“To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination…To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide.”
– Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust.
This simple statement, quoted by anthropologist Tim Ingold in his essay, Ways of Mind-Walking catches the spirit in which I want to approach making digital fiction.
It applies to experimental narratives and transmedia adventures just as much as to conventional texts and oral storytelling.
What means of navigation can be developed by today’s transmedia and collaborative writers and readers to help them find such clarity and direction as they learn to make, amplify and receive work across new terrains?
To search for clues it seems appropriate to look both at recent transmedia narrative theory and also at critical works about experimental fiction of the past. My starting point is Flann O’Brien’s darkly hilarious The Third Policeman, published posthumously in 1967, described by Keith Hopper in Portrait of the Artist As A Young Post-Modernist, as the first post-modern novel, in a tradition which includes Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, another great example of anti-novel or metafiction.
In The Third Policeman the narrator is drawn into committing a murder then finds himself lost in a dark and surreal wood where he meets strange policemen investigating disappearing bicycles. The narrative is interspersed with footnotes relating to the theories of De Selby, imaginary scientist and philosopher whose studies include how the intermingling of molecules between bicycles and their riders lead to humans propping themselves up bike-like against walls, and experiments in time travel involving many mirrors and postcards of Brighton.
The narrator of the book argues with his conscience who becomes a character in his/its own right, forgets his own name and eventually (spoiler) turns out to be already dead (or maybe not). It’s funny, disturbing and bursting with inventive ways to mess with readers’ minds.
“If art traditionally held a mirror up to society, then metafiction holds a mirror up to the mirror.” writes Hopper (page 6) who sees novels such as O’Brien’s as ‘shamanistic’ because instead of trying to emulate reality they push further in stories which “deliberately and quite playfully question the ideology of ritual convention…
In any tribe a shaman is a medicine man; a healer of the relationship between mind and body, between matter and spirit, between people and their environment, between culture and nature.” (Hopper, p4)
“The outstanding quality of the shaman, regardless of culture, is the inclination towards engagement, or creative activity. Knowledge and understanding are not enough, nor does passive acceptance hold any appeal. The shaman plunges into life with mind and senses, playing the role of co-creator.” – Serge Kahili King, Urban Shaman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990) p 14.
At the centre of my story is a strange shaman, Gregory Carraday, the Nearlyologist who believes that his tinnitus is the sound of the Nearlyverse, a mysterious force field of possibilities and failures which surrounds us all, which he hears fizzing in his ears. He gathers examples of the things people have nearly done and secretly makes paintings and amulets based on these which he buries, burns or otherwise releases as he walks in the park, enacting spells with his Nearly Stick to try to transmute regret and frustration into fruitful imaginings.
When print publishing ruled supreme, writers became so familiar with the industry around their works that they could leave all the business of its production and distribution to others and concentrate on what they came to think of as their only real work, writing the text. At times of technological change artists have no alternative but to engage directly with the affordances of new platforms. At these moments authors need to hold true to their deepest convictions and free themselves of old habits as they explore. We don’t just need new skills and tools to publish our work but new practices to help us compose in new dimensions. Shaman writers hack a pathway through the entangled undergrowth and stride out into the beautiful digital wilderness beyond, foraging freely for the elements they need to tell new stories.
Hopper analyses in detail O’Brien’s use of a self–conscious narrator and frame-breaking strategies such as the inclusion of footnotes, lists and macaronic language – nonsense scholarship parodying academe, all techniques of post-modernism, designed to undermine the conventions of realist fiction and challenge the authority of the author god.
“Post-modernism is the rejection of representation in favour of self-reference – the willing rejection of the work as an organic whole and the myth of the author; the rejection of character narrative and plot as meaningful or artistically defensible concepts or conventions; even the rejection of ‘meaning’ itself as a hopeless delusion.” (p.17 Ihab Hassan)
Post-modernism questions the relationship between fiction and life through a political critique of the assumptions behind realist fiction which make its stories register as ‘just like life’ only to readers who share a worldview. For transmedia theorists the changing shape of book and society is a practical rather than a political matter; the God-like author has been deposed by technolog, not ideology, and the new creator is not just the creative reader but what transmedia theorist S.Dinehard calls ‘the VUP’.
“the viewer/user/player (VUP) transforms the story via his or her own natural cognitive psychological abilities, and enables the Artwork to surpass medium. It is in transmedial play that the ultimate story agency, and decentralized authorship can be realized. Thus the VUP becomes the true producer of the Artwork. (Dinehart, 2008)
Henry Jenkins and co-authors of Spreadable Media and its enhanced online version attempt to anatomise what makes transmedia product effective. Their examples come mostly from popular culture and mass media, featuring the sorts of characters, like Harry Potter and Doctor Who, known as “properties” in marketing speak.
Jenkins argues that successful transmedia content needs stickiness and “gains this through an awareness of how media texts are taken up by audiences and circulate through audience interactions,” (page 5 of 353). For Jenkins, “the key to stickiness is putting material in a centralized location, drawing people to it, and keeping them there indefinitely”
“The spreadability paradigm assumes that anything worth hearing will circulate through any and all available channels, potentially moving audiences from peripheral awareness to active engagement.”
These aren’t just tips for advertising agencies but an analysis of the tendencies likely to influence the shape of future fiction. The page turner is replaced by the sticky place, the bestseller by popular destinations like Pottermore and Austenland, the literary novel by all manner of fictional spaces, experimental, original and hopefully radical, but all governed by the new psychogeography of online attention. The single, compelling linear plot makes way for a new pattern of core setting and cluster of characters which can be elaborated, expanded and remixed without destroying the fiction’s central premises.
To draw and colour this kind of world, Shaman writers dip their brushes in all kinds of paint pots. “In T[ransmedia Storytelling] each medium does what it does best — so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics, and its world might be explored and experienced through game play. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained enough to enable autonomous consumption. That is, you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game and vice-versa.” (Jenkins, 2003)
In 1989 I was working as a community arts worker in Sheffield libraries running a festival called Opening The Book. We used the term ‘creative reading’ as a metaphor to stress the imaginative activity involved in consuming a text, set up events in libraries at which groups of readers were asked to share their thoughts on books they read. In 2013 readers are constantly encouraged to interact, feed back and contribute to narratives they follow from platform to platform. The metaphor is rendered real and the author god is deader than O’Brien ever imagined. But this disruption has been accompanied by widespread commodification of popular storytelling and so far attempts to understand it tend to be couched in commercial terms. In an essay entitled Transmedia Storytelling: Implicit Consumers, Narrative Worlds, and Branding in Contemporary Media Production, Carlos Alberton Scolari writes that transmedia storytelling “not only affects the text but also includes transformations in the production and consumption processes. Researchers and producers visualize new business opportunities for the media market as new generations of consumers develop the skills to deal with the flow of stories and become hunters of information from multiple sources.
Like The Third Policeman, transmedia fiction is metaleptic in that it shifts from one narrative level to another and frequently leads to paradoxical transgression of the boundaries between levels, if only by the reader switching from device to device, diving in and out of the tale as emails arrive and real Facebook alerts mingle with the story on screen.
As Hopper points out in relation to O’Brien, “metalepsis can trip itself up by its very cleverness; the dazzling displays of technical virtuosity can become indulgently self-gratifying and therefore, extrincic to thematic concerns..” – (Hopper, p 167)
Many experiments in new media offer game elements to the reader but in the process limit the imaginative range of the reading experience. In designing a recent iPad app of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, the developers responded to research that readers want to imagine for themselves the characters in stories. Their solution was to visualise the scenery from the book but leave the characters as ghostly blurs. But clicking around lonely landscapes, stabbing with a finger at the misty head of a character to see if it will jump or speak or explode doesn’t build empathy. And we don’t need to receive tweets from Romeo & Juliet as if they were really real to care about their fate.
In O’Brien’s day metafictions, however avant garde in form, still appeared as paperbacks on the shelves of bookshops. The difference is that we experience story in metaleptic ways, using mobiles as the wands we wave to connect information and plotlines which come at us from a multiplicity of sources and are accessed on the move on networked but private devices. Experiencing narratives across platforms will soon seem as natural as tweeting friends on a sunny day. Imagine jogging with headphones on, pursued by policemen on bicycles, in the style of Naomi Alderman’s app, Zombies Run. (https://www.zombiesrungame.com)
Over the years my writing has been published and performed, but for most of my working life I have been working as a literature development officer, running projects for which I had to fundraise. Workshops, events, proposals and applications are what I think with. Now I’m focusing again on making fiction to be consumed on digital devices, and just as I wouldn’t jettison my knowledge and appreciation of traditional literature, I don’t intend to give up the tools I’ve used as a project worker – I’m continuing to run public workshops and events, to make flyers and taster leaflets, but as part of the creative process of composition, not (yet) as educational adjuncts or marketing tools to promote the finished work.
The poet Benjamin Zephaniah said in an interview with if:book UK, that whether poetry appears on page or screen, “the most important thing is to publish in people’s hearts.” At if:book uk we’ve talked about how digital sets words free and reminds us that the book isn’t an object but “an experience that happens in your heart and in your head”. Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book (USA) and a longstanding guru of digital publishing, says, “the book is a place.”
For one day this December my evolving fiction inhabited a shop in The Galleries, a Bristol shopping arcade where we set up a pop-up Nearly Store. Working with the artists’ collective Alldaybreakfast who regularly put on exhibitions in empty retail units, I put a poster in the window asking for people to come in and tell me their nearly stories. A laptop played a looped powerpoint presentation explaining the project alongside a display including copies of The Nearly Times, the newspaper I’ve made as an introduction to Nearlyology, and a bowl of free ‘I nearly’ badges for contributors. In the evening we held an event at which I sang some nearly songs, gave the gist of the digital novel I’m writing, and the audience told their own stories of things, sad, funny, moving, thrilling and extraordinary, that had nearly happened in their lives, or had happened when something else nearly did.
To the transmedia theorist this event would be a good example of generating stickiness, creating a real destination conveying the spirit of the work. Tea and Jaffa Cakes further incentivized punter participation, donating a stream of nearlies which can feature in the narrative.
The Third Policeman’s footnotes about the philosophical and scientific writings of De Selby create a third space between the reader’s reality and the fictional world: a library of imaginary books apparently in actual libraries and concerning another non-existent man. By filling a real shop with my fictional world, the pretend likewise begins to leak into the real, like Don Quixote hearing rumours of the exploits of the hero of pirated versions of his adventures.
Visitors to the Nearly Store create a crowd of alternative, imaginary selves which blur with the real. Was that person really or nearly a professional dancer? Did this one actually live in Russia or only almost? It’s a curiously open, intimate and fictitious kind of sharing.
“Self-conscious genres like metafiction involve transgressions of the common-sense world either by presenting paradoxes of framing which proclaim its texuality, or by justaposing different rhetorical modes which splinter rhe linear, monological pattern of realism. Such strategies share a common purpose: the erasure of the common-sense context and paradigmatic beliefs which normally smooth the transition from the real to the fictional.” (Hopper, page 178)
That smooth transition is breached by new media convergence. Novel and book are no longer synonymous and the map of fiction and reality is being frantically redrawn so metafictional techniques become everyday aspects of rendering a convincing story.
“In a text-only work of fiction, like a novel, you would use descriptive language and telling details…to make a setting come to life in the mind’s eye. In transmedia storytelling, though, the most effective tool is to actually create a small piece of your world and give it to your audience to play with.” (Phillips, page 43)
In the shop of the book the public will be tempted in by eye catching offers and a simple and intriguing invitation to take a look around. It’s important not to scare punters away by demanding too much too soon. Let them browse. Likewise the invitation to interact online shouldn’t stop readers immersing themselves quietly in prose which should also open up possibilities for making, if they wish to, their own further adventures.
Alain de Botton’s School of Life and Tom Hodgkinson’s Idler Academy are examples of writer-led locations selling gifts and running courses to build a community around their creators’ books, ideas and interests. This model can make financial sense in the age of convergence, when the tote bag of the paperback can be sold for more profit than the text itself. What’s more, shaping the business plan may be as important and intimate a part of the author’s composition process as building the characters.
What else could I stock in my shop of Nearly? CDs of the songs and ukuleles to play them with; handmade limited edition paper versions of episodes from the book, also available on memory stick or as download; notebooks to write your own nearly stories in; jars to whisper nearly secrets into, and store them till they’re ready to be released.
I could mount an exhibition of work by various artists inspired by Gregory Carraday;. I could sell books like The Third Policeman and Spreadable Media which provide insight into what and how I’m aiming to explore. C.Ds, Jaffa Cakes, and tea will be available, maybe a bicycle propped against the wall, and Nearly Sticks to be borrowed for free.
I’ve made a Nearly Stick for myself now and use it to write words in the air when lost for ideas and needing to refocus. I’m taking Nearlywriting walks in the morning when I whisper into my iPhone ideas and images suggested by what I’m seeing around me. At a workshop we held in 2013 called Nearlywriting/Nearlydancing, the dancer and choreographer Jia-Yu Corti asked participants working in pairs to close their eyes and let themselves be led around the room as they described another place that was special to them; then she asked us write with our bodies, describing words in the air with our arms, legs and heads. That seems such an appropriate and exciting starting point for making transmedia fiction to be published in people’s hearts.
“To walk is to journey in the mind as much as on the land; it is a deeply meditative practice. And to read is to journey on the page as much as in the mind. Far from being rigidly partitioned, there is constant traffic between these terrains, respectively mental and material, through the gateway of the senses.” – Tim Ingold.
THESE ARE THE SOURCES I USED TO WRITE THIS ESSAY. PLEASE COMMENT AND LET ME KNOW OF BOOKS, SITES, APPS ETC. THAT YOU THINK I SHOULD TAKE A LOOK AT. Thanks
There is a mass of critical writing about Flann O’Brien, but Hopper’s book focuses on his post-modern tendencies and his reference to Shamanism makes it an ideal focus for this essay alongside Spreadable Media by Henry Jenkins and others. I’m also exploring articles which apply transmedia ideas to a host of specific works, for instance Scolari’s analysis of Steve Canyon cartoons and the 24 tv programme and all its spin offs . Tim Ingold is a major figure in the world of anthropology and play studies and his essays are fascinating on aboriginal traditions and the unique concept of time and space bound up in the notion of the Dreamtime.
Naomi Alderman, Zombies Run, (iPhone app, Six To Start, London 2012) https://www.zombiesrungame.com/
S. Dinehart, Transmedial play: Cognitive and cross-platform narrative. Retrieved December 13, 2013, from http://www.narrativedesign.org/2008/05/transmedial-play-the-aim-of-na.html
Keith Hopper, Portrait of the Artist as a Post Modernist,
(Cork: Cork University Press 1995)
Tim Ingold, Being Alive, Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (London: Routledge, 2011)
Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford & Joshua Green, Spreadable Media, (New York: NYUP, 2013)
Henry Jenkins, (2003, January 15). Transmedia storytelling. Moving characters from books to films to video games can make them stronger and more compelling. Technology Review. Retrieved December 13, 2013, from http://www.technologyreview.com/biotech/13052/
Serge Kahili King, Urban Shaman, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990) p 14.
Lorna Marshall, The Body Speaks, Performance and Physical Expression (London, Methuen, 2001)
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, (Dublin, 1967)
Andrea Phillips, A Creator’s Guide To Transmedia Storytelling (London
C.A. Scolari, Transmedia Storytelling: Implicit Consumers, Narrative Worlds, and Branding in Contemporary Media Production. International Journal of Communication 3 (2009), 586-606 (Spain: University of Vic Catalunya 2009)
Story Mechanics, John Buchan’s 39 Steps, iPhone app, Scotland 2013 (https://itunes.apple.com/app/the-39-steps/id632665383)