Category Archives: literature

floing again

“While businesses based on the sale of paper may or may not be in crisis, those of us with a wider responsibility for ensuring our literary culture thrives have wonderful new tools with which to encourage participation and communication.
The curse of vanity presses can be replaced with free online opportunities to put your words in the public realm and means for the best to be spotted.
Collaborative writing and book sharing sites are democratising the way we share ideas and stories.
“Running small creative teams dealing with quality communications, working across different media platforms; social entrepreneurs finding cost effective means to change lives; experimenters with words and audiences using an art form which has been personalised for centuries, creating a virtual world in the user’s imagination – we are ahead of the game.”
This is an extract from AND YES I SAID YES I WILL YES, a white paper by the FLO consortium of ‘Friendly Literature Organisations’ in the UK, which was launched recently at the London Book Fair. I put up a link here to the first draft, but it’s now been revised so do take a look.
I’d be interested to know if literature organisations in the USA face similar challenges and how they are tackling them.

on writing less

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Pascal, Lettres provinciales, 16, Dec.14,1656.
pick me up cow
I used to co-edit Pick Me Up, a cult London digital newsletter. After some years perfecting the flamboyant and self-congratulatory prose style that wins points as an Oxford undergrad, it was a whole new aesthetic. Minimal design, lots of white space. Keep the language plain, tell the story in simple words. We’d pass articles back and forth, ruthlessly prune one anothers’ words for anything too flash. I quickly stopped being precious about ‘my’ words: the aim was to make the language invisible.
Here’s my favorite ever Pick Me Up story.
Back then (we went our separate ways around 2 years ago), we were just-underground: our stories regularly hijacked by broadsheets and advertising campaigns. But since then the writing register I learned there has proliferated. It’s become the hip corporate copywriting style: Howies, Innocent Smoothies, any Web2.0 startup’s ‘About Us’ page.
Looking back, my involvement with Pick Me Up was the point where I started to think hard about the unique qualities of writing for the Web. But while plain language has become the bedrock of corporate communications, especially online, the ‘literary’ register resists its incursions. Wordsworth’s efforts notwithstanding, short sentences, plain language, and simple structure signify simple-mindedness. Discussing Japanese mobile phone fiction, Jane Sullivan writes in The Age

What’s the downside? Quality control, apparently. So far the mobile phone format has meant that the style of writing is generally unadventurous -? short, simple sentences, lots of dialogue, pauses to indicate thought -? and the stories themselves are hackneyed tales of romance.

I think it was Nietzsche who said that difficulty is often mistaken for greatness in a writer, because readers mistake their own pride at deciphering a text for an inherent profundity within it. Never mind that Pascal’s bon mot has been attributed to writers as long-gone and canonical as Cicero; forget brevity being the soul of wit; simplicity indicates poor quality.
Similarly. It’s become an article of faith in web design that any content below the fold (ie requiring a visitor to scroll down) will attract dramatically fewer viewings; this reflects a well-founded pragmatism oriented toward the need to hook a reader straight away. But few of the ‘literary’ webspaces I’ve come across in my research over the last few months pay much attention to this principle. I’ve lost count of the number of blog ‘novels’ I’ve come across, glanced through, bookmarked with every intention of returning for a closer read, and then forgotten. Part of the problem, again and again, is that I’m confronted with thousands of words of Arial ten-point and a scroll bar – along with the long sentences, elaborate structures and rich vocabulary that for many are the marker of literary quality. The net result is that these literary webspaces field a prose style and layout that – while it might make perfectly decent print reading – provides a sucky user experience.
My literacy credentials are more than respectable. I’m happy plowing my way through thorny texts – in the right form. But with billions of pages on the Web clamoring for attention, I get irritated with those that insist, however noble and literary their intentions, on making that most basic online error of loading too much text into one place. While the idea of savoring a sprawling, muscular Jamesian sentence in the wifi-free zone of the subway delights me, the idea of being asked to do so online fills me with horror.
Whatever you may think of the actual story, the first episode in Pengin’s WeTellStories experiment, The 21 Steps, suggests a growing recognition of the need to adapt storytelling modes online. It’s a decent balance of Web-native visualization and textual storytelling. The reader doesn’t have to deal with more than 20 or so words per click, 40-50 per ‘chapter’. The whole thing takes 5-10 minutes to read. This, in my view, is about where Web storytelling needs to be pitched.
Penguin’s production is an all-singing, all-dancing multimedia experince produced by an ARG studio. But simpler, text-based offerings are if anything more subject to the brutal need to edit for the Web reader’s attention span. Dickens’ chapter length was constrained in many cases by magazine serialization; now that delivers daily bite-sized email or RSS doses of books to subscribers, will this affect the way future storytellers shape their work?
There is no disputing the fact that the Web is not the most comfortable medium for long-form reading (see Ian Bogost’s cracking article, and the ensuing discussion, for more on this). And the social media boom is spearheading a change in written language toward a simpler, plainer, more demotic register. So does this mean we are – over two centuries after Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads proposed a new literature embracing ‘the language of ordinary men’ – finally abandoning the privileging of prosiness as a marker of cultural quality? How does this square with the equation, so often taken for granted, between long-form writing and cultural virtue? Does it signify a cultural decline? Or is this just another kind of literacy, a new register for the emerging high priests of our evolving discourse to master and manipulate?
Either way, it’s hard to escape the fact that today we read, online, across multiple platforms including but not limited to a textual one. And yet, like a filmmaker grimly trying to observe the Aristotelian unities, many writers obstinately struggle to popularize material on the Web that is profoundly unsuited to being read there. I look forward to seeing more storytellers who embrace not only good writing but also the basic principles of good Web design – especially the one about not writing too much.
As a final note: I’m aware of the irony of my having just written a thousand words on brevity. My posts at if:book are the sole exception I make to general Web writing rule of 3 short paragraphs maximum; I have mixed feelings about making the exception. But for the sake of keeping it to a thousand I’ll save that discussion for another time.

the id of writing

The intensely homoerotic Buffy and Faith storyline in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was developed partly as a direct response to fanfic writers’ interpretations of the show in this light
As an undergraduate I read English Language and Literature at one of the oldest and most traditional universities in the world. Even the non-canonical texts came from a canon of the non-canonical – hence, by definition, whatever our course declared to be literature, ipso facto, was such. Recently, though, in the course of our Arts Council research I’ve browsed a fair amount of creative writing online – and found myself increasingly unsure about notions of the canonical or literary in the context of the net.
In search of some perspective, I met up with Roz Kaveney, an expert on one type of creative writing both quintessentially internet-based, and also quintessentially non-‘literary’. Fanfic – or fan fiction – is any story written using the characters, settings and conventions of a fictional universe – ‘fandom’ – such as that of Star Trek.
I learned from Roz that fanfic proper appeared with the Trekkies. The internet made it a mass phenomenon, as fans took advantage of low digital barriers to self-publication to evolve this new way of engaging with a fictional world. These days, while keen fanfic writers maintain their own archives, Livejournal is the hub of fan activity. Across the net, fans of particular shows, characters or fandoms gravitate in online communities, share work, commission stories about particular fandoms or pairings in ‘ficathons’, proof-read and critique one another’s stories and collaboratively generate massive archives of often elaborate, imaginative, well-written – and sometimes disturbing – narratives inspired by existing fictional universes.
Fanfic works through peer-to-peer commissioning and editing, and repurposing of others’ imaginative works as the springboard for its own ‘transformative’ endeavors. And this collaborative and (by the standards to which the ‘literary’ tradition of writing holds itself) ‘derivative’ nature contrasts intriguingly with the fixation on originality so inseparable from literary fiction. This fixation with originality and identifiable authorship is, in turn, inseparable from the economics that have underpinned the print industry for the last three centuries.
So, predictably, in this world of fanfic money is something of a contested issue. Keen to avoid rocking the copyright boat and alienate the creators of the fandoms they love, fanfic writers self-police strictly: attempting to monetize your work is frowned upon. “Printing out a few copies for friends is one thing,” Roz says, “but flogging your work at conventions just isn’t done.” Rather, it recalls Chris Anderson et al’s theories of the internet as a peer-to-peer economy of abundance. Fans write it because they love the fandoms, identify with particular characters, and enjoy exchanging these nuggets of narrative passion with others of the same persuasion. Stories become transactional units in a gift economy driven by the ludic desire to requite a free gift of pleasure with a return in kind.
If the literary is the critical and isolationist superego of writing, then, fanfic is the id: messy, pleasure-driven, reluctant to censor its proclivities. existing fictional universes. It’s always been transgressive, genderbending, complicatedly queer. Slashfic (erotic fanfic) appeared at the same time as fanfic, and slash stories often see heterosexual fans penning homoerotic slash; any taboo can be the subject of a slash story.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the net follows a fairly consistent pattern not of replicating, but of inverting the tradition of the book: boundedness becomes boundlessness, authority becomes unreliable opinion, fixity becomes fluidity, physicality becomes virtuality, the presumption of universality becomes an awareness of the contextual nature of everything written there. So I did a speculative compare and contrast between the mainstream literary world and that of fanfic. And the principle seems to hold for this most popular internet writing form: take the literary world, and turn it inside-out.
Fanfic is 90-95% female, in contrast with the canon of authors I studied at college. It’s often collaborative, and engages with an existing fictional universe, while – say – literary fiction is generally written by single individuals and is fixated on the idea of originality “without realising”, Roz says, “how overrated this concept has been since the Romantic era”. Fanfic is structured socially around a gift economy of stories, and money is frowned upon; literature writers usuall aspire to earning a living from their work. Fanfic is pleasure-oriented; literature intellectual; fanfic is non-hierarchical and networked, while literature tends towards canons.
And last, but not least, fanfic in its current state evolved online, and is impressively well-supported in that space by its communities – a stark contrast to the modest successses of more ‘literary’ outputs online. Perhaps, with a long tradition of print publishing, the literary world has simply not yet paid much attention to the internet, and this will change as it becomes more familiar and pervasive. Or, perhaps, more of the attributes that constitute what we think of as ‘literary’ content are more inseparable from meatspace than might be immediately apparent.
I’ll write more about all this as our research goes on. But meanwhile this cursory glance at fan fiction invites many questions about the forms natural to the internet and to print, about the social and cultural assumptions that underpin these two, and about the implications of each for the economics and value-systems of cultural production.

ace research news in the uk

The Institute for the Future of the Book has been appointed by Arts Council England to undertake research into digital developments in literature. This is exciting news for us, not least because it marks the official launch of our London office.
Over the next few months Chris Meade and Sebastian Mary Harrington will be talking to a wide range of organisations including Arts Council England literature clients and others whose work could provide useful models to the sector.
We’ll be looking at book publishing and magazines, reader development, writers including collaborative and new media authors and the blurring of distinctions between amateur and professional, live literature and festivals, plus other web activity that could provide inspiration to agencies working to spread the word about the word – and we’ll be posting questions and comments on the ifbook blog as we go along.

Sebastian Mary Harrington’s scarf captured live under construction at the Institute’s London HQ, skillfully knitted in the colours of The Institute for the Future of the Book – and The School of Everything – to celebrate the start of our new research project.

emergency books

In the course of looking for something else entirely, I just stumbled upon Emergency Books. It’s a (slightly dormant) side project of Litromagazine, a freesheet that publishes and distributes short fiction outside London Underground stations. Emergency Books are, very simply, out-of-print texts taken from Project Gutenberg and dropped wholesale into a PDF template that makes them easy and economical to print on a standard home printer. They’re designed “for when you’ve nothing to read and a standard issue of Litro is too short”, the publisher (is that the right word here?) explains:

Each ‘double page spread’ fits nicely in an Acrobat Reader window, which results in minimal need for scrolling. On- or off-screen, the columns are relatively narrow and short so you don’t get lost in a sea of text (as you would if you simply printed direct from Project Gutenberg). There is little of the blank white space found in standard books – this is to get as much text on the page as possible thereby reducing the total number of pages required (for example, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, at 128 pages in book form, takes only 15 double-side printed A4 sheets as an Emergency Book – while being just as easy to read). This saves on resources as well as making the printed Emergency Book easier to fold and carry around.
If you are a ‘format purist’, you may well hate them. But if you love literature for the content, Emergency Books could be for you.

Of the small number who’ve saved Emergency Books on, one noted that Emergency Books are ‘for reading when you’re caught short. If that ever happens’. I like the idea of literature being, like cigarettes, something one can be ‘caught short’ without – for all that in this age of information overload the reverse more often feels true. There aren’t that many texts there at present, and I’m slightly baffled by the extant choice. But whatever you think of Conan Doyle, Emergency Books shows a refeshingly pragmatic grasp of the relation between digital and paper publishing formats, and represents an interesting attempt at minimising the downsides of each in the interests of guaranteeing the reading addict a regular fix.

commentpress classics fantasy football

Following last week’s discussions on a hypothetical digital Ulysses (1, 2), numerous ideas for electronic dream editions have been coming out of the woodwork, including this proposal from our good friend John Holbo of The Valve. John’s agreed to let us repost it here – ?I think this could be a terrific CommentPress collab.

Here’s an idea for you: Ulysses, as I am sure you know, may be a problematic text for copyright reasons (sad to say, but it’s true.)
I have a counter-proposal: Frankenstein. (Really a supplementary proposal. I’m not counter the other thing, by any means.)
Advantage: two editions, 1818, 1831. Substantially different. So there is some notation to be done.
Advantage: I’ve already painstakingly made a clean electronic edition of the 1831 edition by taking the substantially screwed up Project Gutenberg edition (really it’s a mess) and copy editing it up with respect to an old, but respectable public domain edition. Took me a long time to do the cleaning, dozens of hours. I was picking up typos for weeks. I am planning to just let it go free one way or the other. It currently exists as a set of MS-Word files. Maybe someone would like to take it and do up a nice CommentPress edition.
We’re thinking of doing a book event at the Valve, discussing the novel’s debated status as the first SF novel. I thought we could call it: The Structure of Mad Scientific Revolutions. That could create a mass of scholarly matter, albeit in the form of essays rather than stuff that would appropriately be displayed side-by-side with the text.
I have proposed to Parlor Press doing a paper edition, under CC release… Obviously that would be consistent with doing something a bit more ambitious. One thing I thought would be fun: try to encourage artists to contribute illustrations. Collect a whole bunch of illustrations of Frankenstein and have that as a possible display, side by side with the text.
Also, try to get SF authors to contribute in some way. What do they think of the original SF novel? Make it not just academic that way.
The suggestion isn’t to scuttle Ulysses but to do something else in addition. Since I’ve already made a basic text, which I am happy to hand over for free, it wouldn’t be hard to get something up and running. Also, it would be an attractive thing for the Institute to have: the web’s only decent online edition of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. (Also there must be some nice metaphor to be had about how these collaborative projects are sort of Frankenstein monsters themselves. Call it the Frankenstein Project. Something.)

Sebastian Mary replied with another idea:

…if I were playing Commentpress Classics fantasy football the title I’d like to see networked would be Pope’s Dunciad. Its subject-matter is the step change in volume of printed matter appearing as a result of the early C18 print boom, and the writer’s concern about the onset of an age of ‘dullness’ brought about by the surge in hack writing: pretty much the same anxiety as that articulated by print publishers about digital text.
Formally, it’d work wonderfully, as it’s a very lateral text anyway: the later edition is elaborately footnoted – and because of the very specific references to historical places and people many of these themselves need explicatory footnotes.
There’s a kind-of-hypertext version here: – I can’t help daydreaming about what it’d be like if you it was in Commentpress so that you could add to each footnote, sprout new arguments, proliferate the text to infinity. Perhaps I just like the ironies in all this, but I think it would be beautiful…

The thread is open so please feel encouraged to float your own proposals, not just for CommentPress-based projects but for anything you can imagine being done with digital networked forms.

incunabula of the week

Last month, when I met the if:book crew for the first time, Ben described the net-native literary forms that have emerged to date as ‘incunabula’. I didn’t know what the word meant. He explained that, in the Middle Ages, when they first started printing books, there were all kinds of experiments which explored print technologies but hadn’t yet settled into a form that made full use of them. Ben suggested that forms of Web writing today are at an equivalent stage.
The word ‘incunabulum’ stuck with me. There’s something endearlingly fragile and tentative about it, as though Net-based forms of writing were a new species of winged things, freshly-hatched and still a bit soggy and crumpled. Since abandoning the notion of writing for print (paper) publication some time ago, though, I find myself reluctant to reinvent the wheel. So I’m very interested in what is emerging on the Net around the axis of technology and (used here in its classical sense, for want of a better word) poetry.
Top of my list at the moment as the Web’s finest emerging art form is alternate reality gaming. I wrote about that here not long ago; since then, I’ve vanished into a currently-playing ARG and will write more on the experience when I can. Meanwhile, this week I’ve stumbled across an interesting cross-section of Web-based stuff and thought I’d do a roundup here.
Disclaimer time. Ben’s already admirably dissected the problems with the Million Penguins project, so I won’t go into that. I also know there is a whole tranche of early experiments with hypertext writing which I’ve ignored. My reason for doing so is that a) I can’t be exhaustive – that’s what your search engine is for. Also, in my experience, hypertext fiction tends to be somewhat sterile and frustrating, recalling the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read as a child. That said, if anyone knows of any that buck this trend, please send them my way.
Anyway, incunabula. The first is some years old, and is actually an event rather than a single piece of writing: the delightfully geeky Perl Poetry Contest of 2000. In the words of the Perl Journal that reviewed it:
The Perl Poetry Contest is sort of a kinder, less migraine inducing sibling of the Obfuscation Contest. The Obfuscation Contest promotes the creation of vile looking scripts. The Perl Poetry Contest is the other end of the spectrum, promoting the generation of flowing verse, and Perl, to make something beautiful.
Here’s the winner, by Angie Winterbottom:
if ((light eq dark) && (dark eq light)
&& ($blaze_of_night{moon} == black_hole)
&& ($ravens_wing{bright} == $tin{bright})){
my $love = $you = $sin{darkness} + 1;
It’s derived from a verse from the Pandora’s Box album ‘Original Sin’:
If light were dark and dark were light
The moon a black hole in the blaze of night
A raven’s wing as bright as tin
Then you, my love, would be darker than sin.
This is only just within my personal geek:lit frame of reference, as I don’t program Perl. But I include it in memory of the first time I heard a techie use the phrase ‘elegant code’, as I remember how struck I was then by the idea that there could be an aesthetics of machine code. I’d imagined that coding was purely functional and as such more about engineering than art; lately, I’m beginning to suspect that coders play an equivalent role in the online space to the one print authors play/ed in the literary canon. Poetry written in machine code sits elegantly across the literary/aesthetic and technical spaces in a way very suggestive of this accession of coding to the status of meta-literature.
My second incunabulum of the week comes from Everything2, a relatively open-access online writing space (see the Wikipedia entry for more info). The structures of this site merit further examination, particularly in contrast with the Million Penguins fiasco. But in the interests of brevity, for the time being here’s an entry from user “allseeingeye”: a poem about online gaming with the glorious title “im in ur base killin ur d00dz“.
I won’t go into the layers of memetic accretion around this phrase (try Encyclopedia Dramatica or urbandictionary if you really need to know). What enchanted me about the piece is that it uses a mixture of Everything2’s hard links, geek and gaming slang, and relatively traditional free verse to create something in which form and function, tradition and new technologies, “high” and “low” cultures merge most intriguingly. The writer’s genderless username addes extra ambiguity to the elision of gaming and eroticism in a way that’s very evocative of how of heightened emotion plays out in disembodied online spaces.
There’s also something thought-provoking about the fact that Everything2’s hard links are, like Wikipedia, often unfinished. If you click on one and find it incomplete, the page invites you to create an account and then add the page. When you read a poem that’s full of these sometimes-unfinished links, it’s a bit like a reverse version of The Waste Land. The difference is that where Eliot’s piece functions as an accretion of quotations that refer backwards through the history of the canon, this functions as a speculative accretion of things that may become quotations, and refers forwards to a canon not yet created.
Incunabulum number three is Batan City, a MediaWiki-based imaginary city. It was started by Paul Youlten, founder of the site formerly known as Yellowikis, a wiki-based business listings directory that sparked a legal challenge from the yellow pages industry, and now at SocialText. When Paul sent a story to a friend of his, she responded not with a commentary but with another story. The result is starting to accumulate online. There isn’t much there yet, but the convention appears to be that the “city” accumulates individually-authored stories around a central fictional place. I’m very interested in what works and does not work in wiki-based fiction (providing no structure at all, for instance, really doesn’t, as Ben pointed out a few days ago; here we have some basic structure and an invitation first to submit a story and then to spread the word to other writers. I look forward to seeing how it evolves.
Incunabulum number four is Troped, a blog-based ongoing narrative. I came across this when its author commented here in if:book, and have been dropping by there every few days to try and get a feel for what it’s up to. The format is short, not always obviously interrelated stories, usually updated every day or so. I’ll admit I haven’t been following it for long or in depth, but so far what leaps out is not a strong story, but the sense of an experiment in time and form. Individual entries, each with the feel of a mini-short-story, read down the page; but because it’s posted in blog software the chronology of the whole reads in the opposite direction. That is, the first entry in narrative terms is the last you come to in formal terms, but the direction of the entries themselves goes the other way. In addition, the author/s (perhaps unconsciously) echo/es this temporal paradox with a slightly odd use of tenses within the stories (“Jameson laughs. He preferred to just use the shop as a place to dicker around–someplace other than his house“), which adds a layer of temporal confusion. So to date I haven’t got into this one. But as a piece testing the limits and possibilities and mute formal insinuations of net-native writing delivery mechanisms, it’s certainly worth a look.
So, a mixed bag. Perl poetry experiments with the constraints of language, flirting with machine code in a way that subverts the usually functionalist preconceptions that lay non-coders such as myself tend to have about computer languages. The killin ur d00dz piece hard links within its writing community to foreground the dynamic and collaborative emergence of Web-specific jargons, even as it captures the intense experience of one individual. Batan City is a tentative (though, perhaps luckily for its creators, less populated than the Penguin effort) attempt to reconcile open editing with individual authorship of story elements, that uses the twin structures of a fictional place and an alphabetised list to structure the entries it invites. And Troped tests the interrelation between online self-publishing software and narrative temporality.
What all these pieces have in common is a concerted attempt to do more than upload the conventions of print text (boundedness, single authorship, linearity) into an environment that encourages in many ways the inverse of these traditions. They all have limitations, but all are pushing at the boundaries of what the new technologies make possible: multiple or anonymous authoring, new languages, strange temporalities and explicit acknowledgement of the intertext.

ecclesiastical proust archive: starting a community

(Jeff Drouin is in the English Ph.D. Program at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York)
About three weeks ago I had lunch with Ben, Eddie, Dan, and Jesse to talk about starting a community with one of my projects, the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive. I heard of the Institute for the Future of the Book some time ago in a seminar meeting (I think) and began reading the blog regularly last Summer, when I noticed the archive was mentioned in a comment on Sarah Northmore’s post regarding Hurricane Katrina and print publishing infrastructure. The Institute is on the forefront of textual theory and criticism (among many other things), and if:book is a great model for the kind of discourse I want to happen at the Proust archive. When I finally started thinking about how to make my project collaborative I decided to contact the Institute, since we’re all in Brooklyn, to see if we could meet. I had an absolute blast and left their place swimming in ideas!
Saint-Lô, by Corot (1850-55)While my main interest was in starting a community, I had other ideas — about making the archive more editable by readers — that I thought would form a separate discussion. But once we started talking I was surprised by how intimately the two were bound together.
For those who might not know, The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive is an online tool for the analysis and discussion of à la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). It’s a searchable database pairing all 336 church-related passages in the (translated) novel with images depicting the original churches or related scenes. The search results also provide paratextual information about the pagination (it’s tied to a specific print edition), the story context (since the passages are violently decontextualized), and a set of associations (concepts, themes, important details, like tags in a blog) for each passage. My purpose in making it was to perform a meditation on the church motif in the Recherche as well as a study on the nature of narrative.
I think the archive could be a fertile space for collaborative discourse on Proust, narratology, technology, the future of the humanities, and other topics related to its mission. A brief example of that kind of discussion can be seen in this forum exchange on the classification of associations. Also, the church motif — which some might think too narrow — actually forms the central metaphor for the construction of the Recherche itself and has an almost universal valence within it. (More on that topic in this recent post on the archive blog).
Following the if:book model, the archive could also be a spawning pool for other scholars’ projects, where they can present and hone ideas in a concentrated, collaborative environment. Sort of like what the Institute did with Mitchell Stephens’ Without Gods and Holy of Holies, a move away from the ‘lone scholar in the archive’ model that still persists in academic humanities today.
One of the recurring points in our conversation at the Institute was that the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive, as currently constructed around the church motif, is “my reading” of Proust. It might be difficult to get others on board if their readings — on gender, phenomenology, synaesthesia, or whatever else — would have little impact on the archive itself (as opposed to the discussion spaces). This complex topic and its practical ramifications were treated more fully in this recent post on the archive blog.
I’m really struck by the notion of a “reading” as not just a private experience or a public writing about a text, but also the building of a dynamic thing. This is certainly an advantage offered by social software and networked media, and I think the humanities should be exploring this kind of research practice in earnest. Most digital archives in my field provide material but go no further. That’s a good thing, of course, because many of them are immensely useful and important, such as the Kolb-Proust Archive for Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Some archives — such as the NINES project — also allow readers to upload and tag content (subject to peer review). The Ecclesiastical Proust Archive differs from these in that it applies the archival model to perform criticism on a particular literary text, to document a single category of lexia for the experience and articulation of textuality.
American propaganda, WWI, depicting the destruction of Rheims CathedralIf the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive widens to enable readers to add passages according to their own readings (let’s pretend for the moment that copyright infringement doesn’t exist), to tag passages, add images, add video or music, and so on, it would eventually become a sprawling, unwieldy, and probably unbalanced mess. That is the very nature of an Archive. Fine. But then the original purpose of the project — doing focused literary criticism and a study of narrative — might be lost.
If the archive continues to be built along the church motif, there might be enough work to interest collaborators. The enhancements I currently envision include a French version of the search engine, the translation of some of the site into French, rewriting the search engine in PHP/MySQL, creating a folksonomic functionality for passages and images, and creating commentary space within the search results (and making that searchable). That’s some heavy work, and a grant would probably go a long way toward attracting collaborators.
So my sense is that the Proust archive could become one of two things, or two separate things. It could continue along its current ecclesiastical path as a focused and led project with more-or-less particular roles, which might be sufficient to allow collaborators a sense of ownership. Or it could become more encyclopedic (dare I say catholic?) like a wiki. Either way, the organizational and logistical practices would need to be carefully planned. Both ways offer different levels of open-endedness. And both ways dovetail with the very interesting discussion that has been happening around Ben’s recent post on the million penguins collaborative wiki-novel.
Right now I’m trying to get feedback on the archive in order to develop the best plan possible. I’ll be demonstrating it and raising similar questions at the Society for Textual Scholarship conference at NYU in mid-March. So please feel free to mention the archive to anyone who might be interested and encourage them to contact me at And please feel free to offer thoughts, comments, questions, criticism, etc. The discussion forum and blog are there to document the archive’s development as well.
Thanks for reading this very long post. It’s difficult to do anything small-scale with Proust!

net-native stories are already here: so are the vultures

A split is under way in the culture industry at present, between ever more high-budget centrally-created and released products designed to net the ‘live experience’ ticket or product-buying punter, and new forms of distributed, Net-mediated creativity. This is evidenced throughout the culture industry; but while ARGs (alternate reality games) are a strong candidate for being understood as the ‘literary’ output of this new culture, there is little discussion of increasing attempts to transform this emerging genre straight into a vehicle for advertising. In the light of my own rather old-fashioned literary idealism, I want first to situate ARGs in the context of this split between culture-as-industry and culture-as-community, to argue the case for ARGs as participatory literature, and finally to ponder the appropriateness of leaving them to the mercies of the PR industry.
the culture industry and the new collaboration
Anti-pirating adverts have been common since video came into wide use. But the other day I saw one at the cinema that got me thinking. Rather than taking the line that copying media is a crime, it showed scenes from Apocalypto, while pointing out that such a spectacular film is much better enjoyed on a huge cinema screen. It struck me as a shrewd take: rather than making ominous noises about crime, the advert aimed to drive cinema attendance by foregrounding the format-specific benefits (darkened room, audience, popcorn, huge screen) of the cinema experience .
It reminded me of a conversation I had with musician-turned-intellectual Pat Kane. Since the advent of iTunes and the like, he said, gigging is often a musician’s main source of income. I had a look at live performance prices, and discovered that whereas in 2001 high-end tickets cost $60, in 2006 Paul McCartney (amongst others) charged $250 per ticket. The premium is for the format-specific features of the experience: the atmosphere, the ‘authenticity’, the transient moment. Everything else is downloadable.
But the catch is that you have to sell material that suits the ‘live’ immersive experience. That means all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza gigs (Madonna crucified on a mirrored cross in Rome, anyone?) and super-colossal epic ‘excitement’ films, full of special effects, chases, explosions and the like. Consider the top ten grossing films 2000-06: three Harry Potters, three Lord of the Ringses, three X-Men films, three Star Warses, three Matrix films, Spider-man, two Batmans, The Chronicles of Narnia, Day After Tomorrow, Jurassic Park 3, Terminator 3 and War of the Worlds. Alongside that there were typically at least two high-budget CGI films in the top ten each year Exciting fantasy epics are on the up, because if you produce anything else the punters are more likely to skip the cinema experience and just download it.
So the networked replicability of content drives a trend for high-budget, high-concept cultural content for which you can justifiably charge at the door. But other forms are on the up. The NYT just ran a story about M dot Strange, who brought a huge YouTube audience to his Sundance premiere. And December’s Wired called the LonelyGirl15 phenomenon on YouTube ‘The future of TV’. It’s not as if general cinema release is the only way to make your name. Sandi Thom‘s rise to fame through a series of webcasts tells the same story.
Here, we see artists who reverse the paradigm: rather than seeking to thrill a passive audience, they intrigue an active one. Rather than seeking to retain control, they farm parts of the story out. As Lonelygirl15’s story grows, each characer will get a vlog: rather than produce the whole thing themselves, the originators will work out a basic storyline and then pair writers and directors with actors and let them loose.
I don’t wish to argue here that this second paradigm of community-based participative creation is necessarily ‘better’, or that it will supplant existing cultural forms. But it is emerging rapidly as a major cultural force, and merits examination both in its own right and for clues to the operation of Net-native forms of literature.
fact or fiction? who cares?
A frequent characteristic of these kinds of networked co-creation is debate about the ‘reality’ of its products. LonelyGirl15 whipped up a storm on ARG Network while people tried to work out if she was an ARG trailhead, an advertising campaign, or a real teenager. Similarly, many have suspected Sandi Thom’s webcast story of including a layer of fiction. But this has not hurt Sandi’s career any more than it killed interest in LonelyGirl15. Built into these discussions is a sense that this (like much ambiguity) is not a bug but a feature, and is actually intrinsic to the operation of the net. After all, the promise underpinning Second Life, MUDs, messageboards and much of the Net’s traffic is radical self-reinvention beyond the bounds of one’s life and physical body. Fiction is part of Net reality.
Literary theorists have held fiction in special regard for thousands of years; if fiction is intrinsic to the ‘reality’ of the Net, what happens to storytellers? Is there a kind of literature native to the Net?
ARGs: net-native literature
Though it’s a relatively young phenomenon, and I have no doubt that other forms will emerge, the strongest candidates at present for consideration as such are ARGs (alternate reality games). Unlike PVP online games, they are at least partially written (textual), and rely heavily on participants’ collaboration through messageboards. If you’re trying to catch up, you essentially read the ‘story’ as it is ‘written’ by its participants in fora dedicated to solving them. They have a clear story, but are dependent for their unfolding on community participation – and may be changed by this participation: in 2001, Lockjaw ended prematurely when participants brought a class-action lawsuit against the fictional genetic engineering company at the heart of the story. Or perhaps it didnt – I’ve seen one reference to this event, but other attempts simply lead me deeper into a story that may or may not still be active.
Thus, like LonelyGirl15 and her ilk, ARGs also bridge fact and fiction. This is part of their pleasure, and it is pervasive: I had a Skype conversation yesterday with Ansuman Biswas, an artist who has been sucked into the now-unfolding MEIGEIST game when its creators referenced his work in the course of casting story clues. Ansuman delightedly sent me the link to the initial thread on the game at unfiction, where participants have been debating whether Ansuman exists or not. Even though I was talking to him at the time I almost found myself wondering, too.
Where ARGs as a creative form diverge from print literature (at least, from modern print literature) is in their use of pastiche, patchwork and mash-up. One of the delights of storytelling is the sense of an organising intelligence at work in a chaos of otherwise random events. ARGs provide this, but in a way appropriate to the Babel of content available on the Net. Participants know that someone is orchestrating a storyline, but that it will not unfold without the active contribution of the decoders, web-surfers, inveterate Googlers and avid readers tracking leads, clues, possible hints and unfolding events through the chaos of the Web. Rather than striving for that uber-modernist concept, ‘originality’, an ARG is predicated on the pre-existence of the rest of the Net, and works like a DJ with the content already present. In this, it has more in common with the magpie techniques of Montaigne (1533-92), or the copious ‘authoritative’ quotations of Chaucer than contemporary notions of the author-as-originator.
the PR money-shot
The downside of some ARG activity is the rapid incursions of the marketing machine into the format, and a corresponding tendency towards high-budget games with a PR money-shot. For example, I Love Bees turned out to be a trailer for Halo 2. This spills over into offline publication: Cathy’s Book, itself an interactive multimedia concept co-written by Sean Stewart, one of the puppetmasters of the 2001 ARG ‘The Beast, made headlines last year when it included product placements from Clinique. So where YouTube, myspace, webcasts and the like appear to be working in some ways to open up and democratise creative activity as a community activity, it is as yet unclear whether the same is true of ARGs. Is it acceptable for immersive fiction to be so seamlessly integrated with the needs of the advertising world? Is the idealism of Aristotle and Sidney still worth keeping? Or is such purism obsolete?
where are the artists?
Either way, this new genre represents, I believe, the first stirrings of a Net-native form of storytelling. ARGs have all the characteristics of networked cultural production: they unfold through the collaboration of a networked problem-solving community; they use multiple media, mixtures of fact and fiction, and a distributed reader/participant base. Their operation, and their susceptibility to co-opting by the marketing industry poses many questions; but the very nature of the form suggests that the way to address these is through engagement, not criticism. So, ultimately, this is a call for writers and artists interested in what the form is and could become: to situate Net writing in the context of why writers have always written, to explore its potential, and to ensure that it remains a form that belongs to us, rather than being sold back to us in darkened theatres with a bagful of memorabilia.