Monthly Archives: February 2008

fight path

“Writers of the world arise! It’s time to throw off the shackles of traditional publishing contracts and face a brand new digital future with a brand new set of priorities.” So starts an article on the Guardian ‘Comment Is Free’ blogs by Kate Pullinger, writer of fictions in media old and new. Kate argues forcefully that authors are in danger of being short changed by publishers as they rush to secure digital rights before anyone susses how different the dissemination of a digital text is to publishing the printed word.

student designer envisions a more credible kindle

Engagdet points to an award winning Australian student design for an e-book reader that combines the gesture-based “multi-touch” interface of the iPhone with the e-ink display of the Kindle.
LIVRE design concept -? Nedzad Mujcinovic, Monash University
“Interaction happens via a thin capacitive touch screen mounted on top of an electronic paper screen (‘eINK’). Browsing pages happens by striking the screen from right bottom corner towards the centre of page to go forward or from the left hand corner to go backwards. Doing that using one finger will browse one page, two will browse ten pages and three will browse fifty pages at a time.”
If simple reenactment of basic black-and-white, illustration-light print reading is your goal, I’d say that this is a far more viable proposition than Amazon’s clunky gadget. (Thanks, Peter Brantley, for the link!)

channel 4 goes cross-platform

On the subject of major traditional media entities and cross-platform experimentation. Over in London last night Chris and I went to the launch event for Bow Street Runner, an online game launched by UK TV broadcaster Channel 4 to coincide with a major historical TV drama. Players explore 1754 London as one of the city’s first police officers, solving crimes and – it is hoped – picking up some historical brownie points along the way.
It’s interesting because Bow Street Runner is the first game to be launched by the channel, and represents a significant change in strategic direction. Channel 4’s public service obligations were hitherto tackled with the production of ‘educational’ (daytime) TV aimed at 14-19-year-olds and very occasionally, it seems, recorded by teachers for use in classrooms. Having realised that this approach was generating little interest, the channel’s Head of Education, Janey Walker, decided last year to shift the entire commissioning budget for educational material into cross-platform offerings.
Along with showing trailers for the game and introducing us to its creators, commissioning editor Matt Locke described how the channel’s new approach will in many cases reverse the typical 360-degree media approach – create some TV content, then tack on an ARG – opting instead to create cross-platform offerings with TV outputs as one element only. A number of ARGs and other offerings are scheduled for release later in the year.
Though it’s hardly the first time an ARG has been deployed by a major ‘traditional’ media company – after all, the first ARG to have any impact was intended as a trailer for the film AI – this entry into the space by a major TV channel promises to raise the profile (not to mention some much-needed financial backing) for the still very young world of cross-platform entertainment.
It’s early days yet, and Locke was frank about the experimental nature of this new approach. But it hints at a sea-change in mainstream recognition of the relative significances of online and other media – and, maybe, the potential for a wave of new, profoundly net-native entertainment.

penguin of forking paths

Following on last year’s wiki novel, Penguin will soon launch another digital fiction experiment, this time focused on nonlinear storytelling. From Jeremy Ettinghausen on the Penguin blog:

…in a few weeks Penguin will be embarking on an experiment in storytelling (yes, another one, I hear you sigh). We’ve teamed up with some interesting folk and challenged some of our top authors to write brand new stories that take full advantage of the functionalities that the internet has to offer – this will be great writing, but writing in a form that would not have been possible 200, 20 or even 2 years ago. If you want to be alerted when this project launches sign up here – all will be revealed in March.

The “interesting folk” link goes to Unfiction, the main forum for the alternative reality gaming community. Intriguing…

art of compression: barry yourgrau’s keitai fictions

The Millions has an interesting interview with the South African-born, New York-resident writer Barry Yourgrau, who recently published a collection of “keitai” (cell phone) fiction in Japan. Known for bite-sized surrealist fables (as here), the hyper-compression of the cell phone display seemed like a natural challenge for Yourgrau, and he is now, to my knowledge, the first foreign writer to write successfully in Japan for the tiny screen. You can read a number of his keitai stories (which average about 350 words) on his blog, and hear him give a reading of the delightfully malevolent “Houndstooth,” which tells of a deadly fashion plague ravaging the Burberry-obsessed youth of Japan, on NPR.
yourgrau_imode.jpg Yourgrau believes that the popularity of keitai fiction in Japan, especially among younger readers, is due primarily to the fact that most young Japanese access the Internet through their phones (which are a generation more advanced than what’s available in the US) rather than on desktop computers. Kids don’t have a lot of privacy in their homes, he explains further, so they spend most of their time out and about on the streets, using keitai for entertainment and social navigation.
And the fictions are as mobile as their users, migrating fluidly from one technological context to another. Many keitai novels, Yourgrau explains, frequently “emerge from pools of people on web pages” before migrating onto keitai screens. Upon scoring a success on phones, they then frequently make their way onto the bestseller list in print form (the image is the print edition of Yourgrau’s recent keitai cycle). A few have even been made into films.
Western publishers would do well to study this free-flowing model. A story need not be bound to one particular delivery mechanism, be it a cell phone, web page (or book). In fact, the ecology of forms can make a more comprehensive narrative universe. This is not only the accepted wisdom of cross-media marketing franchisers and brand blizzardeers (Spiderman the comic, Spiderman the action figure, the lunchbox, the movie, the game, the Halloween costume etc.), but an age-old principle underlying the transmission of culture. The Arthurian legends, for instance, weren’t spun in one single authoritative text, but in many different textual itertations over time, a plethora of visual depictions, oral storytelling, songs, objets d’art etc.
In the case of keitai fiction, there’s seems to be a relation between compression of form and expansiveness of transmission. Interestingly, Yourgrau writes his phone stories longhand with a pencil, then types them up on a computer:

I write my fiction longhand first. I need the pencil/pen in hand to connect to emotions. I then type up. For the first several books I used a typewriter, now I’m (late) on computer. But I find the computer too suited to Flow, not the weight of the individual word. I’ve half a mind to switch back to a typewriter…..

There’s an interesting paradox here: that the compression that makes for good Web or cell phone writing is not afforded by the actual tools of electronic composition, which much more favor a kind of verbal sprawl. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that several of the most successful keitai novels were composed entirely on phones, one carpal tunnel syndrome-inducing keypad stroke at a time. To digress… one wonders whether the bloat of much contemporary fiction is a direct effect of word processors and the ease of Inernet research. That would support the broader observation that the net, far from killing off books, seems to have acted like a bellows, greatly boosting (at least for the time being) the number of pages produced in print.
In any case, I can readily imagine why Yourgrau’s surreal miniatures fit so well in the keitai form, both as random time-fillers and as little social cherry bombs to detonate among friends -? stories plucked out of the air. I’ll conclude this not so compressed ramble with one of Yourgrau’s concise keitai hauntings:

Disease strikes a distant town. The victims develop loathsome sores all over their bodies; at the same time they’re maddened by extreme lascivious impulses. Down street after street door after door is splashed with a crude red cross: inside, the lunatic disfigured coupling rages on nonstop – ?men, women, even children – ?until exhausted dawn, until death.
In the hills beyond town, a monk makes his way along a darkening road. He chews a stale rice ball for his supper as he goes, so as not to interrupt his march. His sandaled feet move one in front of the other inexorably. His staff leaves a trail of dots behind him in the dusty distances. At last he comes around the side of a hill and he stops. The prospect of the dim town spreads before him. A look of disturbance moves over his face, as he slowly chews the last of his rice ball. Even here the uneasy wind carries the grisly minglings of lamentation and carnal grunting The monk becomes watchful; he looks uneasily around him and grips his staff in both hands. Two figures are moving feverishly in the darkness ahead. They seem to prance toward him, half-naked, hideous, moaning hoarse endearments. The monk calls to his god as he raises his staff and prepares to meet them.

he do the police in different voices

the cover of womans worldIn a sense, Graham Rawle‘s novel Woman’s World, just out in the United States from Counterpoint, is made for the internet. It’s the sort of thing that you expect to see on Digg or Reddit: artist spends several years cutting up old women’s magazines and laboriously constructs a 400-page novel out of the collaged shards of text. If the internet loves anything, it’s novelty, and Rawle’s work is certainly that. Every spread of the book is beautiful – here’s one chosen at random:

I show one spread, though I could as easily have shown 200 others. Rawle’s work is supremely visual, and invites the reader to appreciate in that way. In a sense, it puts off serious readings: it’s constructed from women’s magazines of the 1950s and 60s, which society accords little value to: magazines are ephemeral, fashion magazines inherently so. But such readings, inevitable as they may be, are unjust to Rawle’s book, which deserves to be read as a novel. While emphatically a work of print, the way Rawle uses text can shed light on the way we use text online.
What goes on in Woman’s World? Rawle’s raw materials suggest his subject matter: it’s a novel about clothes, specifically women’s clothes. It’s not a stretch to imagine that his working method suggested his plot: Rawle, a mail artist, uses women’s words to construct a book; his male protagonist garbs himself in women’s clothes. Clothes become language: Rawle stitches words and phrases together to make something new. (A parallel might be drawn to Georges Perec’s use of constraint in La Disparition/A Void, a work of art not because it does away with the letter e – that had been done before – but because Perec’s technique informs his narrative; the informed reader sees the novel’s themes of disappearance and loss as Perec’s method of indirectly writing about the disappearance of his parents in the Holocaust.)
It’s worth paying close attention to how the creator works. Rawle generally cuts on the phrase level, going down to the word level. Occasionally a suffix is added (-s, -ed). It’s only once in a great while that he edits inside the word. On p. 307 (below left), the eye is drawn to word “realising”, where the American spelling “realizing” has been changed to the British “realising” by pasting an s over a z. (From the spelling, Rawle seems to be mining British magazines, another reason for this word to stand out.) It’s hard not to take this as a sign pointing to to another narrative about transvestites where things end badly, Honoré de Balzac’s “Sarrasine”, a short story best known to English readers from its appearance as an appendix in Roland Barthes’s book-length reading of it, S/Z. In that book, Barthes dissected “Sarrasine” into 561 narrative units he called “lexias” in which he discovered five different codes underlying and structuring the text. Balzac’s story appears twice in S/Z: once interpolated with Barthes’s notations over 220 pages, and again in an appendix to the book, interpolated by the numerals numbering the lexias Barthes found in the story. Displayed on the page like this – an example is below right – “Sarrasine” feels like Frankenstein’s monster, constructed from numbered parts of language; a great-uncle, perhaps, of Rawle’s text. There’s at least a faint family resemblance:

p. 307 of womans worlda scan of p. 251 of s/z by roland barthes in the translation of richard miller
Just as Barthes finds structures by which to decipher what the reader experiences in “Sarrasine”, there can be found structures to decipher what the reader experiences when reading Woman’s World. At one level, there is the story – a sequence of words that could be put into a .TXT file and be exactly the same. At another level, there’s the presentation. This is something that’s hard to precisely pin down, but it’s best explained by pointing out the difference between reading a plain text version of Rawle’s story and the collaged version of the same. Try looking at Rawle’s p. 307 and my neutral typesetting of it (click on each for a better view):

p. 307 of womans worlda retypeset version of the same thing

Something is lost in my translation, though most don’t have the vocabulary to describe what that is. (Tom Phillips, no stranger to this sort of thing, gives the book a close reading in his Guardian review that suggests that such a thing is possible with a background in graphic design.) But try to read these two versions of the same page aloud and note the difference: the first full sentence in Rawle’s version has a front-loaded stress (“HE looked at her”) that isn’t apparent from the words alone. The same sentence feels choppy because it’s cut into individual words at first; it seems to speed up when it gets to “and just then found,” a whole phrase. An eye more attuned to the nuances of type is bound to notice more of these connotations; and certainly this seems conscious on Rawle’s part.
On a third level, there’s the apparent history of Rawle’s bits of text: its referentiality. Every letter of Rawle’s text clearly comes from somewhere else; sometimes he takes as many as several sentences. The original context isn’t always clear, though it can quite often be guessed. (Extended excerpts aren’t always needed to do this: sometimes a single decorative letter is enough to suggest that it originally served as an ad.) Rawle’s language is explicitly secondhand. In a sense, though, it’s no more secondhand than any other language. We use words and phrases because others have used those words and phrases before us (or, more pretentiously, we hope that others will use ours) and those words and phrases suggest our previous conversations, reading, and cultural contexts. Language carries its history with it.
(Perhaps I didn’t need to go to Barthes to point this out: one remembers the best moment in The Devil Wears Prada is a scene in which Meryl Streep, playing Anna Wintour, upbraids the movie’s idiotic anti-hero Anne Hathaway, for declaring that fashion is meaningless and that her constant demands are similarly petty and meaningless. Streep responds fluently in the language of fashion, spinning off a history of color, texture, and cut, proceeding from designer to designer, through connotations and denotations, until she reaches the nameless maker of Hathaway’s rather non-descript blue cardigan, which carries a world of associations even if worn by the unaware.)
Language is a complicated thing that we tend to take for granted. Looking at Rawle’s novel suggests how loaded simple text can be. It’s worth considering how comparatively limited reading on the Internet seems to be. Consider this text: I’m writing it in black 14 point Avenir Roman, though when it appears on the blog, my best guess is that you’ll see it in 13 point Verdana in a dark gray. That could be, of course, entirely wrong: the browser environment (and RSS readers) give viewers a great deal of freedom in defining how their text looks. But that’s a small point in comparison with the third code I find in Rawle, the referentiality of his pieces of text. For all the interlarding of scans in this post, it appears to be a seamless whole – you, the reader, have no reason for not thinking that I didn’t start at the first sentence and write furiously until I came to the last sentence, and I would be more than happy not to disabuse you of the notion. Had this piece been written as a Wikipedia article, you might have some notion of how this was created, though it’s still very difficult to visualize exactly where a Wikipedia article comes from: while the prose of a typical Wikipedia article is lumpy, it has nowhere near the eloquent texture of Rawle’s pages.
Could an electronic Woman’s World be made? Another parallel could be drawn, to Ted Nelson’s idea of transclusion, the concept of keeping quoted texts connected to their original sources. Transclusion was an early hypertext hope, though results so far have been generally disappointing; it’s not quite so easy as cutting and pasting, though Nelson’s appealingly low-tech diagrams might suggest this. There’s a way to go yet.

borders self-publishing and the idea of vanity

Borders, in partnership with, has launched a comprehensive personal publishing platform, enabling anyone to design and publish their own (print) book and have it distributed throughout the Borders physical and online retail chain. Beyond the basic self-publishing tools, authors can opt for a number of service packages: simple ISBN registration (49 bucks), the basic package ($299), in which someone designs and formats your book for you, and the premium ($499), in which you get all the afore-mentioned plus “editorial evaluation.” According to the demo, you can even pay to have your own book tour and readings in actual Borders stores, bringing vanity publishing to a whole new level of fantasy role-playing. Writing and publishing, as the Borders site proclaims in its top banner, is now a “lifestyle.”
borderslifestyles.jpg A side thought. It’s curious how “vanity publishing” as a cultural category seems to have a very clear relationship with the print book but a far more ambiguous one with the digital. Of course the Web as a whole could be viewed as one enormous vanity press, overflowing with amateur publishers and self-appointed authors, yet for some reason the vanity label is seldom applied -? though a range of other, comparable disparagements (“cult of the amateur”, “the electronic mob” etc.) sometimes are. But these new labels tend to be issued in a reactionary way, not with the confident, sneering self-satisfaction that has usually accompanied noses snobbishly upturned at the self-published.
In the realm of print, there is (or traditionally has been) something vain, pretentious, even delusional, in the laying out of cash to simulate a kind of publication that is normally granted, by the forces of economics and cultural arbitration, to a talented or lucky few. Of course, so-called vanity publishing can also come from a pure impulse to get something out into the world that no one is willing to pay for, but generally speaking, it is something we’ve looked down on. Blogs, MySpace, personal web pages and the like arise out of a different set of socio-economic conditions. The barriers to publication are incredibly low (digital divide notwithstanding), and so authorship online is perceived differently than in print, even if it still arises out of the same basic need to communicate. It feels more like simply taking part in a conversation, participating in a commons. One is not immediately suspicious of the author’s credibility in quite the same way as when the self-financed publication is in print.
This is not to suggest that veracity, trust and quality control are no longer concerns on the Web. Quite the contrary. In fact we must develop better and more sensitive instruments of bullshit detection than ever before to navigate a landscape that lacks the comfortingly comprehensive systems of filtering and quality control that the publishing industry traditionally provided. But “vanity publishing” as a damning label, designed to consign certain types of books to a fixed cultural underclass, loses much of its withering power online. Electronic authorship comes with the possibility of social mobility. What starts as a vanity operation can, with time, become legitimized and respected through complex social processes that we are only beginning to be able to track. Self-publishing is simply a convenient starter mechanism, not a last resort for the excluded.
And with services like Lulu and the new Borders program, we’re seeing some of that social mobility reflected back onto print. New affordances of digital production and the flexibility of print on demand have radically lowered the barriers to publishing in print as well as in bits, and so what was once dismissed categorically as vanity is now transforming into a complex topography of niche markets where unmet readerly demands can finally be satisfied by hitherto untapped authorial supplies.
All the world’s a vanity press and we have to learn to make sense of what it produces.

“naked in the ‘nonopticon'”

If you haven’t already, check out Siva Vaidhyanathan‘s excellent Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on privacy and surveillance: a review of several new books treating various aspects of the topic, but a great all-around thought piece. A taste:

Certainly the Stasi in East Germany exploited the controlling power generated from public knowledge of constant surveillance and the potential for brutal punishment for thought crimes. But that is not our environment in the United States. Basically, the Panopticon must be visible and ubiquitous, or it cannot influence behavior as Bentham and Foucault assumed it would.
…what we have at work in America today is the opposite of a Panopticon: what has been called a “Nonopticon” (for lack of a better word). The Nonopticon describes a state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it. The most pervasive surveillance does not reveal itself or remains completely clandestine (barring leaks to The New York Times). We don’t know all the ways we are being recorded or profiled. We are not supposed to understand that we are the product of marketers as much as we are the market. And we are not supposed to consider the extent to which the state tracks our behavior and considers us all suspects in crimes yet to be imagined, let alone committed.
In fact, companies like ChoicePoint, Facebook, Google, and want us to relax and be ourselves. They have an interest in exploiting niches that our consumer choices generate. They are devoted to tracking our eccentricities because they understand that the ways we set ourselves apart from the mass are the things about which we are most passionate. Our passions, predilections, fancies, and fetishes are what we are likely to spend our surplus cash on.

And so these concerns extend to the realm of online reading. With networked texts, a book (or whatever other document form) may be reading you while you’re reading it. This creates a major ethical quandary for libraries of course, who, to take advantage of social networking, collaborative filtering and other powerful affordances of digital technologies must radically revise their traditional stance on privacy: i.e. retain as little user data as possible.

conversation, revision, trust…

A thought-provoking “meta-post” from Noah Wardrip-Fruin on Grand Text Auto reflecting on the blog-based review of his new book manuscript four chapters (and weeks) into the process. Really interesting stuff, so I’m quoting at length:

This week, when I was talking with Jessica Bell about her story for the Daily Pennsylvanian, I realized one of the most important things, for me, about the blog-based peer review form. In most cases, when I get back the traditional, blind peer review comments on my papers and book proposals and conference submissions, I don’t know who to believe. Most issues are only raised by one reviewer. I find myself wondering, “Is this a general issue that I need to fix, or just something that rubbed one particular person the wrong way?” I try to look back at the piece with fresh eyes, using myself as a check on the review, or sometimes seek the advice of someone else involved in the process (e.g., the papers chair of the conference).
But with this blog-based review it’s been a quite different experience. This is most clear to me around the discussion of “process intensity” in section 1.2. If I recall correctly, this began with Nick’s comment on paragraph 14. Nick would be a perfect candidate for traditional peer review of my manuscript -? well-versed in the subject, articulate, and active in many of the same communities I hope will enjoy the book. But faced with just his comment, in anonymous form, I might have made only a small change. The same is true of Barry’s comment on the same paragraph, left later the same day. However, once they started the conversation rolling, others agreed with their points and expanded beyond a focus on The Sims -? and people also engaged me as I started thinking aloud about how to fix things -? and the results made it clear that the larger discussion of process intensity was problematic, not just my treatment of one example. In other words, the blog-based review form not only brings in more voices (which may identify more potential issues), and not only provides some “review of the reviews” (with reviewers weighing in on the issues raised by others), but is also, crucially, a conversation (my proposals for a quick fix to the discussion of one example helped unearth the breadth and seriousness of the larger issues with the section).
On some level, all this might be seen as implied with the initial proposal of bringing together manuscript review and blog commenting (or already clear in the discussions, by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and others, of “peer to peer review”). But, personally, I didn’t foresee it. I expected to compare the recommendation of commenters on the blog and the anonymous, press-solicited reviewers -? treating the two basically the same way. But it turns out that the blog commentaries will have been through a social process that, in some ways, will probably make me trust them more.

e-read all about it

An article in Publishing News this week suggests that UK publishers are bracing themselves for the arrival on these shores of the Kindle or a rival to it soon. Much discussion of e-royalties is going on; HarperCollins and Random House US are putting some whole works on line for free; meanwhile Francis Bennett, the consultant who has been gazing into the crystal ball for the booktrade re digitisation, admits to being “baffled by Amazon – they never do what you expect them to.”
Consultant (and ex-Penguin boss) Anthony Forbes Watson is more definite (maybe): “The competition will be between the best of the closed networks. Perhaps Amazon will rope in Abebooks. Perhaps Barnes & Noble will join up with a partner to combat Amazon, perhaps Amazon will develop something with Apple. But I don’t think the market will be that big. I’d be surprised if it goes above 3%, or 10% tops.”
Well, nothing to worry about there then. Meanwhile we’ve been talking to friends in the booktrade who point out how little publishers will do for their huge slice of the cake these digital days, once printing and physical distribution are out of the picture. Do the e-royalties being offered reflect these changes? Do they hell.