Monday, 30 August 2010

The new lit part two: a beast with many heads

The previous post in this microseries fumbled about with new forms of fiction, mostly involving using computers and the internet to transmit arty words in different ways. This time I’m going to look not at the words themselves but at the people behind them, and how people are starting to challenge and reconstruct the concept of an author. 

Last week I briefly mentioned Cory Doctorow, as someone who releases his work as free e-books but still sells physical copies. Initially this was it: an unusual openness about possessing the text. However, he later rereleased the same books with a slightly different licence – one that allowed derivative works as well as free sharing and distribution. This amounts to an official recognition of fan fiction, a peculiar phenomenon that writers greet with mixtures of fear, pride and confusion. It’s a weird subculture of writing, and it seems to be both a massive outpouring of creative energy, a genuine communal enterprise, and a complete waste of time. For all the joy people seem to get out of writing and reading the stuff, I can’t quite get away from the idea that there are people writing things based on other people’s works when they could be writing their own. Ideas are the easy bit – if you’re going to put in the work of writing something, why not let yourself have the fun of making it all up, too? 

However, Doctorow isn’t the only one who’s granted official recognition to fan works. A decade ago a chap called Eric Flint knocked together 1632, the first in a series of alternative history novels, in which a small twentieth century American town, including all its technology and inhabitants, is transported through time and space into the middle of Germany during the 30 Years’ War. It sounds faintly silly and bizarrely entertaining, but for the purposes of this article what’s more important than the novel’s literary merit is what happened next. Instead of merely scribbling a few sequels, Flint opened up the universe he had created, encouraging the wave of fan fiction and outside interest inspired by the first novel. Now, ten years later, there are a dozen novels, an anthology, several associated works and, most impressively, The Grantville Gazette, a regularly published short fiction magazine (paying good rates) specifically for derivative works of the series. Gosh. Looking at this as a whole, Eric Flint looks less like ‘the author’ and more like an editor in chief, or a publishing director, overseeing and guiding a range of efforts, as well as taking part himself.

Nor is this a one-off crackpot scheme. The idea of collaborative fiction is basically an extension of the anthology: gather a bundle of writers, and give them a set group of characters, themes and places to work with. Although not exactly new (hell, look at the Bible), this approach has been given a slightly different form by the internet. It’s now much easier to arrange open submissions and communicate details of the world and changes to it. There are wikis, forums and blogs offering new ways to explore settings and concepts outside the bounds of the fiction itself. By decentralising the idea of the author, fiction can acquire a new layer of content, becoming grander and more detailed than a conventional series of books, as well as being generated and populated much more swiftly. 

Once again it’s fantasy and science fiction leading the way, thanks to their occasionally creepy obsession with the minutiae of fictional worlds. M John Harrison, lord of sentences and wrangler of genres, has railed against this world-building (sadly the original post is offline now), and he has a point – most of this stuff is irrelevant to what literature conventionally sets out to achieve. The value of a novel is more than an accumulation of details. However, this communal world-building is a form of art made up (primarily) of words. It’s creative, it relies on good writing to succeed, and it offers stories within stories within stories, as well as new ways of immersing readers in texts, often changing them from passive, external readers, to people involved in expanding the world that has entertained them. So this kind of communal effort, despite the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism' has its benefits

The genres aren’t ahead just because they tend to involve made-up worlds. They’re also there because they have a ready-made community. There are conventions, and authors who are willing to talk to fans, but more importantly there is an outsider culture, a bit like when you see two smokers chatting at a party solely because one of them needed a light. It is easier for genre readers to band together and collaborate, because there is a ready-made link between them. Here, about halfway through his talk, I think in the chapter on 'bifurcated culture', Neal Stephenson tells a story about the peculiar shared excitement of genre fans. Sure, it's only anecdotal evidence, but I think it makes a nice point. It would be interesting to compare the atmospheres and comparative senses of unity at, say, Hay on Wye and a science fiction convention. 

However, non-genre has its own efforts. I mentioned Geoff Ryman and Kate Pullinger before as people who were willing to experiment with structure, and they’re both also relevant from a collaborative perspective. Ryman made efforts to put together a follow-up to 253 called Another One Along in a Minute, which would use a similar structure (brief descriptions of the bodies and minds of passengers waiting for a tube), but be written by outside contributors. Sadly, this never quite got off the ground, for reasons explained here, but people certainly offered contributions: there was interest in that kind of collaborative project. 

Speaking of ‘off the ground’, Kate Pullinger has a project called Flight Paths, which is described as a ‘networked novel’. It tries to bring interactivity and collaboration to real issues, in this case immigration, and it uses the international reach and the enormous variety of humanity offered by the internet to assemble a book about borders and differing cultural perspectives. This has assembled an impressive body of work, and one that has serious intent, real social breadth and some quality writing. It’s also real – real-world, real issues, real stories. As a result much of the writing is based on true stories, perhaps making it closer to narrative journalism like the fabulous Mr Beller’s Neighbourhood instead, but in projects like these the line between fiction and fact becomes blurred, and the text becomes all the healthier for it. 

As Another One Along in a Minute shows, not every experiment has succeeded. This isn’t a problem: that’s how the process of discovery works, and the collision between writing and the net is still young, ungainly and scatterbrained. There is pointless tat out there, but there is also potential - massive potential for creating in new ways. And there are some major projects in the works that look like they might play with this technique and take it to new heights. Or just fail in a fascinating way. Either way, I’ll be happy. See next week for what I’m hinting at. 

One last point: I’m not saying this kind of collaboration is the monolithic future of writing. I’m saying it’s a growth area and an expanding medium, but not one that is about to crush literature, see novels driven before it, and hear the lamentations of their prose. This isn’t the death of the author, but a new shape for the author to take. 

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