looking for lit in all the wrong places 09.26.2008, 10:41 AM
posted by sebastian mary
Just came upon a Guardian piece looking at the underwhelming quality of 'e-lit'. In my comment on the discussion I found myself reviewing a number of themes that have recurred in my if:book research over the last couple of years: the emergence of net-native storytelling, the failure of the literary establishment to detach sufficiently from aesthetic criteria overdetermined by the print form to be able to grasp the potential of the Web, and the increasing power of brand-funded patronage in digital cultural production.
So, with apologies for cross-posting, I've added my comment on the article (well worth reading, by the way, as is the ensuing debate) here for discussion.
In January of last year I posted on if:book an essay which argued that alternate reality games (ARGs) were the first genuinely net-native form of storytelling. This, I suggested, is because ARGs make good use of intrinsic qualities of the Web (boundlessness, fluidity, participation and so on) rather than attempting to reproduce a book-like entity within something that's pushing in another direction.
While I've seen ARGs take off in many forms since then I have seen little discussion of the form within 'literary' circles, whether digital or otherwise, the only exception being Naomi Alderman, who is both a prizewinning novelist and a writer at London ARG studio SixToStart.
I've argued elsewhere on if:book that this - and other disconnects and category errors around the relationship between literature and the Web - is because the received understanding of 'literature' and 'literary' is at odds with the way the vast majority of Web users approach digital media. But even as the balance of cultural power tips ever more steeply in favour of the Web, these received ideas about what 'literature' is stubbornly refuse to budge.
The Web operates increasingly on an assumption that in most cases content will only be read if it is free, a fact usefully illustrated by comparing the Guardian's declining print readership with its growing online presence and intelligent cross-marketing partnerships there (dating, a deal with LoveFilm etc). But this demand for free content removes at a stroke the writer's and publisher's business model, forcing a rethink of the ways we bankroll cultural production (see here and here for more on this).
But this hasn't been taken on board by the proponents of 'e-literature'. Much 'e-lit' discussion takes place within academia and grant-funded bodies, which allows a misleading focus on 'artistic' value in digital cultural production without taking into account the need most professional creators of fiction have to produce something that sells. This perception gap is frustratingly evident in the lack of a commercial angle in the roster of sources quoted in the article above. But meanwhile, a hugely dynamic new industry is emerging that uses participation, co-creation, multimedia and more to involve large audiences in digitally-delivered narratives. The hitch is that these narratives are inevitably brand-funded - for example Where Are The Joneses?, a semi-crowdsourced sitcom funded by Ford but genuinely entertaining in its own right; most ARGs; and a slew of other projects I know of in production.
While time will tell whether output such as WATJ has enduring value and real impact, the point here is that the discourse of 'e-lit' is too heavily embedded in a set of assumptions and aesthetic criteria that evolved for print literature to see what's right in front of its nose: that 'e-lit' exists, but doesn't look anything like 'lit'. And, furthermore, that it has abandoned literature's ostensible decoupling of artistic creation and commercial intent and become a vehicle for corporate engagement with the audiences. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps no more so than the great artistic patrons of the Middle Ages. Will it eclipse the minority pursuit of print-style creations with multimedia bolt-ons in online cultural impact? It has already done so.
Posted by sebastian mary on September 26, 2008 10:41 AM
Gary Frost on September 27, 2008 9:06 PM:
I cannot understand why screen based reading advocates consistently want to "eclipse" a format that is irrelevant to their visualizations. By imagining a print supercede scenario they choose a frame of most constraint for the promise of e-literature. There is no necessary connection between mutual re-definitions of two modes and their presumptive completion.
sebastian mary on September 28, 2008 9:36 AM:
I think that in your haste to defend print you may have misread my sentence, Gary. I have never argued that digital media will somehow 'eclipse' print (any more than I'm an advocate of screen based reading over any other sort). My point is merely that digital media which follows the aesthetic forms and criteria that made sense for print is a minority pursuit with an endearingly Amish-like quality to it. And in spite of this, this kind of activity gets a disproportionate amount of attention, which in turn leaves many who should know better peculiarly blind to some major loci of cultural activity online.
Gary Frost on September 29, 2008 4:26 PM:
We agree regarding the independent courses of print and screen. Setting aside their common digital technology, they are moving tangentially.
The future of the Amish is interesting. At the turn of the 20th century there was not that much difference between Amish and "english" farmers here in Iowa. Now, at the turn of the 21st century there is great difference and the behaviors of the Amish look more fantastic than normal. The print book may be in a similar situation. It was much taken for granted and was commonly applied to transmission functions of all kinds. Today the use of the print book must be much more focused, but it also needs the same exploration and revolution as is underway with network transmission or e-literature. This change is occurring although it must emerge from a deep legacy pattern.
The future of the book is somewhat similar to prospects of the future of the Amish. The Amish dress funny but they are not antique beings. They are modern advocates of an exemplary transmission mode. They are prospering in Iowa and their farming economies, for example, are far from irrelevant.
Michael Bhaskar on October 1, 2008 6:09 AM:
Very true. I find it very frustrating when publishers are accused for being closed minded and cowardly for their "failure [...] to detach sufficiently from aesthetic criteria overdetermined by the print form to be able to grasp the potential of the Web". While it's true that there is much conservatism in publishing houses around various forms of digital content and delivery, there is also much interest in pursuing these in new and creative ways, so I was heartened to see that you hit upon the essential stumbling block: the perennial chestnut, cash.
In my experience the perception gap you mention cuts across what I think of as "two worlds" of book culture, namely the commercial and the non-commercial. The internet throws into relief their differences as it is in the commercial realm that has the most immediately to lose, and also has the greatest expectation placed upon it. Those unanswerable to a bottom line can find it all too easy to critique, so it's good to see some acknowledgement that publishers face revenue driven problems with innovative online content. Of course, I would imagine most publishers are, in the secrecy of their offices, dreaming away...
One other point I would briefly comment on is the assertion that aesthetic criteria and commercial intent have decoupled in the literary space. You seem to immediately contradict this suggestion by referencing artistic patrons, but further to that I would argue that they have never actually been decoupled. Aside from the whole new historicist literary critical debate we could get into about the conditioning of cultural production etc, I would say people, like for instance creative writing MA students (see recent blog post), just think it is decoupled. In fact they never have been and many a critic has been kept writing papers explaining why not on a book by book basis. Certainly a publishing house would not- could not- publish a book that it willfully thought would, ultimately, lose value (in a relatively wide sense of the term). Just as with previous forms of patronage there will be a negotiation between funders, content creators and the consumers about what is acceptable, a negotiation that will then set the terms of the emerging medium.
Scott Rettberg on October 3, 2008 11:24 AM:
While ARGs are certainly a compelling narrative form, I don't understand why your interest and/or advocacy of that form would necessarily obviate other interest in other literary forms made for the networked computer. I also don't take the fact that most artists and writers creating electronic literature are not trying to replicate the commercial model of the contemporary publishing industry as any reflection on the value of the work that they create. When did the business model of a poem become a chief criterion for assessing its value? And what is a "print-style" creation to begin with? Does the fact that something is created by a poet or fiction writer, borrowing from literary traditions but taking also advantage of the multimedial qualities and programmable nature of the computer and the specific context of the network somehow make it less interesting? I would disagree with your fundamental premise that most authors feel a primary need to create something that sells -- while like everyone else most authors need to find a way to support themselves I think that when it comes to writing, they more generally feel a need to create something worth reading, experiencing, interacting with.
In response to Michael's comment -- I am pleased to hear that most publishers are dreaming away in their offices. To those who are putting a couple of toes into the water (Penguin UK comes to mind), I say bravo and good luck. Think back to the era of publishers who would invest in an author (some might say nurture a talent) for two or three books before seeing any profit when you think about the idea of 'losing value.' I'm sure that there will eventually be good business models for electronic literature that support both writers and provide profit to their publishers. I think however that that day is somewhat distant from the present moment, and I doubt that most contemporary print publishers will be among the first to bring that about. They will more likely go on doing what they do and what they know -- publishing and marketing books -- which is just fine. Other structures will evolve, and other cultural formations will shepherd the development of electronic literary culture. What you can see happening now is the development of a separate, particularly digital literary culture, and right now the main concern is not with the development of revenue streams, but the development of innovative literary forms, and of a community of writers and readers of those forms. While that international community may be small in comparison to the community of readers interested in the latest Stephen King novel, it is growing in increments year after year, and it will not suffer a great deal from the fact that few print publishers are on the bus. The fact that works are distributed for free on the Web, that the field is operating outside of the same commercial pressures that drive things like the contemporary publishing industry and promotional ARGs does not bother me in the least. I think it is a fascinating and wonderful moment, and a healthy one for the development of new literary forms.
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