Monday, 8 November 2010

Progression or Obscurity?

Imagine starting to write fiction without having any concept of your work being printed on paper, published in a book (or ebook), posted to a blog like this one, or even having any sort of edges or boundaries. Imagine thinking about words as non-static objects, with more power than just the images they can conjour up alone in a readers' mind - words with amazing new visual and interactive attributes; words that can slide seamlessly in and out of (or exist alongside) other media such as video and audio, creating entirely new hybrid fiction reading experiences that bypass the whole concept of dragging 'books' and their paper-based histories into the digital world altogether.
Text moves alongside video in Nightingale's Playground
Welcome to new media writing. Or digital fiction. Or electronic literature. A world of writing where books have been largely ejected out of the window and new forms of fiction are being carved into digital spaces that have no boundaries, limitations or publishers. Fiction emailed to you in fragmented episodes. Fiction written into 3D environments. Fiction that curves and bends and changes and transforms in the same way our experiences and memories and personal histories shift and transform over time. Fiction that really does lie on the fringes of what's possible with literature, thousands of miles away from the Apple iBook store.
Exploring a dark industrial past in Underbelly by Christine Wilks
News and blog posts about ereaders and Apps becoming more realistically 'book-like' are generating endlessly cyclic love/hate comments about what the point of it all is, and how the fundamental 'pure' reading experience that a printed novel offers by default is being slowly drowned out by pointless extras and bells and whistles. Of course books can - and should - exist in print. Books also have the right to exist digitally and are working better and better in this medium as technology improves and ebook formats become more solid. eBooks can have extras too, if that's what readers want. And why not? Author video/audio interviews, additional chapters, etc - after all, films and music enjoy this 'added extras' factor in their packaging so why shouldn't books?

But books as a concept are one thing; reading experiences designed natively for the screen are quite another.

In many instances, new media writing did not evolve with the long-established, 'safe' framework of the book in mind. As such, it appears to be of no interest to publishers, who still seem to see the world through the book's rectangular paper-based window and consider the blending of media dangerous to the clarity of pure text and typography. Not to mention the fact that there are no "big names" in new media writing. What could possibly be of interest to publishers here?

Screenshot from Pamela Small by Alan Bigelow
Yet to the surprisingly wide range of authors who produce this kind of work, there seems to be no going back, and the lack of publishers or financial backing seems to make no difference to their regular creative output. Is it a natural inclination - a natural progression of what it is to be a writer - to work digitally and to mix media like this? Will all writers soon become writers in new media and take advantage of the new attributes that text itself has gained? Or is it simply that a small portion of disillusioned writers who happened to be alive at the beginning of the digital revolution have "gone wrong" and can now shortly look forward to fading into obscurity?

Your thoughts are welcomed.


  1. Thank you, Andy, for this thoughtful post on the future of the book (without the book). Call it New Media, Net Art, electronic literature, digital writing, or whatever, in one form or another, it is here to stay.

    So if we have "gone wrong," it is with a purpose and a determination that deserves applause...

  2. I'm only just beginning this journey into New Media, but for me there's no going back.

    I feel New Media is the natural evolution. We are constantly thrill-seeking. Picture a theme park twenty years ago ... and now think what it is like today.

  3. That's a really interesting piece, Andy, thanks so much. It's an antidote to the various - to my mind inherently conservative - pieces about e-books and 'corporatized' new media work, that seem focused primarily on monetization and only interested in those approaches to new media writing that will fit the bill. I'm not convinced - or, personally speaking, bothered - that more experimental new media writing will ever fit the mainstream book publishers' (or those with a book publisher mentality) business model, but what worries me is that to some this is seen as some kind of 'failing' on the part of new media writing by some - and this is ridiculous! I think it is to be celebrated that there are artists and writers celebrating the convergence of media with aesthetic, questing minds and sensibilities. I'm constantly inspired not only by some of the new media writing I've encountered, but by the ability (if only I had the capability!) to write across media in a seamless manner - fiction that it is truly 'written' into sound, image, words - both spoken and written. These are wonderful journeys - 'I write fiction' (or non fiction for that matter) does not have to be synonymous with 'I write books'! Where I think new media writing needs to work on its 'evolution' is in really exploring how to break away from 'book boundaries', and not merely be reading on screen, and in developing the 'craft' - so it is not accused of amateurism. Speaking personally, and from some new media I've experienced (and enjoyed), it's evident that new media writers do not always have the technical skills to realise their intents. Do you think the answer is collaboration? Or is the future of real 'new media writing publishing' going to entail working with designers and 'editors' to realise real new media works? The latter is too easily hijacked by book publishers I think...though sometimes with good intentions. What did you think of Penguin's We Tell Stories, for instance?

  4. Eastgate has been publishing serious hypertext since 1990. Some other publishers have done good work too, notably bob stein's Voyager and Penguin.

    I'm not sure "big names" matter that much, but Coover is a big name to me. William Gibson. Holzer sure is a big name in the white box world, and I'd argue she's not that far from you. Eno. Didn't Laurie Anderson do one a few years back?

  5. Wow, Andy - I'm not sure whether to be flattered or hurt that you've set this up apparently as a counter to Basically I agree with where you're coming from - see 'minglings' on, and also think new media writing has so much to give to - and gain from - contact with the rest of literature, and from the arrival of iPad where all these things can, at last, mingle.
    I'm not into preserving traditional publishing but I do think that the issues around what bookness is touch on all the most important things.
    Good to meet you at last in Poole.

  6. Andy said: 'Is it a natural inclination - a natural progression of what it is to be a writer - to work digitally and to mix media like this? ... Or is it simply that a small portion of disillusioned writers who happened to be alive at the beginning of the digital revolution have "gone wrong" and can now shortly look forward to fading into obscurity?'

    As a writer and maker of new media stories, I feel it's a very natural progression for me to work digitally and mix media. Perhaps it's to do with my mixed up creative background - I started out as a visual artist, became a film/video-maker, did a little bit of animation, made a few installations, tried a little performing, wrote a bit for the page, the screen, even tried writing for TV, but it wasn't until I started creating for the web - and creating in the web - that I truly felt at home. I may well be a 'writer gone wrong' but, in the words of the song, how can something so wrong feel so right?

    I'm very excited about the future of new media writing/e-literature/netart and I don't think we need to hang around for the book publishers to catch up. Really I'm not sure what publishers can do for us, we can publish ourselves. We could do with some help raising the profile of the work - more recommendations, more showcases, more publicity, etc. - but what's in it for them if there's no obvious way to monetize?

    As Katharine points out, one of our biggest headaches is the sheer number of different skills we need to master to make and distribute the work. Collaboration is certainly a way forward but I firmly believe that you've got to write *in* the digital media, rather than simply for it, to fully understand its potential, so I'm not sure it's a matter of writers working with designers and editors. There seems to be so much emphasis on pulling print writers into the born-digital realm, how about more help for new media authors to develop their skills?

  7. I'm with Christine, that writing 'in' digital media is rather different from for it, but - for instance - I will never have the Flash skills to produce sophisticated visual work. The convergence of different expressive media puts this huge technical burden on us to 'know' how to do everything, or sometimes it seems that way. In digital experimental music - where I have roots - I see the same in the way that music technology has proliferated. And I'm encouraged to see/hear good work that uses restricted means (and abilities) well, without compromise, but also collaborative experimental work where all members of the 'production team' have aesthetic worth as a priority.

    I also agree with Christine that more help on developing skills would be great, but also more 'community' - resources and platforms for distributing and sharing work perhaps?

    Looking forward to your next post.

  8. Absolutely yes, Katharine, more resources and platforms for distributing and sharing work! I agree there's a "huge technical burden on us to 'know' how to do everything" and having also to know how to distribute and share our work effectively adds to the strain.

    I think there's much we can learn from the kinds of creative process models you cite from the world of digital experimental music too.