Less Answers than Temporary Guidelines
Like young amorous people in undefined relationships, some of the issues regarding digital writing and art seem basically semantic and, to a degree, unanswerable. What is hypertext? What is digital writing? What are the fundamental aspects of the reading experience?
The world of hypertext (yesterday’s term) and digital writing (today’s)(worth noting: expect changes to nomenclature soon) is a sort of wild-west of writing and publishing, a manifest-destiny-ish pursuit. Digital writing, in any number of ways, is a process in which rules are established and broken day by day.
Though we’re all spending more and more time reading words on screen instead of on paper, the bulk of that reading is still very much a traditional exercise for the reader: information is presented in a sequenced, ordered way, with the reader controlling little more than flipping the digital page (if at all).
While digital writing offers the reader a level of agency that’s unavailable in any other format, it also transfers a level of responsibility to the reader. The old author-as-god debate, at least in terms of digital writing, never had a chance.
The question then seems: at a time in which access to digital writing—because of more and more powerful computers and faster and faster internet connections—is about as easy as possible, why is it not a form as popular as, say, blogging (that term, ‘blog,’ by the way, was coined in 1999; see note above re: nomenclature and rapid change)? Why is digital writing—not necessarily real literary writing, but digital writing that includes some elements of multimedia and reader-control—still underused?
Of course, this question’s as unanswerable as the earlier ones. One possible explanation is that the reader, by being pushed toward a level of involvement otherwise unasked-for in writing, might get nervous. Get scared off. Get uncomfortable about the idea that reading might, in fact, be as active an act as writing.
Our interest, as we conceived of this issue, was in good writing. The issue for many of us with an interest in digital writing is that for all the fancy graphics and intriguing interface, the writing must, as always, pull its weight. The fanciest digital song-and-dance of a story is, at its heart, a story made new, presented in a new, reader-centered context. We believe—perhaps foolishly—that good writing is almost impossible to make un-good. We also believe—again, perhaps foolishly—that bad writing is almost impossible to make good, regardless of whatever bells and whistles eventually are added (as distraction, as emphasis, as whatever).
And so, when we started this issue, we thought: let’s talk with some writers we enjoy and see if they’d be willing to offer work that’d get re-imagined and digitized by digital artists. It was, we thought, a great idea. What we realized, however, is that to think of digital writing as two interlocking pieces—writing on the one hand, digital magic on the other—is, well, off. Finding writers willing to have their work reimagined was relatively easy: finding digital artists with the time and energy and ability to take good writing and find new ways to present it was much, much more difficult.
The only piece that made it is Jennifer Smith’s presentation of Caren Beilin’s Animals Are Placebos. Both Jennifer and Caren are students—at VCU and the University of Montana, Missoula, respectively—and though they don’t know each other, Jennifer’s original and clever digitizing of Caren’s spare, strange language seems well-matched. In an Alice In Wonderland sort of move, the reader chooses his or her pill and the story moves according to the reader’s decisions.
Sara Bailey’s Factography came unsolicited and seemed to us a phenomenal, well-written, and complex example of what might be considered ‘classic’ hypertext. The novel-in-stories is very much a character-driven narrative and would, if bound in cloth and printed on paper, be a satisfying, traditional read. As is, the reader has the chance to navigate through the text, moving from story to story in a different way each time the piece is read.
Travis Alber’s Dandelion Chance, a multimedia work of art, takes a new route through digital writing by withholding from the reader the chance to control any narrative or the flow of information. We were impressed with Alber’s language and thought the piece represented a compelling, interesting way to experience writing—an experience that draws on and integrates several senses.
Daniel Howe’s Roulette, a collaboration with Bebe Molina, is the most technically audacious of the pieces in this issue, and one which offers the reader a tantazling way of interacting with text. The reader is allowed control over interrelated text in a way totally unlike a paper-and-ink based reading experience. The narrative at the center of Howe and Molina’s piece is fractured and fracturable, is a collection of stories that will shift and mean different things to different readers.
Aya Karpinska’s fps, a sleek and minimalist work of digital art, is an intriguing balance of the reader-control issue. Offered something like a navigation bar across the bottom of the piece, the reader can make some choices regarding the writing, though the piece also has something of its own engine, inaccessible to the reader. In Karpinska’s own words, the piece seems to us “beautifully irreverent and new.”
We’re sure of very little as we close this issue—perhaps even less sure of things that when we began. Certainly the medium will shift again momentarily. What seems inarguable is that the health of any literary community depends on strong, engaged readers at least as much as (and probably more than) it depends on risk-taking, great writers, and we hope we’ve been, for just one semester, decent readers. On to the show.
(Our great thanks to Ed Falco and Brent Jesiek for guidance both technical and artistic.)
Weston Cutter, Lauren Jensen and Carrie Meadows, Managing Editors
May 2, 2008