Online novels and virtual poetry

Why are creative writers nervous of the Internet when it has so much to offer?
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The Independent Culture
PUNDITS AND politicians have long heralded the Internet as a new avenue for writing and other creative activities. But many writers - accustomed to working in the print media - have not rushed to embrace the new technology.

As was evident at last Friday's conference on "Writers & The Internet" in Nottingham, writers get nervous about the Internet. What are MOOs? Copy-leftism? Flesh-meets? Will I lose control over my work if I sign away electronic rights? How can I incorporate hypertext into my work? What resources does the Internet offer a writer like me? Do I need to learn to write differently?

These were some of the questions Sue Thomas hoped to discuss at Friday's "flesh-meet" (that's cyber-speak for a meeting not held in cyberspace). Thomas is founder of Trace, the online writing community which sponsored the conference. Thomas, a writer and creative writing teacher, founded Trace at Nottingham Trent University in 1994, to link writers in an international online writing community. In 1997, Trace received pounds 300,000 from the Arts Council Lottery Fund to support its efforts to build reading and writing communities in the East Midlands and internationally.

Writers, teachers, academics, publishers, designers and others gathered at central Nottingham's Broadway Media Centre to discuss how writers are shaping and being shaped by the Internet. Speakers addressed topics ranging from theoretical analysis of virtual environments to concerns about online copyright.

In her keynote address, the feminist writer Dale Spender painted an enthusiastic picture of a future in which online writing is the norm. Comparing the "Internet movement" to the feminist movement, she described the limitations of a "printist culture" in which ideas and stories are linear and indelibly fixed to the page. Online writing, on the other hand, is interactive and flexible. In the future, said Spender, "we will look back at the print era as a dark ages in which our minds were blocked". The American countercultural writer Mark Amerika, publisher of Alt-X online publishing network and author of two print novels, shared Spender's excitement about the possibilities of online writing. He described how the Alt-X network explores the ways writers and other artists can use the Net both to disseminate their writing and create experimental work.

Professors Jan Rune Homevik of the University of Bergen and Cynthia Haynes of the University of Texas at Dallas discussed their Lingua MOO (Multi-user Domains, Object Oriented) - a virtual learning environment they created in 1995 as a space where students, academics, and writers meet to learn and exchange ideas.

Other speakers focused on the Internet's practical applications for writers. The writer Molly Brown demonstrated the online tour of Restoration London she created to accompany and market her historical novel, Invitation To a Funeral. The novelist Keith Brooke described Infinity Plus, an online science fiction and fantasy archive he edits. The poet Peter Howard praised online writing workshops and showed examples of his own hypertext poetry.

Liz Bailey, a journalist, addressed the growing presence of online publications, while Francis Anderson, editor of Lexicon literary magazine, called the Internet "a source of liberation" for visually impaired people such as himself. Using reading software, he now has access to a wealth of information besides radio, audio books and periodicals.

Online copyright was a hot issue. Heather Rosenblatt, legal adviser for the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, described how copyright protection extends to online writing. But Mark Amerika took issue with the view that Internet work should be copyrighted. He holds the "copyleftist" view that online content should be free and accessible to all. "This is a medium that wants to set itself free," he said.

Many questions were left unanswered. But, as Sue Thomas reminded the audience, the dialogue can continue - online.

Trace is at http://trace.ntu.ac.uk

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