Category Archives: novel

flight paths 2.0

Back in December we announced the launch of Flight Paths, a “networked novel” that is currently being written by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph with feedback and contributions from readers. At that point, the Web presence for the project was a simple CommentPress blog where readers could post stories, images, multimedia and links, and weigh in on the drafting of terms and conditions for participation. Since then, Kate and Chris have been working on setting up a more flexible curatorial environment, and just this week they unveiled a lovely new Flight Paths site made in Netvibes.
Netvibes is a web-based application (still in beta) that allows you to build personalized start pages composed of widgets and modules which funnel in content from various data sources around the net (think My Yahoo! or iGoogle but with much more ability to customize). This is a great tool to try out for a project that is being composed partly out of threads and media fragments from around the Web. The blog is still embedded as a central element, and is still the primary place for reader-collaborators to contribute, but there are now several new galleries where reader-submitted works can be featured and explored. It’s a great new platform and an inventive solution to one of CommentPress’s present problems: that it’s good at gathering content but not terribly good at presenting it. Take a look, and please participate if you feel inspired.
Multimedia gallery on the new Flight Paths site

flight paths: a networked novel

I’d like to draw your attention to an exciting new project: Flight Paths, a networked novel in progress by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, co-authors most recently of the lovely multimedia serial “Inanimate Alice.” The Institute is delighted to be a partner on this experiment (along with the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University and Arts Council England), which marks our first foray into fiction. A common thread with our past experiments is that this book will involve its readers in the writing process. The story begins:

sainsburys.jpg “I have finished my weekly supermarket shop, stocking up on provisions for my three kids, my husband, our dog and our cat. I push the loaded trolley across the car park, battling to keep its wonky wheels on track. I pop open the boot of my car and then for some reason, I have no idea why, I look up, into the clear blue autumnal sky. And I see him. It takes me a long moment to figure out what I am looking at. He is falling from the sky. A dark mass, growing larger quickly. I let go of the trolley and am dimly aware that it is getting away from me but I can’t move, I am stuck there in the middle of the supermarket car park, watching, as he hurtles toward the earth. I have no idea how long it takes – a few seconds, an entire lifetime – but I stand there holding my breath as the city goes about its business around me until…
He crashes into the roof of my car.”
The car park of Sainsbury’s supermarket in Richmond, southwest London, lies directly beneath one of the main flight paths into Heathrow Airport. Over the last decade, on at least five separate occasions, the bodies of young men have fallen from the sky and landed on or near this car park. All these men were stowaways on flights from the Indian subcontinent who had believed that they could find a way into the cargo hold of an airplane by climbing up into the airplane wheel shaft. It is thought that none could have survived the journey, killed by either the tremendous heat generated by the airplane wheels on the runway, crushed when the landing gear retracts into the plane after take off, or frozen to death once the airplane reaches altitude.
‘Flight Paths’ seeks to explore what happens when lives collide – an airplane stowaway and the fictional suburban London housewife, quoted above. This project will tell their stories.
Through the fiction of these two lives, and the cross-connections and contradictions they represent, a larger story about the way we live today will emerge. The collision between the unknown young man, who will be both memorialised and brought back to life by the piece, and the London woman will provide the focus and force for a piece that will explore asylum, immigration, consumer culture, Islam and the West, as well as the seemingly mundane modern day reality of the supermarket car park itself. This young man’s death/plummet will become a flight, a testament to both his extreme bravery and the tragic symbolism of his chosen route to the West.

Here the authors explain the participatory element:

The initial goal of this project is to create a work of digital fiction, a ‘networked book’, created on and through the internet. The first stage of the project will include a web iteration with, at its heart, this blog, opening up the research process to the outside world, inviting discussion of the large array of issues the project touches on. As well as this, Chris Joseph and Kate Pullinger will create a series of multimedia elements that will illuminate various aspects of the story. This will allow us to invite and encourage user-generated content on this website and any associated sites; we would like to open the project up to allow other writers and artists to contribute texts – both multimedia and more traditional – as well as images, sounds, memories, ideas. At the same time, Kate Pullinger will be writing a print novel that will be a companion piece to the project overall.

We’re very curious/excited to see how this develops. Go explore the site, which is just a preliminary framework right now, and get involved. And please spread the word to other potential reader/paticipants. A chance to play a part in a new kind of story.

the novelodeon

This past April, as the final season of The Sopranos hit the airwaves, with seemingly the whole country bracing for impact, I’d still never seen a single episode. Gradually, my indifference turned to concern. It felt like every talk show, news culture section and conversation on the street was about the fate of Tony Soprano -? a latter-day American anti-hero, a titanic figure with the air of myth about him. I began worry that I’d missed out on something big. A cultural touchstone of rare proportions.
So, as the end drew near, I took a deep breath and decided to start from the beginning.
Six months, 86 episodes, and over 70 combined viewing hours later I’m finally done, and while I may have missed out on The Sopranos as a broadcast event -? seven seasons of weekly appointments with Tony, Carmela, Meadow, AJ and the whole crumbling world of New Jersey gangsterdom -? I got to experience something perhaps more satisfying: a hyper-concentrated, solitary viewing experience, curled up nightly in bed with my laptop. Episodes flowing into each other almost seamlessly like chapters of a book. The pause button like a dog-eared page or bookmark inserted as my eyelids began to droop. An experience not unlike reading a big novel.
Book lovers frequently insist they could never get in bed with a computer, but it seems that this is happening all the time. Any of you who have indulged in a multi-season TV binge can probably attest to this -? hours spent prone, the laptop huffing away, plowing through disc after disc (Bob made a similar observation a while back). Substantively too there’s something that recalls leisure reading. It has oft been remarked that The Sopranos heralded a major shift in television into terrain once solely occupied by the novel: serial dramas that transcend their episodic structure and become a new kind of literature. Big cross-seasonal plot arcs. A broad social canvas. Intricately interwoven narrative. A large cast of deeply drawn characters. Not to mention a purchase on the country’s imagination that recalls the popularity of the great serial fictions of Dickens a century and a half ago. With the spate of high-caliber TV serials originated by HBO and then proliferated by channels across the television spectrum, film has moved onto the novel’s turf, matching not only its narrative scope but its expansive dimensions. Stories as big and sprawling as novels can now be told in moving pictures, and thanks to a host of new individualized distribution channels, experienced as intimately, on a laptop or iPod.
Of course I’m not suggesting that film and prose fiction aren’t very different things, just that their roles seem to be converging. From its early days, film has been in conversation with the novel, frequently operating on canvases as vast as Anna Karenina or Great Expectations, but it necessarily has had to compress, select and distill the worlds it shows into something in the vicinity of two hours. When a film edges toward the three-hour mark it is considered epic. Simply in terms of duration of story and investment of time by the viewer/reader, movies and novels have always been very different kinds of fiction requiring very different sets of commitments from their audiences.
The shift arguably began with the multi-episode adaptations of classic books pioneered by the BBC in the 70s -? shows like I, Claudius, on through the 1995 hit rendition of Pride and Prejudice, right up to last year’s Bleak House. Here, television began to stretch out novelistically. And indeed, novels were the source material. Still, the solitary “reading” element was absent here. These were broadcast events, viewed in living rooms at an appointed time set by the channel, with little or no control by the spectator. Soon enough, however, VCRs entered the home and television audiences became time shifters, capturing and bending the broadcasters’ schedules to fit their own. From there the die was pretty much cast. A parade of new “narrowcast” technologies -? DVDs, TiVo, personal computers, iTunes, bit torrent -? imbued these shows with book-like qualities: reader-driven, personal, portable… an intimate cinema of one.
Immediately upon finishing The Sopranos, with the pangs of withdrawal already setting in, I found solace in Wikipedia, which has extensive articles on each episode and character from the show. With the help of the external links, I soon found myself on a strange digital dérive through various arcana: press clippings, blogs, and an forums debating the show’s ambiguous ending, personal web pages of supporting cast members such as Joseph R. Gannascoli, who played the gay mobster Vito Spatafore, and from whose site one can purchase such fine collectibles as t-shirts emblazoned with “I Love You Johnny Cakes.” Through the drifts of trivia, I eventually dug up several interesting quotes from contemporary authors ruminating on the novel’s place in American life and the increasing overlap with television. The first bits were from John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, who published a piece in The Guardian during those fevered months surrounding the Sopranos finale entitled “Has the novel been murdered by the mob?”

From coast to coast, from white-wine sipping yuppies to real life mobsters, The Sopranos has had Americans talking – even those of us not familiar with the difficulty of illegal interstate trucking or how to bury a body in packed snow. While the New York Times called upon Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly to resurrect the serial novel in its Sunday Magazine, critics were calling Chase the Dickens of our time. The final episode roped in some 11.9 million viewers. One major question, though, remains. Has Tony Soprano whacked the American novel?
….America’s most powerful myth-making muse long ago moved in to Hollywood (and the White House press room), so the ascendancy of
The Sopranos to the level of quasi-literary art should have been expected. Indeed, this wouldn’t be troubling were Americans reading other, actual novels. But they’re not – at least not in the numbers they once did.

Freeman cites two authors, Gary Shteyngart and the late Norman Mailer, both of whom have discussed The Sopranos as a story of novelistic proportions. First, here’s Shteyngart, in a Slate dialogue last year with Walter Kirn:

Our time…is more mutable. Change occurs not from year to year but from day to day – ?the fiction writer’s job of remaining relevant has never been harder. And I don’t think this will be true only of the present age. I think we are entering a period of unprecedented acceleration, of previously unimaginable technological gain that may be derailed only by the kind of apocalypse found in Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel.
The Internet, I both fear and hope, is only the beginning.
But the emotional need to connect with a story remains. One of the folks behind the popular HBO series
The Wire recently said that he sees each season as a novel, with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. The Sopranos, which may one day be acknowledged as the definitive fiction of the early 21st century, puts an emphasis on detail, setting, and psychology in a way that could resonate with a reader of, say, A Sentimental Education.

And here’s Mailer, in a 2004 interview on Poynter Online:

The Great American Novel is no longer writable. We can’t do what John Dos Passos did. His trilogy on America came as close to the Great American Novel as anyone. You can’t cover all of America now. It’s too detailed. You couldn’t just stick someone in Tampa without knowing about Tampa. You couldn’t get away with it. People didn’t get upset if you were a little scanty on the details in the past. Now all the details get in the way of an expanse of a novel.
You can take a much broader canvas with nonfiction … and Americans want large canvases because America is getting so confusing. People want more information than you can get from most novels. You can read a novel about a small subject like the breakup of a marriage, but that’s not a wide enough approach for some. It takes something like “The Sopranos,” which can loop into a good many aspects of American culture. As I said, I don’t think the Great American Novel can be written anymore. There will be great novels … forever, I hope … But the notion of a wide canvas may be moving to television with its possibilities of endless hours.

I think it’s this element of time that lies at the heart of this over-drawn analogy. The storytellers of television are driving a golden age of magisterial fictions roomy enough to capture the full flow of time. TV serials used to be a way to kill time: repeatable formulas, the same story told again and again, a tradition that’s alive and well in shows like Law & Order. You can check in, check out, it doesn’t really matter. TV has always been sort of timeless in this way. Whereas prose fiction has long had a special relationship with time. Time, in its fullness, takes time for the author to convey, and the time it takes to read book-length fictions is I think equally part of the reward -? it’s an endurance sport, long-distance running. I always assumed that only a book could show me the landscape of time in this almost bodily way, but my recent odyssey with the Soprano family appears to have blurred the usual distinctions.

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!

a million penguins: a wiki-novelty

You may by now have heard about A Million Penguins, the wiki-novel experiment currently underway at Penguin Books. They’re trying to find out if a self-organizing collective of writers can produce a credible novel on a live website. A dubious idea if you believe a novel is almost by definition the product of a singular inspiration, but praiseworthy nonetheless for its experimental bravado.
penguins.jpg Already, they’ve run into trouble. Knowing a thing or two about publicity, Penguin managed to get a huge amount of attention to the site — probably too much — almost immediately. Hundreds of contributors have signed up: mostly earnest, some benignly mischievous, others bent wholly on disruption. I was reminded naturally of the LA Times’ ill-fated “wikitorial” experiment in June of ’05 in which readers were invited to rewrite the paper’s editorials. Within the first few hours, the LAT had its windshield wipers going at full speed and yet still they couldn’t keep up with the shit storm of vandalism that was unleashed — particularly one cyber-hooligan’s repeated posting of the notorious “goatse” image that has haunted many a dream. They canceled the experiment just two days after launch.
All signs indicate that Penguin will not be so easily deterred, though they are making various adjustments to the system as they go. In response to general frustration at the relentless pace of edits, they’re currently trying out a new policy of freezing the wiki for several hours each afternoon in order to create a stable “reading window” to help participants and the Penguin editors who are chronicling the process to get oriented. This seems like a good idea (flexibility is definitely the right editorial MO in a project like this). And unlike the LA Times they seem to have kept the spam and vandalism to within tolerable limits, in part with the help of students in the MA program in creative writing and new media at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, who are official partners in the project.
When I heard the De Montfort folks would be helping to steer the project I was excited. It’s hard to start a wiki project with no previously established community in the hot glare of a media spotlight . Having a group of experienced writers at the helm, or at least gently nudging the tiller — writers like Kate Pullinger, author of the Inanimate Alice series, who are tapped into the new forms and rhythms of the Net — seemed like a smart move that might lend the project some direction. But digging a bit through the talk pages and revision histories, I’ve found little discernible contribution from De Montfort other than spam cleanup and general housekeeping. A pity not to utilize them more. It would be great to hear their thoughts about all of this on the blog.
So anyway, the novel.
Not surprisingly it’s incoherent. You might get something similar if you took a stack of supermarket checkout lane potboilers and some Mad Libs and threw them in a blender. Far more interesting is the discussion page behind the novel where one can read the valiant efforts of participants to communicate with one another and to instill some semblance of order. Here are the battle wounded from the wiki fray… characters staggering about in search of an author. Writers in search of an editor. One person, obviously dismayed at the narrative’s dogged refusal to make sense, suggests building separate pages devoted exclusively to plotting out story arcs. Another exclaims: “THE STORY AS OF THIS MOMENT IS THE STORY – you are permitted to make slight changes in past, but concentrate on where we are now and move forward.” Another proceeds to forcefully disagree. Others, even more exasperated, propose forking the project into alternative novels and leaving the chaotic front page to the buzzards. How ironic it would be if each user ended up just creating their own page and writing the novel they wanted to write — alone.
Reading through these paratexts, I couldn’t help thinking that this was in fact the real story being written. Might the discussion page contain the seeds of a Tristram Shandyesque tale about a collaborative novel-writing experiment gone horribly awry, in which the much vaunted “novel” exists only in its total inability to be written?

*     *     *     *     *

The problem with A Million Penguins in a nutshell is that the concept of a “wiki-novel” is an oxymoron. A novel is probably as un-collaborative a literary form as you can get, while a wiki is inherently collaborative. Wikipedia works because encyclopedias were always in a sense collective works — distillations of collective knowledge — so the wiki was the right tool for reinventing that form. Here that tool is misapplied. Or maybe it’s the scale of participation that is the problem here. Too many penguins. I can see a wiki possibly working for a smaller narrative community.
All of this is not to imply that collaborative fiction is a pipe dream or that no viable new forms have yet been devised. Just read Sebastian Mary’s fascinating survey, published here a couple of weeks back, of emergent net-native literary forms and you’ll see that there’s plenty going on in other channels. In addition to some interesting reflections on YouTube, Mary talks about ARGs, or alternative reality games, a new participatory form in which communities of readers write the story as they go, blending fact and fiction, pulling in multiple media, and employing a range of collaborative tools. Perhaps most pertinent to Penguin’s novel experiment, Mary points out that the ARG typically is not a form in which stories are created out of whole cloth, rather they are patchworks, woven from the rich fragmentary litter of popular culture and the Web:

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.

Penguin too had the whole wide Web to work with, not to mention the immense body of literature in its own publishing vault, which seems ripe for a remix or a collaborative cut-up session. But instead they chose the form that is probably most resistant to these new social forms of creativity. The result is a well intentioned but confused attempt at innovation. A novelty, yes. But a novel, not quite.

physical books and networks

won_image.jpg The Times yesterday ran a pretty decent article, “Digital Publishing Is Scrambling the Industry’s Rules”, discussing some recent experiments in book publishing online. One we’ve discussed here previously, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, which is available as both a hefty 500-page brick from Yale University Press and in free PDF chapter downloads. There’s also a corresponding readers’ wiki for collective annotation and discussion of the text online. It was an adventurous move for an academic press, though they could have done a better job of integrating the text with the discussion (it would have been fantastic to do something like GAM3R 7H30RY with Benkler’s book).
Also discussed is the new Mark Danielewski novel. His first book, House of Leaves, was published by Pantheon in 2000 after circulating informally on the web among a growing cult readership. His sophmore effort, due out in September, has also racked up some pre-publication mileage, but in a more controlled experiment. According to the Times, the book “will include hundreds of margin notes listing moments in history suggested online by fans of his work who have added hundreds of annotations, some of which are to be published in the physical book’s margins.” Annotations were submitted through an online forum on Danielewski’s web site, a forum that does not include a version of the text (though apparently 60 “digital galleys” were distributed to an inner circle of devoted readers).
The Times piece ends with an interesting quote from Danielewski, who, despite his roots in networked samizdat, is still ultimately focused on the book as a carefully crafted physical reading experience:

Mr. Danielewski said that the physical book would persist as long as authors figure out ways to stretch the format in new ways. “Only Revolutions,” he pointed out, tracks the experiences of two intersecting characters, whose narratives begin at different ends of the book, requiring readers to turn it upside down every eight pages to get both of their stories. “As excited as I am by technology, I’m ultimately creating a book that can’t exist online,” he said. “The experience of starting at either end of the book and feeling the space close between the characters until you’re exactly at the halfway point is not something you could experience online. I think that’s the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books.”

Fragmented as our reading habits (and lives) have become, there’s a persistent impulse, especially in fiction, toward the linear. Danielewski is probably right that the new networked modes of reading and writing might serve to buttress rather than unravel the old ways. Playing with the straight line (twisting it, braiding it, chopping it) is the writer’s art, and a front-to-end vessel like the book is a compelling restraint in which to work. This made me think of Anna Karenina, which is practically two novels braided together, the central characters, Anna and Levin, meeting just once, and then only glancingly.
I prefer to think of the networked book not as a replacement for print but as a parallel. What’s particularly interesting is how the two can inform one another, how a physical book can end up being changed and charged by its journey through a networked process. This certainly will be the case for the two books in progress the Institute is currently hosting, Mitch Stephens’ history of atheism and Ken Wark’s critical theory of video games. Though the books will eventually be “cooked” by a print publisher — Carroll & Graf, in Mitch’s case, and a university press (possibly Harvard or MIT), in Ken’s — they will almost certainly end up different for their having been networkshopped. Situating the book’s formative phase in the network can further boost the voltage between the covers.
chimp.jpg An analogy. The more we learn about the evolution of biological life, the more we understand that the origin of species seldom follows a linear path. There’s a good deal of hybridization, random mutation, and general mixing. A paper recently published in Nature hypothesizes that the genetic link between humans and chimpanzees is at least a million years more recent than had previously been thought based on fossil evidence. The implication is that, for millennia, proto-chimps and proto-humans were interbreeding in a torrid cross-species affair.
Eventually, species become distinct (or extinct), but for long stretches it’s a story of hybridity. And so with media. Things are not necessarily replaced, but rather changed. Photography unleashed Impressionism from the paint brush; television, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book argues, acted as a foil for the postmodern American novel. The blog and the news aggregator may not kill the newspaper, but they will undoubtedly change it. And so the book. You see that glint in the chimp’s eye? A period of interbreeding has commenced.

on ebay: collaborative fiction, one page at a time

Phil McArthur is not a writer. But while recovering from a recent fight with cancer, he began to dream about producing a novel. Sci-fi or horror most likely — the kind of stuff he enjoys to read. But what if he could write it socially? That is, with other people? What if he could send the book spinning like a top and just watch it go?
Say he pens the first page of what will eventually become a 250-page thriller and then passes the baton to a stranger. That person goes on to write the second page, then passes it on again to a third author. And a fourth. A fifth. And so on. One page per day, all the way to 250. By that point it’s 2007 and they can publish the whole thing on Lulu.

novel twists.jpg

The fruit of these musings is (or will be… or is steadily becoming) “Novel Twists”, a ongoing collaborative fiction experiment where you, I or anyone can contribute a page. The only stipulations are that entries are between 250 and 450 words, are kept reasonably clean, and that you refrain from killing the protagonist, Andy Amaratha — at least at this early stage, when only 17 pages have been completed. Writers also get a little 100-word notepad beneath their page to provide a biographical sketch and author’s notes. Once they’ve published their slice, the subsequent page is auctioned on Ebay. Before too long, a final bid is accepted and the next appointed author has 24 hours to complete his or her page.
Networked vanity publishing, you might say. And it is. But McArthur clearly isn’t in it for the money: bids are made by the penny, and all proceeds go to a cancer charity. The Ebay part is intended more to boost the project’s visibility (an article in yesterday’s Guardian also helps), and “to allow everyone a fair chance at the next page.” The main point is to have fun, and to test the hunch that relay-race writing might yield good fiction. In the end, McArthur seems not to care whether it does or not, he just wants to see if the thing actually can get written.
Surrealists explored this territory in the 1920s with the “exquisite corpse,” a game in which images and texts are assembled collaboratively, with knowledge of previous entries deliberately obscured. This made its way into all sorts of games we played when we were young and books that we read (I remember that book of three-panel figures where heads, midriffs and legs could be endlessly recombined to form hilarious, fantastical creatures). The internet lends itself particularly well to this kind of playful medley.

serial killer

Alex Lencicki is a blogger with experience serializing novels online. Today, in a comment to my Slate networked book post, he links to a wonderful diatribe on his site deconstructing the myriad ways in which Slate’s web novel experiment is so bad and so self-defeating — a pretty comprehensive list of dos and don’ts that Slate would do well to heed in the future. In a nutshell, Slate has taken a novel by a popular writer and apparently done everything within its power to make it hard to read and hard to find. Why exactly they did this is hard to figure out.
Summing up, Lencicki puts things nicely in context within the history of serial fiction:

The original 19 th century serials worked because they were optimized for newsprint, 21st century serials should be optimized for the way people use the web. People check blogs daily, they download pages to their phones, they print them out at work and take them downstairs on a smoke break. There’s plenty of room in all that activity to read a serial novel – in fact, that activity is well suited to the mode. But instead of issuing press releases and promising to revolutionize literature, publishers should focus on releasing the books so that people can read them online. It’s easy to get lost in a good book when the book adapts to you.

slate publishes a networked book

060313_Fict_Unbinding.gif Always full of surprises, Slate Magazine has launched an interesting literary experiment: a serial novel by Walter Kirn called (appropriately for a networked book) The Unbinding, to be published twice weekly, exclusively online, through June. From the original announcement:

On Monday, March 13, Slate will launch an exciting new publishing venture: an online novel written in real time, by award-winning novelist Walter Kirn. Installments of the novel, titled The Unbinding, will appear in Slate roughly twice a week from March through June. While novels have been serialized in mainstream online publications before, this is the first time a prominent novelist has published a genuine Net Novel–one that takes advantage of, and draws inspiration from, the capacities of the Internet. The Unbinding, a dark comedy set in the near future, is a compilation of “found documents”–online diary entries, e-mails, surveillance reports, etc. It will make use of the Internet’s unique capacity to respond to events as they happen, linking to documents and other Web sites. In other words, The Unbinding is conceived for the Web, rather than adapted to it.
Its publication also marks the debut of Slate’s fiction section. Over the past decade, there has been much discussion of the lack of literature being written on the Web. When Stephen King experimented with the medium in the year 2000, publishing a novel online called The Plant, readers were hampered by dial-up access. But the prevalence of broadband and increasing comfort with online reading makes the publication of a novel like The Unbinding possible.

The Unbinding seems to be straight-up serial fiction, mounted in Flash with downloadable PDFs available. There doesn’t appear to be anything set up for reader feedback. All in all, a rather conservative effort toward a networked book: not a great deal of attention paid to design, not playing much with medium, although the integration of other web genres in its narrative — the “found documents” — could be interesting (House of Leaves?). Still, considering the diminishing space for fiction in mainstream magazines, and the high visibility of this experiment, this is most welcome. The first installment is up: let’s take a look.

class, cheating and gaming

The New York Times reports that a company in China is hiring people to play Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG), like World of Warcraft or EverQuest. Employees develop avatars (or characters) and earn resources. Then, the company sells these efforts to affluent online gamers who do not have the time or inclination to play the early stages of the games themselves.
Finding hacks or ways to get around the intended game play is nothing new. I will confess that I have used cheat codes and hacks in playing video games. One of the first ones I’ve ever used, was in Super Mario Brothers on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The Multiple 1-Ups: World 3-1 was a big favorite.
The article also briefly mentions something that I’ve been fascinated by: selling the results of your game play on auctions site, such as ebay. These services have turned game play into commodities, and we can actually determine valuations and costs of game play.
It made me to think about the character Hiro Protagonist in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, a pizza delivery guy in the real world and lethal warrior in the “Metaverse.” He was an exception to the norm and socio-economic status usually carried over into the virtual reality because more realistic avatars were expensive. To actually see that happen in the game spaces of MMOGs by the purchasing of advanced players is quite amazing.
Why do I find that these gamers are cheating? In the era of non-linear information, I select and read only the parts of a text I deem to be relevant. I’ve skipped over parts of movies and watched another part again and again. Isn’t this the same thing? The troubling aspect of this phenomenon is that it is bringing class differentiation into game space. Although gaming itself is a leisure activity, the idea that you can spend your way into succeeding at a MMOG, removes my perceived innocence of that game space.