A beginning, a middle, but no end in sight

As we announce the shortlist for the 2011 New Media Writing Prize, Lisa Gee explores the unbound possibilities of digital-era fiction

Lisa Gee
Sunday 13 November 2011 01:00

“A book is bounded. It has a beginning and an ending and a discoverable way of knowing that you’ve read the whole thing.” Theo Gray is the author of The Elements, the elegant iPad book app that launched simultaneously with Apple’s device and founder and creative director of digital book publisher Touch Press. He’s offering his definition of a book and explaining the differences between books and websites. A major one for Gray – a mathematically-inclined visionary who speaks in flowcharts – is that you finish a book. Websites, like space, can go on forever.

Exploring the realms of digital literature can feel a bit “it’s writing, Jim, but not as we know it”. From e-books to book apps, from web-based artworks to keitai shousetsu – the ultra-concise mobile phone novels popular in Japan – there’s a brain-stretching multiplicity of forms and content-styles to navigate. And the only thing everyone involved seems to agree on is that it’s still early days. It’s early days for readers too: most of us are only now adjusting to straightforward e-books.

Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media at De Montfort University says many readers of print books “feel they have control over them. You can look at page numbers or go to the last page, if you want, and navigate the book. That’s because you’ve learned how to do it. In the early days of books you wouldn’t have known where to start.” To illustrate where we’re at as readers of digital literature, she directs me to a Youtube sketch: Medieval Helpdesk, featuring a confused monk struggling with the scroll-to-book upgrade.

Yet despite excitement about the iPad’s potential, publishers’ initial forays into the app market haven’t always met with commercial success. As Sam Missingham, editor of trade publication The Bookseller’s FutureBook blog explains, even when publishers make one successful book app, “they can’t assume their next best-selling print book is going to make money in an app format. It’s not transferable.” So, although book app entries to the Bookseller’s Digital Innovation Awards are up twenty percent on last time (approximately sixty percent of entries are aimed at children), most publishers are proceeding with caution.

But they’re also starting to look at experimental work. Until recently there’s been very little interaction between mainstream publishing and the artists, writers and academics exploring digital literature. This is starting to change. In June 2011, the FutureBook Innovations workshop, run by Sam Missingham and Sophie Rochester, founder of The Literary Platform (the online publication “dedicated to showcasing projects experimenting with literature and technology”) brought both types together. And while Dan Franklin, Digital Editor at Random House has focused on commissioning or repurposing writing for straight e-books (his new project, Storycuts – individually-packaged stories from authors including Martin Amis, Frederick Forsythe, Joanne Harris and Rose Tremain – launches November 17th), he’s speaking at the New Media Writing Prize awards ceremony in Bournemouth later this month. “I’m trying to open my eyes to what’s out there”, he says. “I want to see what people are doing and what we could bring here.”

The work featured in the New Media Writing Prize shortlist (announced below) is international in scope, arty and engagingly diverse. There’s plenty to read, watch, listen to and toy with. All five compositions are web-based and while some conform to Theo Gray’s definition of a book – “bounded, user-paced and narratively directed” – others only meet two of his three criteria. Using film and spoken word means that even when the reader can choose the order in which they watch or listen, the makers retain some control over pacing.

In return they cede control of elements of narrative direction and, in some instances, content to the reader.

Alison Norrington wrote three successful chicklit novels before taking an MA in creative writing and new media at De Montfort University. Her fourth book appeared in print, online and even on postcards stuffed into handbags for sale in shoe shops. “I learned a lot”, she laughs, “particularly from what went wrong”. One thing she learned was that writing digital literature “requires writers to be less territorial. But you need to try to control what you lose control of. You have to know how your story’s going to go and create architectures within that for reader involvement.”

She describes two types of space writers can leave for their readers: “cheese holes” and “rabbit holes”. The former are “the gaps you leave for your audience to fill”. The latter let people “drop down for a more immersive experience”. You could, for instance, take a break from the main narrative to find out more about a particular character through their Facebook profile. Or be treated to an online tour of the novel’s real or fictitious setting…

So, as a reader, where to start? We’ll be reviewing digital literature in these pages, but to kick off, here are a few recommendations.

Book apps

The Waste Land (Faber & Faber/Touch Press) recommended by Chris Meade, Director,if:book UK, (if:book explores the future of the book)and Alastair Horne, Innovations Manager, Cambridge University Press

Richard Dawkin’s The Magic of Reality (Transworld/Somethin’ Else) recommended by Theo Gray and Max Whitby, Touch Press

Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (Penguin US) recommended by Sam Missingham

Sydney Padua’s Lovelace & Babbage (Agant Ltd) recommended by Alex Butterworth, author and founder director of Amblr, location-based storytelling.

Online works

Inanimate Alice Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph recommended by Alison Norrington and novelist and games writer Naomi Alderman.

Underbelly by Christine Wilks recommended by digital writer Tim Wright and academic Jim Pope who runs the New Media Writing Prize (Underbelly won last year).

Fitting the Pattern by Christine Wilks recommended by Sue Thomas.

Welcome to Pine Point by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons recommended by Sophie Rochester.

The Golden Notebook Project recommended by Nico Macdonald, chair, Media Futures.

Souciant magazine recommended by Keith Kahn-Harris, writer and academic.

Kidmapped Tim Wright, recommended by Chris Meade.

New Media Writing Prize 2011 - shortlist

He Said She Said - Alan Bigelow (USA)

Loss of Grasp - Serge Bouchardon (France)

88 Constellations for Wittgenstein - David Clark (Nova Scotia)

Circle - Caitlin Fisher (Ontario)

Welcome to Pine Point - Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons (Vancouver)

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