I found this new site, 217babel.com set up by Brighton based journalist and writer William Shaw, to be a nice example of an online fiction that actually gets you reading rather than admiring it awhile and then glazing over or clicking away. A clean page, simple navigation and, most importantly, words that hook. Knock on the door and take a look.
Last year Shaw created another inspired piece: 41 Places, a city-wide artwork of 41 true stories, installed in the place where they happened - stories of people who live, work and play in Brighton, narrative non-fiction miniatures become something between a giant work of art, scattered through the city, and a treasure hunt of stories. The narratives were collected by Shaw between September 2006 and April 2007 and designed and installed by Richard Wölfstrome, John Easterby and Tom Snell.
friday musings on the literary 03.07.2008, 5:07 PM
Faber chief executive Stephen Page's article in yesterday's Guardian outlines some straightforward ways of taking advantage of social media, on-demand business models and so on in the interests of sustaining Faber into the 21st century. Push out content that brings people back to your core product; build communities; leverage print on demand. All fairly basic stuff.
But the comments are intriguing. Granted, Comment Is Free for some reason attracts exceptionally bellicose commenters; but even so the juxtaposition of Faber, a bastion of traditional highbrow literature, with its associations of TS Eliot and the 'aristocracy of culture', with the digital space, has prompted howls of derision entirely out of proportion to the relatively moderate statements in Page's piece.
The idea of using the Web - which, notwithstanding its roots in the military, has a strong bottom-up ideology - to further good old-fashioned 'high culture' is horrifying to one commenter: "Why must *YOU* be the one to create that additional content, when heretofore that content has been (relatively) independently produced? Because you need to control opinion and dictate what the reading public is told about?". To another, Page's attempts to harness the Web for old-fashioned publishing is doomed, because the internet's culture of sharing - via Project Gutenberg and elsewhere - will eventually mean that all books are free.
It seems as though the great commenting public wants it all ways. Faber is an intellectually-snobbish establishment and must give way before the bottom-up populism of digital content. Publishing should keep its grubby corporate hands off the purity of the internet's gift economy. Serious books are found only in independent booksellers. 'Serious writers' use the Web nowadays. The print book is doomed anyway. The print book will always exist. And so on.
What strikes me is that all these points are being muddled and thrown at the same article - often with little discernible reference to the thrust of the piece - because 'quality writing' is a cultural space where different kinds of internet use overlap. The Web is both a means of publishing content, and also a means of promoting content published in other media. But in the discourse of books and the internet the two are often talked about in the same breath, connected - or separated - by debates about quality, democracy and so on.
Page laments about the rise of the mass market, and the burying of 'serious' writing 'under a pile of celebrity biography, cookery and misery memoir'. But the ideology of 'the literary' - gestured at in Page's resolutely highbrow stance - is firmly connected to the tradition of print. Page does not envision a culture mediated solely through the Web, but rather a avision of 'global communities' finding niche interests and sourcing the books that nourish them, cheating the mass market of its final victory over 'serious' culture:
I am not an advocate of the life led online, but as broadband reaches all generations, genders and income brackets, so this will develop usefully. It won't be all of life but it must be a place where niche interests can develop, robbing the mass market of a portion of its control. Literature can thrive in these places.
So publishers must harness the great power of online networks through enriching reader experience. We must provide content that can be searched and browsed, and create extra materials - interviews, podcasts and the like. We mustn't be afraid of inviting readers to be involved. Beyond online retailing, publishers can now build powerful online places to showcase their books through their own and others' websites and build communities around their own areas of particular interest and do so with writers.
'Literature' here evokes a well-rooted (if not always clearly-defined) ideology. When I say 'literary' I mean things fitting a loose cluster of - sometimes self-contradictory - ideas including, but not limited to:
the importance of traceable authorship
the value of 'proper' language
the idea that some kinds of writing are better than others
that some kinds of publishing are better than others
that there is a hierarchy of literary quality
And so on. If examined too closely, these ideas tend to complicate and undermine one another, always just beyond the grasp. But they endure. And they remain close to the core of why many people write. Write, as an intransitive verb (Barthes), because another component of the ideology of 'literary' is that it's a broadcast-only model. If you don't believe me, check out any writers' community and see how much keener would-be Authors are to post their own work than to critique or review that of others. 'Literary' works talk to one another, across generations, but authors talk to readers and readers don't - or at least have never been expected - to talk back. (Feel free, by the way, to roll your own version of this nexus, or to disagree with mine. One of the reasons it's so pervasive as a set of ideas is because it's so damn slippery.)
Recently, in our Arts Council research, Chris and I have interviewed writers, magazines, publishers and proponents of countless other types of literary activity. And it's clear that the writerly world uses the Web in two distinct ways. Firstly, it is - as Page's article describes - an effective way of promoting or streamlining literary activity that is not intrinsically digital. A good example might be the way in which online zines function as a front-line filter for new writing - as it were the widest-mesh filter for literary quality - and for many is often the first taste of publishing.
People use the Web to share work, peer-review their writing, promote activities, sell books and find others with the same interests. But this activity happens almost always with reference to the ideology of the literary - in particular, to the aspirational associations of broadcast-only, hard-copy-printed, selected-and-paid-for-and-edited-by-someone-else-and-hopefully-bought-and-read-by-the-public publication. For those submitting to such magazines, the hope is that they will move up the literary food chain, get published in better known journals, and perhaps - the holy grail - finally after decades of grim and impecunious slogging, be anthologized by Faber.
But while the majority of 'literary' activity online is of this sort, defined always implicitly in relation to the painful journey towards selection for the ultimate validation of print publication, the vast majority of writing online is not. For starters, most of it doesn't self-identify as 'creative': it's informational, discursive, conversational and ephemeral. Then the Web encourages collaborative writing, interrogating the idea of individual voice. Fan fiction, with its lack of interest in 'originality', peer-to-peer social structures and cheerfully hedonic attitude interrogates the idea of 'originality'. Collaborative writing technologies interrogate the idea of authorship; 1337 interrogates 'proper' writing. I have yet to find a collaborative writing platform (try Protagonize, 1000000monkeys or ficlets if you like) that's produced a story I want to reread for its own sake. Ben has written recently on how 'boring' he finds hypertext. The skittish and innovation-hungry blogosphere, while increasingly a source of books is not in terms of the output most natural to it 'literary' in any sense that bears any relation to tradition of such. And when stories are told in a form that makes best use of the internet's boundless, unreliable, multi-platform qualities - think of an alternate reality game - this bears little resemblance to anything that could be assessed in such terms either.
I'm aware that all this could easily be read either as a dismissal of the cultural value of the Web, or else as a call to the world of literature to get back in its box. But I mean neither of those things. What I do want to suggest, though, is that it's not enough to murmur soothingly about how Web is a young form, and that it'll take a while for 'great writers' to emerge. Rather, it strikes me that the ideology of 'the literary' - including that of 'great writers' - is profoundly bound to the physical form of books, and to pretend otherwise is to misunderstand the Web.
Obviously plenty of print books have no literary value. But the ideology of 'literary' is inseparable from print. Authorship is necessary and value-laden at least partly because with no authorship there's no copyright, and no-one gets paid. The novel packs a massive cultural punch - but arguably 60,000 words just happens to make a book that is long enough to sell for a decent price but short enough to turn out reasonably cheaply. Challenge authorship, remove formal constraints - or create new ones: as O'Reilly's guides to creating appealing web content will tell you, your online readership is more likely to lose interest if asked to scroll below the fold. Will the forms stay the same? My money says they won't. And hence much of what's reified as 'literary', online, ceases to carry much weight.
So net-savvy proponents of 'literary' stuff aren't trying to use the Web as a delivery mechanism. Why would you, when there are so many other things it's useful for? Tom Chivers, live poetry promoter and organizer of the London Word Festival, estimates that he spends a third to half of his time as a promoter on online community-building activities. But the 'literary' stuff that he's organizing happens elsewhere; his online activity is vital to promoting his work, but is not the work itself. Similarly, I spent a fascinating hour or so this afternoon talking to Joe Dunthorne, who told me that he was spurred to complete his novel Submarine by the enthusiastic popular response that first drafts of the initial material generated on writers' community ABCTales - an intriguingly twenty-first century way to find the validation you need to push your writing career forward. Tom and Joe are both in their twenties, passionate about writing and confidently net-native. Both use the Web in a way that supports their literary interests. But neither sees the Web as a suitable format for 'final' publication.
This isn't to suggest that there's no room for 'the literary' online. Finding new writers; building a community to peer-review drafts; promoting work; pushing out content to draw people back to a publisher's site to buy books. All these make sense, and present huge opportunities for savvy players. But - and here I realise that this all may be just a (rather lengthy) footnote to Ben's recent piece on Hypertextopia - to attempt to transplant the ideology of the literary onto the Web will fail unless it is done with reference to the print culture that produced it. Otherwise the work will, by literary standards, be judged second-rate, while by geek standards it'll seem top-down, limited and static. Or just boring.
I'll be interested to see how Faber approaches online community-building. Done well, here's no reason why it shouldn't help shift books. But while it might help shift books, or be used to reproduce or share books, the Web is fundamentally other to the philosophy that produces books. Anyone serious about using the Web on its own terms as a delivery mechanism for artistic material needs to abandon print-determined criteria for evaluating quality - literary values - and investigate what the medium is really good for.
printing out the web 04.10.2007, 12:01 AM
That's what Hewlett-Packard is hoping to do. The NYT explains.
HP recently acquired a small online photo-printing company named Tabblo, which has been developing software that will automatically reformat any web page, in any layout, to be easily printable. HP's goal is to use this technology to create a browser plugin, as ubiquitous as Flash and Java, that could become "the printing engine of the web." Let's hope, for the sake of the world's forests, that a decent electronic reader comes out first.
(Thanks, Peter Brantley.)
baudrillard and the net 03.12.2007, 6:43 PM
Sifting through the various Baudrillard obits, I came across this passage from America, a travelogue he wrote in 1989:
...This is echoed by the other obsession: that of being 'into', hooked in to your own brain. What people are contemplating on their word-processor screens is the operation of their own brains. It is not entrails that we try to interpret these days, nor even hearts or facial expressions; it is, quite simply, the brain. We want to expose to view its billions of connections and watch it operating like a video-game. All this cerebral, electronic snobbery is hugely affected - far from being the sign of a superior knowledge of humanity, it is merely the mark of a simplified theory, since the human being is here reduced to the terminal excrescence of his or her spinal chord. But we should not worry too much about this: it is all much less scientific, less functional than is ordinarily thought. All that fascinates us is the spectacle of the brain and its workings. What we are wanting here is to see our thoughts unfolding before us - and this itself is a superstition.
Hence, the academic grappling with his computer, ceaselessly correcting, reworking, and complexifying, turning the exercise into a kind of interminable psychoanalysis, memorizing everything in an effort to escape the final outcome, to delay the day of reckoning of death, and that other - fatal - moment of reckoning that is writing, by forming an endless feed-back loop with the machine. This is a marvellous instrument of exoteric magic. In fact all these interactions come down in the end to endless exchanges with a machine. Just look at the child sitting in front of his computer at school; do you think he has been made interactive, opened up to the world? Child and machine have merely been joined together in an integrated circuit. As for the intellectual, he has at last found the equivalent of what the teenager gets from his stereo and his walkman: a spectacular desublimation of thought, his concepts as images on a screen.
When Baudrillard wrote this, Tim Berners-Lee and co. were writing the first pages of the WWW in Switzerland. Does the subsequent emergence of the web, the first popular networked computing medium, trump Baudrillard's prophecy of rarified self-absorption or does this "superstition" of wanting "to see our thoughts unfolding before us," this "interminable psychoanalysis," simply widen into a group exercise? An obsession with being hooked into a collective brain...
I kind of felt the latter last month seeing the little phenomenon that grew up around Michael Wesch's weirdly alluring "Web 2.0...The Machine is Us/isng Us" video (now over 1.7 million views on YouTube). The viral transmission of that clip, and the various (mostly inane) video responses it elicited, ended up feeling more like cyber-wankery than any sort of collective revelation. Then again, the form itself was interesting -- a new kind of expository essay -- which itself prompted some worthwhile discussion.
I think the only honest answer is that it's both. The web both connects and insulates us, breaks down walls and provides elaborate mechanisms for self-confirmation. Change is ambiguous, and was even before we had a network connecting our machines -- something that Baudrillard's pessimism misses.
try to take some time from your busy day 02.20.2007, 7:30 AM
to read the recent interview with humanist and computer scientist, Alan Kay. Here's a sample . . .
The things that are wrong with the Web today are due to this lack of curiosity in the computing profession. And it's very characteristic of a pop culture. Pop culture lives in the present; it doesn't really live in the future or want to know about great ideas from the past. I'm saying there's a lot of useful knowledge and wisdom out there for anybody who is curious, and who takes the time to do something other than just executing on some current plan. Cicero said, "Who knows only his own generation remains always a child." People who live in the present often wind up exploiting the present to an extent that it starts removing the possibility of having a future.
ecclesiastical proust archive: starting a community 02.09.2007, 7:46 AM
(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!
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.
If 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 email@example.com. 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!
Posted by jeff drouin at 7:46 AM
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tags: Online , academia , archive , blogs , books , digital , encyclopedia , folksonomy , hypertext , literature , multimedia , narrative , network , novel , open_access , pedagogy , peer_review , photography , publishing , reading , search , social_software , tagging , technology , textuality , university , web , wiki , writing
has google already won? 01.05.2007, 1:34 AM
Rich Skrenta, an influential computer industry insider, currently co-founder and CEO of Topix.net and formerly a big player at Netscape, thinks it has, crowning Google king of the "third age of computing" (IBM and Microsoft being the first and second). Just the other day, there was a bit of discussion here about whether Google is becoming a bona fide monopoly -- not only by dint of its unrivaled search and advertising network, but through the expanding cloud of services that manage our various personal communication and information needs. Skrenta backs up my concern (though he mainly seems awed and impressed) that with time, reliance on these services (not just by individuals but by businesses and oranizations of all sizes) could become so total that there will effectively be no other choice:
Just as Microsoft used their platform monopoly to push into vertical apps, expect Google to continue to push into lucrative destination verticals -- shopping searches, finance, photos, mail, social media, etc. They are being haphazard about this now but will likely refine their thinking and execution over time. It's actually not inconceivable that they could eventually own all of the destination page views too. Crazy as it sounds, it's conceivable that they could actually end up owning the entire net, or most of what counts.
The meteoric ascendance of the Google brand -- synonymous in the public mind with best, quickest, smartest -- and the huge advantage the company has gained by becoming "the start page for the Internet," means that its continued dominance is all but assured. "Google is the environment." Others here think these predictions are overblown. To me they sound frighteningly plausible.
dotReader is out 11.30.2006, 9:38 AM
dotReader, "an open source, cross-platform content reader/management system with an extensible, plug-in architecture," is available now in beta for Windows and Linux, and should be out for Mac any day now. For now, dotReader is just for reading but a content creation tool is promised for the very near future.
The reader has some nice features like shared bookmarks and annotations, a tab system for moving between multiple texts and an embedded web browser. In many ways it feels like a web browser that's been customized for books. I can definitely see it someday becoming a fully web-based app. The recently released Firefox 2 has a bunch of new features like live bookmarks (live feed headlines in drop-down menus on your bookmarks toolbar) and a really nice embedded RSS reader. It's a pretty good bet that online office suites, web browsers and standalone reading programs are all on the road to convergence.