is linked in dozens of tiny, fascinating ways. And this is brought out not solely by the writing, but by the format. Sure, the paperback version has an index, but riffling through the pages doesn’t offer the same experience as bouncing around the internet. It’s in projects like this that calling it ‘the web’ really begins to make sense.

Caught in the net
This seems to be called hypertext fiction, and there’s a bit of it about. 253 uses its online presence to trace patterns through society, bringing humanity together, but it’s easy to  imagine ways to use hypertext to explore how characters are racked by fate, to study the role of observers and outsiders in people’s lives, or to draw stories out of details, creating endlessly recursive interconnected segments of fiction. Just writing this paragraph has jammed a few devious ideas into my head. Okay, I'll never get round to writing them, but it's the thought that counts. However, despite the occasional genre magazine actively encouraging the idea, hypertext fiction doesn’t seem to have done much.

Or rather, it hasn’t done a lot under that name. Almost exactly the same thing has been floating around in children’s publishing for years: the choose-your-own-adventure, which for me is an instant flashback to the days when having an age in double figures seemed like something out of far-fetched conspiracy thriller. And these, lo-and-behold, are already making their e-book comeback. It’s perfect for the format: it offers the same feeling of  involvement in stories and heroism, but without the need for a pencil and, in particularly edgy cases, a pair of dice.

E-books could make an equally big difference to the adult versions of this kind of fiction. It’s all very well poking about in 253 online, but few people will sit in front of a computer to read anything of length. Cory Doctorow makes all his novels available free online (more on him next time), but he still sells books, partly because I think readers are likely to use the internet to decide that they’re interested, but still want to read the rest on paper. Now, these new-fashioned electrobooks might change that, because now your 253s, Doctorows or whatevers will become as accessible as any other work of fiction. And accessibility is key to popularity – it always has been. At its simplest, in old-school publishing you can’t be a bestseller unless your publisher has printed enough copies.

But mere technology and accessibility won’t be enough to magically make hypertext popular. It also relies on writers. Because like every cheap list of ‘how to make your blog great’ hints will tell you, ‘content is king’. Or whatever position of autocratic privilege floats your flagship. Basically, hypertext needs names. I’ve talked about Ryman because he’s famous (for a given value of ‘fame’ – we are talking about novelists, here) as a writer of linear paper-printed narratives too, so I’ve heard of him. Ditto Doctorow, although his success as a writer seems to have been assisted by his popularity as a blogger: he’s one of the people who run Boing Boing, which is a bit of an internet institution (of the aged and sentimentally adored kind, like Christopher Lee or Marks and Spencers, rather than the kind where you lock up mad people, like Bedlam, or Windsor Castle).

Getting technical
A near relative of hypertext fiction has been floating around for slightly longer, but has also failed to reach a vast audience or to be taken seriously by the mainstream as a medium for literature. It’s another one with childhood memories attached, and back then it was called the ‘text adventure’. I remember being baffled by games based on the Famous Five and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which as I remember it were basically exercises in trying to think exactly like the evil genius who designed the puzzles. Well, these days they’re still around, now called ‘interactive fiction’, and they're trying to combine literature with challenge – a sense of progress, success and failure.

My experience is limited, but it’s a vibrant scene, with plenty of websites and serious, free bits of software designed to help people assemble their imaginings without needing programming knowledge. Clearly these kinds of texts can offer new routes to literature – new ways of presenting characters, the ability to twist and reshape plots, a greater interest in re-reading. 

This is also a genre that could be brought greater publicity by e-books and their associates, but there is a problem, or at least a difference. In combining prose art with the success/failure mechanics of computer games, interactive fiction fundamentally changes the reader’s responses. Currently reading lets you get out what you put in. You can skim a text and race through it for a light dusting of plot and ideas, or you can tear it apart word by word and find meaning in every letter. In many cases interactive fiction doesn’t offer you this choice: you can read it how it was meant to be read, or you can fail. Even in works that don’t respond to mistakes with violent death, or which are ingenious enough to offer multiple routes and conclusions, you can’t read passively – you have to respond, type your actions, play it as a game. This kills the emotional contact that novels can be so good at providing: you're looking at the text for clues, not to engage with the characters. It doesn't help that if the reader is acting a character they have to filter their dialogue through a slightly wonky text parser. 

That aside, though, I think interactive fiction will grow as iPads and other slates/readers/notepad computers become more popular. Although very different from books, this kind of reading could offer something new to certain kinds of clue-focused detective stories, or tales of adventure and exploration. It will never be the same market as novels, but I think there could be some interaction between the two worlds. And that's a good thing: without experimentation in form, we'll never find out exactly how this sort of thing can work well. 

Arting around
At the end of my review of Michael Chabon’s entirely charming Gentlemen of the Road I muttered a plea for publishing to start illustrating novels for adults. This leads to another area where electronic publishing has one up on all those retro wood-pulp oblongs lurking on the shelves: multimedia. Again, so far it’s been treated as a trinket for children, but some people, like Enhanced Editions and Atomic Antelope, are getting rather elaborate.

Mostly this is a bit DVD-extra – you know, fancy widgets that you get slighlty excited about but never actually use. However, there are some efforts to create works where sound and light and generaly wizziness is more integral. Look at Kate Pullinger, for instance. As well as writing well-received ‘normal’ books, she's put together a range of 'digital fiction' that tries to tie together reading and a more general form of interaction - pictures, music, visual games involving text and stories. It's slightly basic, and very child-orientated, but it's a new direction, and it's something that could expand as more people start scratching their chins and getting involved. 

Experimental method
Right now these are quirks and gimmicks, assumed to be tricks and games for children and geeks. A few artists experiment with narrative or multimedia, but they do it consciously as an experiment, rather than expecting to be embraced by the public. However, just about the only thing I can guarantee is that people will continue mucking around, and I think electrobooks, in whatever form winds up being most popular, will aid the spread of these alternatives.

And if these new ideas take off, then a few decades later someone will be trying to take another new step forward, and another, until finally, one day, we’re all carting around The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (an elaborate, interactive, futuristic teaching device, entertainment system and childhood companion in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age), and words like ‘publishing’ will seem quaynte and olde worlde. If they don’t already.  

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