Beyond the Book October 14, 2014Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings.
Tags: fiction, reading, writing
Yesterday I had the great pleasure to attend a talk by Kate Pullinger entitled ‘Beyond the Book,’ part of the Digital Fiction strand of the ‘Off the Shelf’ Sheffield Literary Festival. Kate is the power behind Inanimate Alice, an online transmedia story; the networked novel ‘Flight Paths‘ and the 14-18 Now project ‘Letter to an Unknown Soldier.’ In her talk Kate provided more detail on each of the aforementioned projects, outlining how digital technologies have enabled hybrid forms of literature and facilitated a greater degree of participation and collaboration.
I found what Kate had to say fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. Fascinating because of my interest in the different ways we are appropriating technologies, specifically in learning, but also in creative endeavours. I guess I was unsettled due to the three different ways in which literature affects me: as Head of eLearning and someone who promotes and supports the use of digital technologies; as a writer, albeit not one of fiction; and as a reader of fiction. Clearly then I lean towards the notions Kate outlined and am keen to learn from those who use technologies in new ways, so that I am better informed when advising and supporting colleagues and students. As a writer of non-fiction, I’m often trying to convey a message; sometimes that’s in support materials for others, project proposals, evaluations or reflective pieces. Whenever appropriate and where it enhances the message, I try to employ different media, but here is where the tension begins to emerge. If I know who my audience will be, then that may constrain me in serving their needs. For example, in providing an introductory guide to a new software application, a five-minute video screencast might make the most sense, for all sorts of reasons. Yet if my audience prefers paper-based, ‘recipe’-style guidance, then that is what I’m obliged to provide. In producing a report of a particular project, whilst I might feel audio interviews with some of the participants provides a rich narrative, the readers of the report might be more predisposed to plain textual summaries. As a writer then, I’m constrained creatively to some extent by the boundaries imposed on me by my audience. I wonder if writers of fiction are similarly hobbled.
The tension becomes heightened when I reflect on my preferences as a reader. I’m now on the other side of the fence and become the recipient of literature written by others. How do I feel when given the choice of opting for stories delivered in different ways through different media? As Kate introduced samples of Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths, despite being impressed by how they had been produced and the ways in which they were being used and enjoyed, I couldn’t help but feel some degree of conflict. In an attempt to establish why, I thought about how I read and what my expectations are from a story, which is doubtless a rather personal thing for each reader. For me, good fiction should transport me (or my mind?) somewhere else and whilst it might not be quite what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow,’ when immersed in a story, the passage of time melts away. I feel part of the story, either as observer or participant. I control the pace, re-read when necessary or even skip forward a line or two! The words on the page act as a bridge between me and my vicarious participation in the story through the characters. I’m able to do that because I have become familiar (and comfortable) with the linear way in which text is presented in the pages of a book. Images might supplement the story, though should be used in such a way that they don’t conflict with those the reader has generated within their imagination. One example might be the maps that Tolkien included to help the reader appreciate the geography of Middle. At least that’s what I first thought, but then my mind went back to my younger years and my enjoyment of children’s and superhero comics. I felt no less immersed then where the text was an equal partner of the imagery, though even those texts observed the same conventions of linear flow. Although Inanimate Alice for example, flows in a linear fashion, I am required to relinquish some element of control of pace to the writer, only able to move forward when the media have finished their display. Perhaps it’s that, for me, the media add nothing to the story and may even detract from it? Whilst I’m trying to conjure mental pictures of Alice, her surroundings, her relationships with her family and so on, I’m being distracted by background music, flashing images and split screen displays. I wonder if there’s a link here with gaming environments, or at least those with a clear narrative, characters and plot. Gameplay often allows progress through the narrative as a result of exploration, theory testing, experimentation and repetition. I’m not a gamer at all, so have no experience of navigating through different forms of narrative, so I wonder if someone who enjoys gaming might be more inclined towards digital fiction than I? So many questions!
Perhaps my problem has been that I’ve tried too hard to see digital fiction as a subset of traditional, textual fiction, whereas they’re actually different subsets of the parent set, fiction? I think I can resolve this internally by seeing two different branches of storytelling; one which conforms to my preconceived expectations and another, which I can allow to be free to be what it will and enjoy it for what it is.