Category Archives: writing

do you remember the first time?

Siva Vaidhyanathan, the Institute’s fellow, is busy writing a book about Google, to be titled The Googlization of Everything. He’s working in public, and right now, he’s interested in hearing stories about how people – that means you! – began to use Google:

Do you remember the first time you used Google? When was it? How did you hear about Google? What was you first impression?
Please use the comments over on The Googlization of Everything to tell me stories.
As Mudbone (Richard Pryor’s character) used to say, “you only remember two times, your first and your last.”

There are a lot of interesting comments there already . . .

fantasy author’s site hosts fan-created wiki encyclopedia

In marked contrast to J K Rowling, whose battles against the publication of a fan-created Potter encyclopedia we’ve covered here, fantasy author Naomi Novik‘s website hosts a wiki in which fans of her writing help to co-create an encyclopedic guide to her Temeraire novels. It’s no coincidence that Novik is one of a handful of fanfic writers who’ve made the transition to publication as ‘original’ authors. She also chairs the Organization for Transformative Works, an archive dedicated to fanfic or ‘transformative’ work.
Novik’s approach reflects a growing recognition by many in the content industries that mass audience engagement with a given fictional world is can deliver benefits worth that outweigh any perceived losses due to copyright infringement by ‘derivative’ work. Echoing the tacit truce between the manga industry and its participatory fan culture (covered here last November), Novik’s explicit welcoming of fan participation in her fictional universes points towards a model of authorship that goes beyond a crude protectionism of the supposed privileged position of ‘author’ towards a recognition that, while creativity and participation are in some senses intrinsic to the read/write Web, not all creators are created equal – nor wish to be.
While a simplistic egalitarianism would propose that participatory media flatten all creative hierarchies, the reality is that many are content to engage with and develop a pre-existing fiction, and have no desire to originate such. Beyond recognising this fact, the challenge for post-Web2.0 writers is to evolve structures that reflect and support this relationship, without simply inscribing the originator/participator split as a cast-in-stone digital-era reworking of the author/reader dyad.

so when are you going to retire?: a book in process about age, work and identity

I want to give a shout out to a wonderful new project by a dear friend of ours. So When Are You Going to Retire? is -? or will be, or is in the process of becoming -? a book exploring questions of age, work and identity through the stories of people over 80 who continue, against the odds, to work for a living. As of very recently, the author, Ashton Applewhite, has begun documenting her research on a very attractive new weblog, and is inviting readers, writers and experts in the field to join her in conversations and story sharing that hopefully will shape the book’s development. In an email, Ashton explained to me why she’s doing this:

I’m a generalist writing about a broad topic: people in their 80s and 90s who are still in the workforce, and what we can learn from them. Following on the Institute’s work with Siva and Mitchell Stephens, I’m excited about using the blog as a mechanism for thinking out loud as I go through my material, formulate the themes of the book, and write the proposal. I think that ongoing feedback from experts (gerontologists, social scientists, demographers, etc.) and discerning readers will sharpen and inform my thinking -? in other words, that the network will help me build a better book. I also think i’ll end up with a valuable platform for leveraging and disseminating my work over the long run -? one that could radically revise conventional notions of shelf life. Cutting Loose, my book about women and divorce (HarperCollins, 1997) is still in print; imagine what sales would look like if it were at the hub of an ongoing social network, and what a rich site that would be?

Though this isn’t an officially Institute-sponsored project, we’ve done a fair bit of kibbitzing from the sidelines on the conceptual layout of the site and on general strategies for writing it (this being Ashton’s first foray into blogging). We’re also brainstorming with Ashton on that most crucial of issues: building an audience. Most of our networked book projects have been on technology or media-related subjects that naturally appeal to online readerships and get picked up easily in the blogospheric grapevine. Ashton’s book doesn’t have such an obviously built-in wired constituency, although its potential readership is far broader and more diverse than that of any of the works we’ve published. I imagine it will be a gradual, word of mouth kind of thing.
So check out Ashton’s rich and inviting site, join the conversation, and spread the word to anyone you know who might be interested. If you know of any specific sites or online communities that Ashton might want to connect with, let her know through the “email me” link near the top of her site. There’s already quite a lot to delve into since Ashton’s been blogging under the radar for the past several months, cutting her teeth on the form and piling up some wonderful stories (many of which you can listen to in audio). Help start building this network, and this book.

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


We were recently alerted, via Grand Text Auto, to a new hypertext fiction environment on the Web called Hypertextopia:

Hypertextopia is a space where you can read and write stories for the internet. On the surface, it looks like a mind-map, but it embeds a word-processor, and allows you to publish your stories like a blog.

The site is gorgeously done, applying a fresh coat of Web 2.0 paint to the creaky concepts of classical hypertext. I find myself strangely conflicted, though, as I browse through it. Design-wise, it is a triumph, and really gets my wheels spinning w/r/t the possibilities of online writing systems. The authoring tools they’ve developed are simple and elegant, allowing you to write “axial hypertexts”: narratives with a clear beginning and end but with multiple pathways and digressions in between. You read them as a series of textual screens, which can include beautiful fold-out boxes for annotations and illustrations, and various color-coded links (the colors denote different types of internal links, which the author describes). You also have the option of viewing stories as nodal maps, which show the story’s underlying structure. This is part of the map of “The Butterfly Boy” by William Vollmann (by all indications, the William Vollmann):
Lovely as it all is though, it doesn’t convince me that hypertext is any more viable a literary form now, on the Web, than it was back in the heyday of Eastgate and Storyspace. Outside its inner circle of devotees, hypertext has always been more interesting in concept than in practice. A necessary thought experiment on narrative’s deconstruction in a post-book future, but not the sort of thing you’d want to read for pleasure.
It’s always felt to me like a too-literal reenactment of Jorge Luis Borges’ explosion of narrative in The Garden of Forking Paths. In the story, the central character, a Chinese double agent in WWI being pursued by a British assassin who has learned of his treachery, recalls a lost, unfinished novel written by a distant ancestor. It is an infinte story that encompasses every possible event and outcome for its characters: a labyrinth, not in space but in time. Borges meant the novel not as a prescription for a new literary form but as a metaphor of parallel worlds, yet many have cited this story as among the conceptual forebears of hypertext fiction, and Borges is much revered generally among technophiles for writing fables that eerily prefigure the digital age.
I’ve always found it odd how people (techies especially) seem to get romantic (perhaps fetishistic is the better word) about Borges. Prophetic he no doubt was, but his tidings are dark ones. Tales like “Forking Paths,” Funes the Memorious and The Library of Babel are ideas taken to a frightening extreme, certainly not things we would wish to come true. There are days when the Internet does indeed feel a bit like the Library of Babel, a place where an infinity of information has led to the death of meaning. But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext -? insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.
Hypertext’s main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring. I know that I’m meant to feel liberated by my increased agency as reader, but instead I feel burdened. What are offered as choices -? possible pathways though the maze -? soon start to weigh like chores. It feels like a gimmick, a cheap trick, like it doesn’t really matter which way you go (that the prose tends to be poor doesn’t help). There’s a reason hypertext never found an audience.
I can, however, see the appeal of hypertext fictions as puzzles or games. In fact, this may be their true significance in the evolution of storytelling (and perhaps why I don’t get them, because I’m not a gamer). Thought of this way, it’s more about the experience of navigating a narrative landscape than the narrative itself. The story is a sort of alibi, a pretext, for engaging with a particular kind of form, a form which bears far more resemblance to a game than to any kind of prose fiction predecessor. That, at any rate, is how I’ve chosen to situate hypertext. To me, it’s a napkin sketch of a genuinely new form -? video games -? that has little directly to do with writing or reading in the traditional sense. Hypertext was not the true garden of forking paths (which we would never truly want anyway), but a small box of finite options. To sift through them dutifully was about as fun as the lab rat’s journey through the maze. You need a bigger algorithmic engine and the sensory fascinations of graphics (and probably a larger pool of authors and co-creators too) to generate a topography vast enough to hide, at least for a while, its finiteness -? long enough to feel mysterious. That’s what games do, and do well.
I’m sure this isn’t an original observation, but it’s baggage I felt like unloading since classical hypertext is a topic we’ve largely skirted around here at the Institute. Grumbling aside though, Hypertextopia offers much to ponder. Recontextualizing a pre-Web form in the Web is a worthwhile experiment and is bound to shed some light. I’m thinking about how we might play around in it…

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.

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.

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.

digital livings

Alongside our research for Arts Council England, I’m also looking at how how new media writers earn their livings and make their way in the world.

The Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media
at De Montfort University is so innovative that there isn’t an obvious career path for its graduates nor an established group of successful role models for students to look to in the UK for inspiration. The Digital Livings project is finding out how writers are carving out professional careers, starting with a survey of UK writers and expanding worldwide later in the year.
Which skills do new media writers possess? Where do they sell their work? What advice do they have to offer those wishing to follow in their footsteps? Is the market for digital fiction growing or not? I’ll report back on our findings.