Blogs have turned the internet into some kind of noisy Hobbesian nightmare. Twitter has quietened the noise to a series of feint coughs, but the effect is the same – now everyone has something to say and no one has any time to listen. We are all participants; we are all producers; the consumer is dead.
It sounds scary or exciting depending on your take, but actually it’s rather dully neither. Technology may have changed the number of writers there are, but it hasn’t really changed writing. Writers who talk about the Internet – and even that’s a small percentage of them – see it as a way of publicising their book through a website. A few of them will try exotic marketing techniques like giving away their book, or producing their book as an e-book. The object of their craft, though, remains a book.
Which is a terrible shame when there IS so much creativity out there on the web. Some of it involves stories and characters – the tools, we were led to believe, of the writer. But what creativity there is belongs to the YouTubers and the gamers, groups of people who work together to create stories from the roots up, or to take narrative in surprising new directions.
So what can we, as humble writers, do with the Internet? Tom McCarthy, one of literature’s great innovators, said earlier this year that he couldn’t think of much – the Net did little but make more bad books available than ever. He’s right, but he needn’t be.
The first thing we need to do as writers is stop seeing ourselves as writers, and start seeing ourselves as creators of culture. Stop drawing boundaries and fences and closing off exciting possibilities. So you want to incorporate a video of someone singing into your novel but that’s music and film? So what? It’s a sad indictment of the boxes we put ourselves in that the most innovative novel of the past twenty years remains House of Leaves, a book that only ever existed on paper.
Two things excite me about the web. First, the potential for collaboration; and second, the fact that it exists in so many places and in so many ways that are all only a click away from each other. To make the most of these we have to get rid of two preconceptions – that we as writers sit in our attics dispensing words to the masses; and that what makes something literature is the possession of a story arc that can be contained neatly between the covers of a book.
It’s only since the printing press that writers have been physically able to separate themselves from the communities for whom they wrote. Storytelling always used to be a dialogue between teller and audience. The web allows it to be that again - it allows us to take our writing to people, listen to them listening to us, and change things as we go along. We can produce different versions of a book; we can even write the whole thing as one gigantic, multi-authored mess. Why don’t more of us stop worrying about the fact collaboration means the end of “auteurishness” and see where it leads in its own right – why don’t we allow ourselves, for a moment, to revel in the anarchy of it all, and see what emerges the other side?
I have offended countless writers by calling the centrality of “story” a myth – those writers who know their theoretical onions accuse me of swallowing Denis de Rougemont’s rather torturous conclusion that narrative arcs are an infusion of Platonic death into the pure life of culture. I haven’t swallowed him at all- historically speaking, his Tristanocentrism is rubbish. But he’s right about one thing – there’s nothing “natural” about the mythic status the likes of Dwight Swain accord to “story”.
Story implies unity, direction, that things follow from one another. In order (and I’ll explain if you want to know more): story is a phallocentric invention; story is the obsessive compulsive ritual at the heart of western literature; story is what literature should look like if quantum never happened and relativity still ruled the astrophysical high seas – only it did, and it doesn’t, and story is, therefore, an atavism, a throwback, a genetic anomaly that has interest but shouldn’t, by rights, exist.
What the web gives us as authors is the ability to put bits of stuff here there and everywhere and leave readers to join the dots. The fact that we as writers don’t is, to be honest, rather patronising. Of course most of the time people just want to relax in the bath with a good book. And for that, nothing is better suited than something with a good story. But there are other times when as readers we want to discover, elicit, be part of the uncovering and unravelling – revel in the wide-webbed mess of an entity that’s everywhere – it’s like watching the Usual Suspects with a zillion bells on. And the web gives us the potential to do this.
The Man Who Painted Agneiszka’s Shoes, my Facebook novel, is a vague stab at this. There’s a text. But it exists within a great morass of other “stuff”. Some of that stuff is on the Facebook group in the form of character sketches, back story articles, podcasts and pictures. But there’s also this blog, there’s a YouTube channel, there’s tweets, there’s a whole game the successful completion of which will influence the novel’s end; there’s fake websites; there’s fake blogs and dead end links; there are all sorts of phrases that you can google and find yourself in another part of the novel. You can enjoy the “story” without any of this – but you can also follow it down a hundred different routes, and enjoy it in as many different ways. There is no “one” novel. There are as many novels as there are readers – and then some to spare. As a writer, laying down these paths is like writing a thriller only in four dimensions. It’s the most intense adrenalin rush imaginable. I still haven’t figure out why other writers don’t agree, why they’re all still pounding away to write “a book” rather than exploring this wonderful multi-dimensional virtual notebook we now have. A few of us are – I invite the rest of you to come and join us. It’s fun.
It’s also got serious commercial potential. But that’s for a later post. This one’s all about getting you creatively excited.