Right to reply – Embrace the Textual Revolution

On 22 March an article appeared in the Guardian Unlimited entitled ‘Embrace the textual revolution‘, written by Chris Meade, who is setting up Bookfutures, a project to explore “digitisation and its impact on tomorrow’s readers and writers”, and who is also an MA student at De Montfort University’s Creative Writing and New Media course.

The article provoked a lot of responses from those who wanted to challenge the novelty of or interest in digital literature, and those who wanted to defend it (and naturally enough there was a high DMU MA contingent here, as this was both an article by a peer and personal friend, and a key area of interest that unites them all).

Although some might (and did) take offense from the tone of some of the responses the article garnered, many interesting points on both sides were made. It could be taken as a sign of the growing maturity of this area that it engenders this kind of discussion, particularly in an arena (The Guardian) that many people still view as ‘old’ media (though this is changing quickly… I heard a very juicy bit of gossip about possible directions The Guardian will be taking very soon, but revealing it now/here would be unwise – they have good lawyers).

There were a couple of points I wished I could have responded to while the discussion took place, but I was unable due to a total lack of time. So what follows is a ‘right to reply’ of sorts. The original Guardian post has been closed to comments now, which is a shame, but should any of those Guardian posters (or anyone else) wish to continue here I’d encourage them to do so.

Rather than disect the ins and outs of the Guardian discussions (unless/until anyone brings them up here), I’m going to restrict myself (as co-author) to a particular discussion of Inanimate Alice that cropped up:

“InanimateAlice” , to cite one example, doesn’t even come *close* to what a brilliant novel does (and no technology will until they can jack directly into the brain, another innovation I’ll be rather resistant to when they start offering it). Inanimate Alice is a glorified slideshow presentation. We had those when I was a kid. I’m 37.

It’s nothing new.

This is, in many ways, the classic(al) response to digital lit. The (first) argument seems to be that only ‘jacking in’ could cause significations in one’s brain equivalent to that of reading words on a printed page. But hold on… what exactly are printed words, other than one system of pictoral significations, and thus part of a continuum that includes icons, images, animations, video? A ‘brilliant novel’ imparts a story (brilliantly) to a reader: surely images can do the same, else a lot of designers, illustrators, animators and filmmakers have been wasting their time… and the massive critical and commercial success of these forms suggests otherwise. And indeed, a later commentator writes:

Steve dismissed Inanimate Alice as nothing more than a slideshow – I’d see it as a film that’s failing to achieve even a tiny percentage of that medium’s capabilities.

Aside from the interesting confusion over whether Alice is a book, a film, a combination or something else entirely, let me get one thing straight: I would never claim Alice succeeds as a ‘brilliant novel’, or even a brilliant e-novel (whatever that term might mean). The mistake the commenter makes is to assume that “glorified slideshow presentation” is a term of abuse, rather than something to be worn as a badge of pride. A (brilliant!) slideshow presentation is a complex piece of media mechanics – images, text, presenter-interaction and reader(s)-interaction: multimedia choreography, spatial and temporal design. A digital multimedia slideshow (Powerpoint, for example) updates this for the electronic arena, and in doing makes certain things easier, particularly from the creator’s point of view (management of assets, editing, distribution, etc.)

Thus the idea that Alice is a glorified slideshow is absolutely correct: it is a piece of dynamic media that imparts information (in this case, fictional) to a reader/viewer.

There are two main reasons behind the commentor’s use of the term as an insult: firstly, the implication that – because it is a type of slideshow – it is of no interest. As I’ve already suggested, this could clearly be challenged on many levels, but let me additionally outline some of the ways in which Alice is not a slideshow, it is also something else, and what that ‘something else’ is is exactly what has attracted people to it.

There are the interactive elements: intentionally very basic in the initial episodes, as we explicitly want to encourage people who have no experience of electronic literature to read Alice. The interactivity will grow throughout the series (we have some very exciting ideas for how it will develop) – and this will hopefully allow e-lit newbies (including, importantly, children) to expand their own levels of ‘digital literacy’. For example, Episode 3: Russia introduced a very simple game running throughout the background of the story. The game is intended to introduce a number of digital (game) literacies that will be required in episodes to come – more seasoned computer users will find these elements unchallenging (and perhaps even as an unwanted narrative interruption, though the reader has a choice between the ‘read-only’ version of the episode rather than the ‘game’ version), but from our perspective they are a part of learning (hopefully without realising you are learning) how to read/experience this type of work. Slideshows? Not much participation/interactivity in those, even the very clever ones.

Then there are the dynamic/generative/random elements. An Alice example would be Ming’s paintings – continuously changing and dynamically generated pieces of art, different to each viewer each time they watch: exactly the same notion as Brian Eno’s 77 million paintings, though on a fraction of the budget and with a much different audience in mind. The music that plays during Ming’s paintings is similarly dynamically generated. Now if you can show me a powerpoint that can do this, I’ll be really impressed! Again, it’s not that this element should necessarily excite you (though of course it does me), but that specifically what does make this a ‘glorified’ slideshow is important.

Then there is the story itself – if you have read any slideshows with this good a story, please do send them over, because I haven’t seen them (it goes without saying that I’m biased here!) Ultimately, of course, we don’t all like the same stories… so if Alice isn’t your cup of tea, that’s completely fair enough – but I’d argue this is not a good enough reason to dismiss the whole (and still growing and changing) genre.

Rather than continue here with a list of explanations of what we are trying to do with Alice, I want to turn to the second major reason I think the commenter uses ‘slideshow’ as an insult, and this is that a slideshow is easy to produce, and therefore of little interest – whereas something complex that only one person could ever have created is worthwhile. It’s always funny how so many people from the world of print literature (and a small number within the digital lit world too) perpetuate this idea of artist or writer as ‘genious’, but actually most digital writers, myself included, get a huge thrill from enabling and watching other people create using the technologies and tools we ourselves use, and we do our utmost to demystify the process whenever possible. There is no need to resort to a post-structuralist or postmodern ‘death of the author’ type justifications: the digital creative process is generally much more open and collaborative than the process of writing a book, and many electronic writers think this is excellent and fascinating development (they simply disagree about the level of editing that should take place, at the time of creation or after the event).

Beyond that, e-writers recognise that a great way to expand and improve the genre(s) is to get more people to read and create it. Another way of looking at this would be to say the best form of criticism is through creation – if it is simple to create (and it should be), and you think you can do better, then please do! For me, the ideal e-lit world would be one in which anyone could create Inanimate Alices, at least as easily as they could pick up a pen and write a novel. Currently there is a skillset, and a hardware/software cost, that act as barriers to entry. Part of my ‘day’ job as writer in residence at DMU is to try and break down these barriers, and teach creative people that they can do this kind of work themselves, and how to do it.

The Million Penguins project is a example of the desire that many e-writers feel to encourage people to explore and learn digital literacies (in this case, wikis); ultimately – ideally – for the individual’s own creative ends. There is a common belief that digital literacy requires the ability to actively create/produce, not just to passively read/consume. Many people around the world are working on tools to make this creative aspect easier (see for example The Institute for the Future of the Book’s Sophie), and soon I think we’ll see software that puts the creation of ‘glorified slideshows’ within anyone’s reach.

Finally, if all these linear, non-multimedic words seem rather removed from the whole notion of e-literature, Toni LeBusque, another Creative Writing and New Media MA student, had a typically witty response to the discussion, and it’s a great piece of e-lit in its own right. Nice one, Toni.