Monday, 27 April 2009

Using the Internet to do something NEW

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.


  1. Hey Dan, Interesting postulates. I don't think I've ever written a story in my life. I just riff words in the main.

    While I take on board all you offer in the above, I'd hate for literature to just be some easter egg hunt to assemble sufficient shards to gorge on and declare the consumer 'sated'. I'm put in mind of those books where you act out the scenario/plot according to what decisions you the reader make and follow the page numbers as directed by your decisions.

    I'm all about the failure of words and language to communicate properly and I suppose in the detached, contextually unanchored virtual world that can be played up even more. But can't help feeling the tangibility of a book encourages the 'reader' to take their time and luxuriate in the text, whereas the monitor screen is far more conducive to data bombardment at furious speeds and truncated spans.

    We can graffiti our words upon the worldwide mural, but can we insinuate that narrative voice beyond the retinal wall and pluck the internal synapses of the reader, like I believe is still possible with ye olde tome in hand ?

    It saddens me that the great literary experimenters such as Joyce, Faulkner et al have not had their torch passed on. Language is still ripe for interrogating. This is the challenge for 21st century literature (and it probably won't involve 'story'). The problem of the traditional novel as you state it correctly, is that it is resolutely stuck in the 20th century, rather than notions of how it is to be produced. The novel form still has plenty of rich tools to revive itself, just too few people seem interested in disinterring them.

  2. Sulci, the Internet is only one of the many tools the writer has (and this is only one of my 10 commandments). I agree with you on attention span - The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes consists of lots of short chapters, and leaves me very exposed - even a couple of sentences of back story or exposition and I'm found out. It just happens the net is the place I'm looking to at the moment - I am sure I will return to writing "books", but they will be different form the ones I wrote before, and I hope that's a good thing.

    My experience is that artists and innovators try their hand at all sorts of things, analyse the results within an inch of their lives and bring what comes from the experience back to their original work.

    I am with you all the way - I want to be part of the novel's evolution - I want to give readers something that will excite them at the same time. At the moment I'm playing with interdisciplinarity to do it - art, music, games, cyberspace. It's all culture, and all has something to say to the novel. Wouldn't it be nice if we prose writers could take centre stage of the avant garde for once instead of our poetic friends?

  3. If the new technologies/medias can be harnessed to deform the word, to undermine the things we take for granted such as alphabets and typeface, then I'm all for it. To recast language in an equivalent way as abstract art took the representational out of painting.

    But what I fear is some lame visual word mosaic, some conceptual art, rendering of the novel. "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" only works as a piece of art symbology through the word caption painted on to it. And now all this intertextuality is the death of contemporary art IMhO - any piece of work seems only to have one idea in it. Usually the symbology cannot be sustained without a written text of some sort, even if it is only the (juxtaposition of) the title.

  4. It's a comment on just how sad I am I guess, that the opening chapter of Songs formthe Other Side of teh wall contains a dialogue on the role of "text" in modern art.

    I wish you were a Facebooker so you could see what a hash I'm making of things with The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes - there's a snippet on Authonomy, but out of context it just isn't the same..

  5. One can try and represent it visually on a screen, or one can frame it entirely in words ... I would be interested in your response as to which was the more successful: "Linearity Breeds Contempt"