THIS IS the contextual research I submitted as part of my PhD in Digital Writing from Bath Spa Uni in June 2017. I’m delighted to say I passed my Viva subject to corrections, which means I have the next few months to re-organise this, separating out the contextual and the compositional sections. However I do like it in this form, so am posting the original document here for now. It’s around 20,000 words long, by the way, and if by any chance you should read it, please let me know what you think. Thanks.
- LIQUID KNOWING
1.1. Research Questions
How can a transmedia literary fiction convey the texture of everyday life and the inner lives of its characters while giving space to reader-generated responses and live collaboration? While scholarly writing on transmedia narrative and other related fields examines the potential for telling stories across different platforms and genres, how does the transmedia literary writer approach the production and publication of a multimodal text within the context of a complex publishing ecology?
These are the research questions I have explored through writing my novel
What Didn’t Quite, and in this contextual research.
I started this project believing that the act of writing fiction had been fundamentally changed by the arrival of digital platforms, which allow writers to breach boundaries previously defined by the technology and economics of the publishing industry. My intention was to test how these new possibilities for literature might be fruitful for exploring people’s relationships with their regrets and desires in the light of digital technologies, which make it possible to create an abundance of online personas, to travel virtually through time and space, to take one route in life but use the web to follow alternative paths.
As I wrote the story, instead of setting out to create either a paperback novel or a digital app, I allowed myself to ‘Nearlywrite’, that is, to compose using whatever media felt appropriate in the expectation that what was eventually concocted could somehow be produced by digital if not analogue means. I wandered freely down any creative pathways that inspired or intrigued in the hope that this process would reveal the most fruitful way to present the story of Nearlyology, my made-up word for the study of the lives that people nearly lead.
My aim has been to refine a creative practice for my own writing, not lay down general rules or definitions. Anthropologist Tim Ingold criticizes scholarly writing that perpetuates the illusion that the researcher sits apart from what he or she observes (Ingold, 2011). Such research presents thought and vision, time and space as if they were divisible and so fails to recognize the totality of phenomena. In contrast to writing, Ingold promotes the acts of walking and drawing as uniquely active forms of observation, an “intimate coupling of the movement of the observer’s attention with currents of activity in the environment” (Ingold, 2000: 108). I have explored how the composer of transmedia literary fiction can engage in similarly active observation. This contextual research is nearly a conventional academic paper on transmedia, and nearly a personal essay on my creative wayfaring. Being nearly doesn’t imply a fudge or compromise but an intention to stray across boundaries between actual and virtual, objective and subjective, real and fictional. As E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End, “truth, being alive, was not halfway between anything. It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm” (Forster, 2012: 195).
1.3 Recording Processes
There is much debate about the contribution of practice-based or practice-as-research and how to connect what academic Robin Nelson describes as the ‘liquid knowing’ of the arts to the ‘hard facts’ of traditional academe (Nelson, 2013: 48). In this context, the Practitioner Model of Creative Cognition has been proposed by Lyle Skains as a robust means for creative writers to analyse their practice. On the Nearlyology website and in my notes, I kept a record of my processes in line with her recommended method of self-directed ethnomethodology. Tracking my writing decisions as well as the decisions made in running events and workshops which I have piloted to explore the book’s themes, I also researched what Skains calls “scholarly domains pertinent to the project” (Skains, 2016), placing these alongside definitions of the key elements of transmedia narrative.
1.4. Transmedia Storytelling, Digital Publishing, Performance Writing
Central to this research is scholarly writing, by Henry Jenkins, Marie-Laure Ryan, C.A. Scolari, Christy Dena and others, which seeks to define the essential characteristics of transmedia storytelling. Most of this work is concerned with the analysis of major commercial franchises and large-scale projects, which Matthew Freeman’s study has shown to have a history reaching back long before the arrival of Marvel Comics and the web to Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan (Freeman, 2016).
Aside from these mega-fictions, research includes work on non-fiction transmedia storytelling as a medium for social activism (Hancox, 2017), and the creative process of making a kind of interactive narrative that is more game-based than I wanted my novel to be (Abba, 2007). The rapidly growing body of digital literature of the kind anthologized by the Electronic Literature Organization, defined on the ELO website by N. Katherine Hayles as: “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” (Hayles, 2017), includes hypertext poetry, novels in the form of emails and SMS messages and collaborative writing projects that allow reader contributions. The shortlists of the annual New Media Writing Prize, of which I’ve been a judge and sponsor since its launch in 2007, range from hand-coded works by solo makers to commercially produced apps (New Media Writing Prize 2017). Examples of shortlisted independent makers are Christine Wilks in the UK, poet Jason Nelson in Australia and Alan Bigelow in the US, many working in or close to an academic setting. At the other extreme are commercial publishers Touch Press, who make lavish digital renderings of established bestsellers like Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse (Touch Press, 2016) and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (Touch Press, 2016a) . The 2014 winner of the prize, Pry (Tender Claws, 2014), is a rare example of a new fiction in the form of a highly polished, independently produced downloadable app.
In the process of writing my novel and this paper I have become less concerned with the digital means to manipulate text and more concerned with what models exist for the author in creating compelling stories open to and inspired by such digital innovation. Authors such as Miranda July, Ali Smith, Jennifer Egan, Kate Atkinson, Kate Pullinger and Naomi Alderman write literary fiction that in different ways is clearly inspired by, though not uncritical of, the new light that digital innovation sheds on what is possible with words. The forking paths of narrative in Life After Life (Atkinson, 2013), the flicker-book graphic in The Raw Shark Texts (Hall, 2007), Nick Cave’s novel enhanced with his music and voice (Cave, 2010), Richard House’s Booker shortlisted novel The Kills (House, 2013), featuring links to videos – all these push at the boundaries of literary fiction without breaking out completely.
While studies such as Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Aarseth, 1997) aimed to identify unique features of screen-based as opposed to paper-bound literature, the field of Performance Writing examines how all words happen in time, whether through the random shuffling of a database, the churning of an offset litho printer, the movement of animated text on screen, or the exhalation of breath to generate voice. Although David Buuck’s definition of Performance Writing specifically rules out “practices that are not driven by non-narrative and/or avant-garde poetics” (Buuck, 2013), this field of scholarship exploring literature-as-happening stresses the links between digital, page and all kinds of spoken word performance. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of the tablet computer and large-screen mobiles provide a popular and portable platform where ‘ordinary readers’ can read, hear, watch and write words in multimodal and interactive settings.
1.5. Creative Wayfaring
During the initial period of free creative wayfaring, I wrote a draft narrative text and set up the Nearlyology website. Having fixed on three main characters, each representing a different aspect of Nearlyness, I tried fleshing them out in different ways. I ran Nearly Workshops similar to those run by one of my novel’s protagonists, digital consultant Freya Seward. I wrote and recorded songs in the persona of her musician husband Jamie, and made artworks and animations in the spirit of the book’s third main protagonist, Gregory Carraday. Over the past three years I have gathered Nearly Stories from members of the public around the country; studied Flash Animation at London’s City Lit, and Puppetry and Writing for Puppets at the Little Angel Theatre; formed The Ifso Band and sung songs at open mic evenings in pubs and cafés; devised a piece of Nearly Music; performed a section of the novel using a loop machine and improvised musical accompaniment; I have held workshops with other collaborators, including theatre director Lily McLeish and choreographer Jia-Yu Corti. In this contextual research I’ve documented and analysed these experiments to see how they helped me create the final work.
Transmedia producers Sean Steward and Ian Lee, interviewed in A Creator’s Guide To Transmedia Storytelling, speak of “a sort of Copernican revolution: instead of thinking of the entertainment as something that lives in a book (or box or console) that your audience has to come to, think of that audience as the sun: try building entertainment that orbits around them” (Phillips, 2012: 10). In this supporting thesis I think about how best to set my Nearly world in orbit. To do this, I’ve imagined myself wayfaring alongside each of the three protagonists of my novel. Having given my characters interests that relate to the theme of Nearlyology, I look at how these can inspire new possibilities for literature set free from the constraints of conventional publishing. Elements of transmedia narrative define the route of my wayfaring, but I’ve meandered along the path to look at a variety of related ideas that caught the eye in relation to my themes, characters and creative goals. I visited some places, happened briefly on others, caught sight of yet more in the distance.
1.6. Mapping The Ways
PUBLISHING IN PEOPLE’S HEARTS defines Transmedia Literary Fiction and puts this research in the context of debate about digital possibilities for literature and my own background in community arts, writing and literature development.
In WAYFARING WITH CARRADAY I look at models for the transmedia writer, for instance as shaman or flâneur. I consider the character Carraday’s interest in indigenous Australian culture, his own magical thinking about the Outsider Art he makes. I document some of my own experiments with gathering Nearly stories at public events, analyse what this experience brought to the novel and how a performance element to the project led me to confront how exposing the role of Nearly Writer can be.
In WORKSHOPPING WITH THE NEARLYSINGER, I consider the power of fiction to change lives and how transmedia tools can create space for meaningful dialogue in the midst of a novel. I deal with the potential for a transformative relationship between reader and writer, looking at issues that relate to my next protagonist Jamie, trying to sort himself out through writing songs – which can be listened to by readers of the novel. With miserable, musical Jamie I visit an inspirational exhibition at Tate Modern, which generated a unique kind of customized storytelling. I look at how psychotherapists view our regrets and desires, how Jamie deals with ghosts of himself through the story worlds that he creates in song. I review a Nearly workshop that I ran, digging deeper into the therapeutic as well as comedic potential of Nearlyology.
In CHATTING WITH FREYA IN THE CAFÉ AT THE NEARLYVERSITY, I turn to my fictitious digital strategist Freya Seward to think about the practicalities of how my transmedia novel could be realized. I visit some places and projects relevant to making fiction in a mediatized world, including The Museum of Innocence, a book turned into a building. I describe the process of designing a demo app version of my novel and find a potential format for performing the book.
JAMMING WITH THE IFSO ENSEMBLE documents some experiments in improvised performance through my involvement with Academy Inegales, an ensemble of collaborating musicians and composers. I look at how such collaboration might be embedded in the novel, and at concerns about the economic impact of digital culture on artists and writers in neo-liberal consumer society. Asking how writers can collaborate to survive in the age of what Jen Harvie’s study of Art, Performance and Neoliberalism calls “the Artrepreneur” (Harvie, 2013), I examine how digital platforms allow writers to revisit the participatory ethos and techniques of Community Arts to make work that blends literature and other art forms in radically new ways.
- PUBLISHING IN PEOPLE’S HEARTS
2.1. The Word Set Free
An appropriate starting point for the exploration of literature set free from the printed page is the work of Marshall McLuhan who, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962, sought to show how the invention of writing, and then moveable type printing, fundamentally shaped human expression. The printing press favoured uniformity and consistency, the visual over the auditory or tactile; it separated poetry from song, it locked meaning into the codex and made the book a portable and saleable commodity. “The invention of the alphabet, like the invention of the wheel, was the translation or reduction of a complex, organic interplay of spaces into a single space” (McLuhan, 2011: 51). Technology, McLuhan believed, was bound to modify our notion of individualism and yoked the concept of literacy to the business model of publishing. Now that we’re in the thick of digital transformations arguably more profound than even McLuhan imagined, I wanted to render the inner lives of three imaginary individuals using the full potential of the electronic, networked device on which I write.
As Kirstyn Leuner writes: “The transfer of content from books to computers has fundamentally changed the way readers, writers, publishers, editors and technologists interact with text” (Leuner, 2014: 45). With the coming of digital technologies and platforms, the word has taken off from the printed page; the book can be a fluid thing, words can be dripped or poured into our minds, swum through alone or bathed in with friends. Text can be mingled with sound, illustration and moving image, the original authors’ words responded to, added to, remixed by each reader. Writers can choose for themselves which platforms, media and business models best suit their artistic intentions. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah says: “We may publish books, we may also put poetry on the Internet, but the most important thing for us is that we publish our works in people’s hearts” (Zephaniah, 2016). Rather than be dictated to by technology old or new, I wanted to find the best way for me to speak from and to the heart about the actual and the virtual, the real and the nearly.
The digital future for literature is often framed in terms of a threat to authors’ incomes, the survival of publishers, the impact on our concentration spans – the end of civilization as we know it. For instance, in a talk for the Hay Festival, author Jonathan Franzen mused whether in 50 years’ time serious readers will have “that hunger for something permanent and unalterable” which he associates with the printed book and a system of justice or responsible self-government. “I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that” (Singh, 2012).
2.2. Community Arts & Siren Servers
And yet to me the digital possibilities for literature seem fundamentally liberating. Growing up in the 60s and 70s and working in the book trade and the arts during the 1980s, my imaginative life was hugely influenced by all media. However, books still felt like the place where big ideas belonged. An old Olivetti manual typewriter was my most treasured possession as a child. With carbon paper and staples I tried to replicate real magazines and booklets. I went to the bookshop round the corner to find the latest facts and fictions. I wanted to write books, not because I loved their look and feel, but because that was where I’d been led to believe proper stories lived. Later, as a Community Arts Worker in libraries in the 1980s, I became intent on setting the word free from those buildings and bindings, to empower new voices in a wider cultural conversation. In 1982 I was working for the Sound Collective at Commonground Resources Centre, in Sheffield, producing Commonsound, a community cassette magazine, in a building that contained a recording studio, printing press, silk screen, video and photographic equipment – like a gigantic analogue iPhone, sending out multimedia messages to the populace, calling them to join the revolution.
The Sheldon Trust, an influential funding body for Community Arts in the 1980s, defined it as: “a way of working, not a particular artform… Community Arts encourages active participation by ordinary people rejecting the trend towards passive consumption in all other areas of life” (Hinton, 1990: 24). It could be argued that in the 21st century, consumption, far from being passive, has become remorselessly active, our networked and converged cultural landscape hectic with opportunities to chat, to review and to customize our shopping experiences, in constant connection with a global, virtual world but still within confines tightly defined by commercial forces. In Who Owns The Future?, Jaron Lanier writes: “The primary business of digital networking has come to be the creation of ultra-secret mega-dossiers about what others are doing, and using this information to concentrate money and power” (Lanier, 2014: 54). He predicts the demise of the middle class as all intermediary jobs are replaced by big business using ‘siren servers’ to give us free downloads and advertising in exchange for the valuable information we give them for free without even noticing it. Lanier argues for a system of micropayments to reimburse producers and a humanistic computing that challenges the dominance of these gigantic companies. He argues that the collaborative creation and informal barter made possible by platforms such as Facebook, Amazon, eBay etc. in fact concentrate power and money in the hands of the technological overseers who own the servers and the information we feed to them.
2.3. The Networked Writer
Digital platforms have certainly stimulated a flowering of open creativity, crowd sourcing and collaborative consumption, which has led to fan fiction, sites for sharing cars, spare rooms and free advice, global support networks, local community activism, Wikipedia and much more. Sitting writing these words on a networked screen, I’m at the same time alone with my thoughts, connecting voluntarily with the gatekeepers to a networked world, and connected to what feels like a vast global subconscious of rumour and desire. The texture of my inner life has certainly changed since the arrival of the Internet. This strange new sense of self needs documenting, and the commercial influences that may be hidden inside our laptops and our minds must be revealed and challenged.
In Computers as Theatre, published way back in 1993, Brenda Laurel painted a utopian picture of digital possibility as she anticipated the creation of new software for writers. She had a dynamic, multi-dimensional view of the process of writing, which nearly describes what for me, on a good day, it is like to write today. I hammer away at the keys on my laptop, Googling out into the web to track down information and make connections to further my inner world, tweeting this and blogging that, hyperlinking to relevant sites, creating characters and actions with words, then downloading apps to help me enhance, animate and share, how and when I wish. “Computers have the potential to transform the process of writing from a series of isolated and cumbersome tasks into a whole action that retains and refreshes its connections to its inspiration, materials and outcome” (Laurel, 2013: 173). Transmedia literary fiction seems an appropriate term to describe literature made from this kind of whole action writing.
2.4. Transmedia Literary Fiction
Christy Dena defines transmedial fiction as naming a fictional world that “exists across distinct media and art forms” (Dena, 2014: 486). Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (Jenkins, 2007). He and the co-authors of Spreadable Media (2013) analyze it using examples from popular culture and mass media, characters like Harry Potter and Doctor Who, known as properties in marketing speak. In contrast, my creative work, What Didn’t Quite, is a chamber piece, a work of what might be called literary fiction, although this is a hotly contested term, often used in debates which cast it as the snobby opposite of popular genre fiction (Rothman, 2014), (Stevens, 2011). One writer’s advice site curtly lists its essential elements as: “Character comes before plot… ‘fine writing’ is essential… anything goes” (Chapman, 2017). I don’t claim fine literary quality, but in What Didn’t Quite the plot is secondary to the book’s themes, its style doesn’t neatly fit into any particular genre, and I am trying to say something satirical about society and the times we live in. I also don’t expect it to reach a mass audience. For my purposes I seek to use transmedia storytelling techniques to deepen and spread engagement with the themes of my book, rather than to attract swarms of new readers or generate multiple stories set in its world.
The polished prose of literary fiction could be considered too carefully and individually crafted to be altered by anyone other than the author. It may not easily be rendered into re-mixable chunks, scattered across media or disrupted by readers’ interjections. However, critic Terrence Rafferty writes that “literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way” (Rafferty, 2011), and transmedia literary fiction has new means to make spaces for that dawdling without losing readers entirely. Jenkins argues that successful transmedia content uses stickiness to retain the dawdlers, and “gains this through an awareness of how media texts are taken up by audiences and circulate through audience interactions”. Bringing users to your site and holding them there indefinitely by providing material that can be circulated and repurposed easily, the concept of spreadability “assumes that anything worth hearing will circulate through any and all available channels, potentially moving audiences from peripheral awareness to active engagement” (Jenkins, 2013: 6). The page turner is replaced by the sticky site, the bestseller by popular destinations like J.K.’s Pottermore and Jane’s Austenland, the literary novel by all manner of fictional spaces, experimental, original and radical, but all governed by the psychology of online attention. The single, compelling linear plot makes way for a new pattern of story world and clusters of characters, which can be elaborated, expanded and remixed within that world’s topography without destroying the fiction’s central premises.
On the www.nearlyology.net website (Meade, 2017), I have been documenting experiments in how to make my story stickier, trying different ways to draw readers into the wider Nearly Project. In literary fiction the author’s text may be sacrosanct, but digital formats allow for spaces within the story where readers are able to write freely, and might receive direct, customized communications from the world of the book.
Today, every writer also has the potential to design a personal threshold to their particular narrative world, and, in doing so, to define the terms of their engagement with the reader. The author’s website, often controlled by the writer rather than the publisher, allows the creation of a form of paratext, the digital equivalent of marginalia, cover art, foreword, footnotes, those trappings of a book which the author of Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation calls “a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction” (Genette, 1997: 2). Whether published or not, writers today can easily make blogs and websites presenting their work in whatever context they wish, adding illustrations and elaborations that were previously limited by the technological, commercial and contractual constraints of publishing. Society may, as Lanier believes, have lost vast swathes of middle-class jobs for intermediaries in the supply chain of literature, but for the writer there are creative opportunities to be found in taking control of some of these processes.
- WAYFARING WITH CARRADAY
3.1. The Writer as Walker
“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” (Solnit, 2006a: 72). This statement by historian and activist Rebecca Solnit catches the spirit in which I’ve been trying to make fiction. It applies to experimental narratives and digital adventures just as much as to conventional texts and oral storytelling. Refreshingly, it provides a model for the writing process that isn’t confined to the page or the screen – each writer must decide what he or she needs in order to carve a particular route.
In search of a fresh approach to Nearlywriting, I’m taking my concerns for a walk across this new terrain with the strange shaman at the centre of my novel: Gregory Carraday, the Nearlyologist who believes that his tinnitus is the sound of the Nearlyverse, a mysterious forcefield of possibilities and failures that surrounds us all, and which he hears fizzing in his ears. I envisaged him as an analogue version of the digital creator. Wayfaring through the town, he gathers examples of the things people have nearly done and secretly makes paintings based on these stories, amulets which he buries, burns or otherwise releases as he walks in the park, enacting spells with his Nearly Stick to try to transmute people’s regrets and frustrations into fruitful imaginings.
Since McLuhan, many commentators on the future of the book have argued that at times of technological change artists engage directly with the affordances of new platforms and reassess the old. Johanna Drucker writes: “As new devices and platforms emerge, attention to the relation between specific materialities and the aesthetic expression may increase, with benefits accruing to all media formats as a result” (Drucker, 2014: 168). These changes also lead to the reassessment of what it is to be a writer. The old image of the author deskbound in a room of one’s own is replaced by the writer as flâneur, the roaming psychogeographer with nothing but an iPad to document the experience.
In the 1950s, Situationist Guy Debord defined psychogeography as “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” (Debord, 1955). Iain Sinclair and Will Self are perhaps the best-known contemporary flâneurs; many more have roamed the city writing about their experiences, and Lauren Elkin has documented the history of women flaneuse (Elkin, 2016). Psychogeography informs the work of contemporary artists such as those involved in the Walking Artists Network, as well as anthropologists and cultural geographers including Doreen Massey and Tim Ingold whose work analyses the complex layers of meaning which adhere to the urban spaces we inhabit and traverse. This area of activity takes on new significance with the arrival of virtual and enhanced reality, geo-location and locative apps, which can reveal those layers of meaning to readers and deliver appropriate stories to their smartphones as they move through the landscape.
Writers and readers are on the move. Authors can access their digital manuscript, notebooks and research libraries from whichever wifi-enabled café or hotel room they choose to work in. As novelist Deborah Levy puts it: “Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia and Africa” (Levy, 2014: 108). Portable authors may also seek new skills, collaborators, tools and reference points to help them compose in new dimensions, to put stories into orbit around their readers. The multimedia storyteller operates as a kind of tour guide, leading the reader along the pathway of the written word, pointing out viewpoints and sounds, providing time and space for conversations with fellow walkers along the way – and this analogy harks back to oral traditions. Anthropologist Tim Ingold writes: “There is nothing new in Solnit’s idea of reading and writing as modalities of travel.” Medieval monks regarded themselves as wayfarers, “travelling in their minds from place to place, and composing their thoughts as they went along by drawing on or ‘pulling in’ ideas lodged in places previously visited” (Ingold, 2011: 199). Readers of the scriptures were advised “to process as though walking through a landscape… Thus the reader, ‘seeing’ his reading as he ‘walks’ through it, is constantly in motion, all senses continually in play”. This description of a medieval reader whose knowledge of bible stories was transmitted through stained-glass windows, sermons and mystery plays as well as scripture written, sung and spoken, applies equally to the type of creative reader needed to participate in multimodal, transmedia fiction.
3.2. Dead Authors & Creative Readers
When Roland Barthes wrote The Death of the Author in 1967, he was challenging the cosy assumptions behind realist fiction and literary criticism that deified the individual maker. He wrote: “In ethno-graphic societies the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’ – the mastery of the narrative code – may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’” (Barthes, 1993: 142). He considered the author to be a product of English empiricism and French rationalism and its belief in the prestige of the individual. Post-modernism and post-structuralism stem from a political critique of the cult of the literary personality and assumptions about power relations in society that underpin realist fiction. For the transmedia community, however, the changing shape of the book is a practical rather than a political matter; the omniscient author has been deposed by technology, not ideology, and the new creator is not just a notionally creative reader but what transmedia theorist Stephen Dinehard defines as ‘the viewer/user/player or VUP’ who “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” (Dinehard, 2015). The author is even deader than Barthes imagined.
In 1989, while working in Sheffield libraries, I was joint co-ordinator with Rachel Van Riel of a festival of reading and writing called Opening The Book. As workers in literature development and community arts we stressed that, far from being passive consumers, readers of fiction actively imagined the landscapes of the books they read, found associations and resonances which were all their own, charted their own course from book to book. But this activity was all in the mind – whereas the VUP really can drive the characters wherever they want them to go, design their own onscreen avatar, make their own scenes to insert in the story.
To draw and colour this kind of world, shamanistic transmedia writers can dip their brushes in all kinds of digital paint pots, using sound, image and movie as well as the printed word. They can also engage creatively with their readers and potential readers as they make their way. For instance, the children’s book app The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore (Moonbot Studios, 2012) includes sound and animations; it invites readers to draw on the book, to play games with the characters and make tunes on a keyboard embedded within it. Back in the mid-80s, the Opening The Book team used the term ‘creative reading’ as a metaphor to stress the imaginative activity involved in consuming a text. We set up events in libraries at which groups of readers were asked to share their thoughts and feelings on books they’d read. We also created a book of the 1989 festival, written, edited, printed and published during the event, utilizing the wonders of word processing and desktop printing and including quotes from participants and audience members (Van Riel & Fowler, 1996).
3.3. Outsider Artists & Mind Travellers
My character Carraday walks through his hometown scattering talismans, Outsider artworks that he creates as a means to make sense of the totality of his experience, real and imagined, and to cope with conflicted feelings about what he didn’t do with his life. Unlike the makers of transmedia games, Outsider artists such as Carraday develop their art practice in seclusion, placing themselves, more or less intentionally, beyond normality – and many are considered to be mentally ill or unstable. Michel Thefoz, curator of Jean Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut, gathered work by “all kinds of dwellers on the fringes of society… [who] make up their own techniques, often with new means and materials, and they create their works for their own use, as a kind of private theatre… and they do not care about the good opinion of others, even keeping their work secret” (Bottoms, 2007: 38).
Carraday’s artistic life was inspired by the likes of American Outsider artist Morton Bartlett, who died in 1992, after having spent 30 years secretly making half-life-sized doll figures of an imaginary family, which he photographed in tableaux and then stored in his basement. Working in a mineshaft at the age 35, Augustin Lesage heard voices telling him to give up his job as a miner and become a painter – so he did, guided by the spirits of Leonardo da Vinci and Lesage’s sister Marie who had died at a young age. Work by both men featured in the 2013 Venice Biennale exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (Gioni, 2013).
Other major exhibitions of Outsider Art, such as The Alternative Guide To The Universe at the Hayward Gallery in 2012 (Moody et al., 2013) and the ongoing work of The Museum of Everything, “the world’s first and only wandering space for the untrained, unintentional, undiscovered and unclassified artists of modern times” (Museum of Everything, 2017), point to its increasing interest to the mainstream art world in times when it’s harder than ever, in art as in literature, to draw clear lines between professional and amateur, spectator and maker, the obsessions of the conceptual artist and the neuroses of the mentally ill.
I decided that Gregory Carraday would make totemic artefacts, which he buries or burns without anyone seeing. For Carraday, this practice gives him absolute freedom but consigns him to being hidden, a Nearly Artist only, no critics to bother with, no form of peer review. Letting go of his work is painful, creating feelings of loss, regret and relief. As a Nearly artist he’s not pretending he isn’t aware of a world of art, but his project is by its nature invisible to that world, so there is no danger of being lured into that arena – or isn’t until Freya Seward comes on the scene and teases out a confession, then urges him to let her exhibit and sell his work. This is ‘Nearly art’ because it’s about the state of Nearlyness: his imagining of a life which he never led in Australia, his renderings of amulets to help dissolve negative frustrations and release positive energy instead. His feelings are made safe by containing them within a structured exercise: the destruction of the artwork. For Carraday, it’s an inoculating jab against a potentially lethal sense of bitterness.
Another model for Carraday was artist and collector Joseph Cornell, who never left Manhattan but instead made work about his mental excursions to Europe. “Through postage stamps, engravings, books and photographs, through correspondence with friends and strangers in far-off lands, he became the most educated of travellers… A solitary figure, Cornell also preferred to travel by himself, inwardly” (Lea & Hartigan, 2015: 46). Similarly, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa remembers another traveller in the imagination, a young clerk in his office who planned in detail journeys across the world he never made. “He knew the exact route of the train from Paris to Bucharest as well as the routes of all the trains in England, and as he mispronounced the strange names, I could see the glowing certainty of his greatness of soul… perhaps one day, in his old age, he will remember how it’s not only better but also truer to dream of Bordeaux than to actually go there” (Pessoa, 2002: 372).
Pessoa, writing in Portugal in the 1930s, invented characters not to inhabit his poems but to create them. His heteronyms are the personas he adopted to write in different ways, and several of their voices can be heard in his rambling and fragmented non-memoir, The Book of Disquiet. Like Pessoa, I’ve found myself, through writing in different voices, seeking an antidote to conventional biographies and realist fictions, trying to catch the texture of life in 21st-century Britain, which can feel less like following a single narrative line, more like watching a TV with ever-changing channels, flicking between shows in which we star as the loving parent, the lonely bore, the fantasy lover, the stressed worker, the eternal child.
In Magic: A Very Short Introduction, Owen Davies argues that magical thinking is entangled with the development of scientific thought. Alchemy led to chemistry and magical potions led to medical remedies. Supernatural explanations of events still abound. “A desire for something to happen – ‘I hope she loses her job’ – may be expressed rationally, but if it comes true, the interpretation may turn magical. These are phenomena of our waking hours. In our dreams, our minds lead us into magical worlds and activities. We can fly” (Davies, 2012: 106).
Visiting Australia I was struck by how the harsh history of that country and the state’s brutal treatment of indigenous Australians made it problematic for contemporary artists to engage creatively with such rich concepts as dreamtime and songlines. When I was a child, my granny used to bring back boomerangs and plastic BOAC airplanes from her trips to visit relations in Brisbane. According to Carraday’s peculiar version of aboriginal magical thinking, based mostly on what he gleaned from paternalistic Australian children’s books sent to him by his father when he was a boy in the 1960s, our dreams, our fantasies, our social media, our lived reality swirl around us in a harmonious whole, and we make our way shaman-like through this soup in the direction we choose, with Nearlystick or iPhone in hand to protect us.
3.4. Talismans & Other Objects
Gregory Carraday scratches and scribbles on his own body to fend off the negative force of the Nearlyverse. In a major study, Leigh Dale raises the issue of whether self-harm “represents a form of ‘magical thinking’ which does not differentiate between the physical and the symbolic” (Dale, 2015: 206). The British Museum catalogues a biting bag made in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia before 1896 which contained herbs and spells and was worn round the neck to be bitten into when evil spirits loomed (Sculthorpe & Carty, 2015: 64). This gave me the idea for Carraday turning nearly stories to dust in his coffee grinder to make similar amulets – but he also believes that Freya uses her digital gadgets in much the same way, gazing into the black glass mirror of the mobile screen and downloading apps to ward off bad things.
I met Swedish performance artist Joakim Stampe at the Children’s Book Fair in Sharjah in 2013, where we were both running workshops. Joakim encouraged me to make and exhibit some of the objects Carraday constructs in the book. Stampe’s work has involved grinding novels to dust and sprinkling them into cocktails for visitors to the Gothenburg Bookfair, a practice reminiscent of magical rites involving writing sacred texts in chalk on slate, washed off with water, which is then bottled as medicine. Stampe also paints inflammatory and bold political graffiti in water on very public walls, watching the words dry in the sun and vanish before the authorities have time to intervene (Stampe, 2017). I ground Nearly stories to dust and bottled them. I spoke passages from the story into paper bags to create a form of conceptual audio book. These items are for sale on the website.
3.5. Quality & Community
The question for viewers of Outsider Art may be whether we’re watching freaks or visionaries. “For many of these mavericks, art seems to be a means rather than an end (and it is worth noting that some never consider their activity as art at all)” (Moody, Rugoff et al., 2013: 5). These builders of miraculous machines made of ‘junkyard bricolage’, nearly brilliant, nearly mad, stubbornly refuse to accept the commonly held belief that artists need formal training and/or a certain level of critical recognition to justify their right to be eccentric and obsessive about the act of creation.
In an article provocatively entitled Why the Self Publishing Shit Volcano Isn’t Going to Stop Erupting Anytime Soon, Suw Charman-Anderson writes about the ‘unconscious incompetence’ of those writers whose inability to recognize their lack of talent – or appreciate the skills of others – leads them inexorably to self-publishing (Charman-Anderson, 2014). Yet in contrast to the vanity presses, which create unreadable tomes but give the gravitas of publication to whoever pays, the web is not an uncritical place. Here we can create our own webpage just how we want, but also check analytics daily to be confronted by how few people looked at it, and read the sometimes blistering criticisms of those who do find it. Online we remain vulnerable to comments as well as plain lack of interest. Online there is a new space for new kinds of nearly artist, able to present themselves fully and build a following outside conventional institutions and definitions, able to find others who share their fascinations and delusions but without the need to build thick walls of self-regard to protect them against the critical, cruel and simply not-bothered. An example is the Bristol-based collective of artists called Alldaybreakfast, who curate exhibitions of their work and have a critical community of followers on Facebook and Twitter. They met on a Masters course at the University of the West of England and each artist has a track record of qualifications and experience, but none of this is mentioned on their website (Alldaybreakfast, 2017), where projects are thoroughly and critically documented. Juanita DeHaro is a maker of virtual sculpture in Second Life. She’s the alter ego of Judy Barrass, a sculptor and maker of artists’ books based in Queensland, Australia. Her website isn’t under the auspices of any institution, and she can present these real and virtual aspects of her work alongside each other as she sees fit.
Beyond old-style community arts, which highlight the quality of the process of making art over the aesthetics of the product made, and vanity presses that give a phoney imprimatur of quality to those gullible enough to pay, the transmedia novel can inspire and incorporate reader-generated content into a curated whole, editing, selecting and remixing. Fan fiction sites such as The Meryton Assembly, one of several dedicated to work based on Jane Austen’s novels, have attracted a huge community of creative readers in dialogue with each other, and with the texts that captivate and inspire them (Meryton, 2010). Community members dedicate themselves to producing new work for each other, and use peer review to maintain the site’s overall quality. But whereas these sites become catalogues of separate works, the transmedia novelist can curate the output of a smaller participating community to generate new work that appears within the creative work itself.
Miranda July, filmmaker, artist, author of short stories, used eBay to sell items which feature in her novel The First Bad Man (July, 2015). Seven years earlier, with Harrell Fletcher, July published Learning to Love You More, a book of selected entries to a website inviting visitors to submit their photos and writing based on instructions from the authors: ‘Give advice to yourself in the past’, ‘Photograph a scar and write about it’ (July & Fletcher, 2007). The book hangs together as a collection whereas the site, now closed for entries, attracted over 8,000 participants and so became too big to browse easily. Miranda July works in different media and has succeeded in all of them, but as novelist David Eggars is quoted as saying, “She’s handicapped by her many talents in a way… It’s hard to convince everybody that someone who makes great films and is known as an artist can also write great fiction” (Alter, 2015).
3.6. Nights of Nearly
A Night of Nearly took place in 2013 in an empty Bristol shop temporarily used for exhibitions and events by artists’ collective Alldaybreakfast. An audience of around 20 gathered for an evening, which consisted of my performance of Nearly Songs, a presentation about the novel and its characters, a reading of the Nearly Manifesto and then a break during which the audience were given pens and cards to write down a line or two about their nearly events. In the second half, members of the audience were asked to come forward to tell about their Nearlies. The response was positive and plenty of stories were generated. We had primed some friends in advance to speak up, but strangers too were happy to come to the microphone and tell tales. By the end of the evening it was hard to remember who had really or nearly done what. Had this woman been a wingwalker or didn’t that actually happen? Is this man a musician who nearly went into dentistry or a dentist who nearly became a guitarist? One woman told how she’d “nearly died laughing” when her wayward husband returned, declaring he still loved her and wanted to move back in. Although stories were tinged with some regret and bitterness, all were presented positively. A woman once turned down a job at the BBC because she didn’t want to move city, then met her partner and has lived happily ever after – a road not taken led to another avenue opening. It was a light-hearted, comic event but emotional too. Most powerful was the way the sharing of something that didn’t happen transformed it into a story that belonged to its teller – our missed opportunities became fascinating attributes. One participant said it was like a “fantastic cross between stand-up comedy and therapy. I laughed, I cried, I shared” (Bookfutures, 2017).
The idea of Nearlyology was certainly proving to be sticky – but were people picking up anything about the story world? “Lots of passers-by were tempted to come in and wrote some interesting, funny and intimate tales. Later in the evening people gathered and told stories, which became progressively more confessional and moving. And Chris sang his warm songs.” This feedback from an audience member is touching – but doesn’t refer to the fiction itself. To draw people further into my story world and its theme, I produced a range of Nearly memorabilia for such occasions. The most popular item by far has been the Nearly badge; hundreds of these small white lapel badges have been distributed with ‘I nearly’ printed on them in Courier font, given out in exchange for a promise of a nearly story. Wearing the badge has led to scores of interesting conversations about the topic. I also printed The Nearly Times, a single sheet newspaper, with information about the project and extracts from an early draft. I fabricated mugs, tote bags and a Nearly Stick, like a shaman’s wand, patterned in a style loosely based on aboriginal artefacts. In the shop window in Bristol, a rotating Powerpoint presentation on an iPad flashed up images of the characters and more about their story. A large sign said “Come and Tell Us Your Nearlies”. It seemed a daunting ask, and most passers-by just passed by, but from time to time one would stop in their tracks, read a few of the stories on view in the window and then hurry in. One man told us he’d nearly jumped off the top of a car park, but had seen the light just in time – he spent a long time describing exactly which car park it was. A woman student described with passion how she’d almost bottled out of coming to university and how glad she was to have changed her mind. An older man absolutely saw his life as a series of nearlies and told us about the band he almost joined, a lover he lost, a job he refused…
From this exercise I learnt that Nearly stories are plentiful. Some people instantly connect with the idea of Nearlyology, but that doesn’t mean they are filled with bitter regrets and sorrows. Others don’t ‘get it’ at all, or resist it through fear that it will encourage regret. And although the concept generates laughter, it can also raise painful issues. I realized quickly that it was important to leave space for anonymous donations. When packing up after these public events I’ve often found secret messages left behind. For instance: “I nearly spent my whole life as a lie” and “I nearly told my cousin I was gay but I am a coward in a way the right thing isn’t always the one you should do. Especially if you do not want to be sent to a re-education camp [sic]” (Meade, 2017).
At the Earl Haig pub in Crouch End in June 2014, I was offered the opportunity to use its theatre space to perform a different kind of Night of Nearly. This time we included Nearly Songs played by The Ifso Band, featuring singer Abbie Coppard and bassist Alistair McEachern, and also extracts from the novel that I performed with artist Carol Laidler. From the stage I asked audience members to tell their own Nearly stories. I had set up a coffee grinder with which I created the fluff of Nearly Dust to sprinkle into the dark. This was part of a pre-Edinburgh festival in a new theatre space, so an excellent opportunity to try out the show, but the venue is near my home so the audience included some close friends and acquaintances – a bit like performing to my inner circle of Facebook friends.
3.7. Creativity Leaves You Exposed
And this is an issue for the amplified author: the first readership reached is an online social circle, whose response tends to be less about the work in its own right than what it might reveal about the author. “Is this true?” asked a friend of ours, worried that my wife and I had split up like my protagonists do in the story. This can be embarrassing and inhibiting. I discussed this topic with artist and performer Therese Steele, a Swedish dramaturge, writer and performer, whose work is informed by her experience of psychoanalysis and deals with establishing a connection between the political and the deeply personal. Steele was a participant in Tino Sehgal’s These Associations at Tate Modern, and her own work has been performed at Gallery8, Cochrane Theatre, Camden People’s Theatre and the Stockholm Fringe Festival. In 2013 she performed a collaborative piece with dancer Alice Tatge at the Freud Museum, which explored sexuality and violence (Dyad, 2013). I was interested to compare her attitude to audience and practice with mine as a writer. She said the experience could be “deeply embarrassing, awful. It’s extremely excruciating to have to go and perform something [and] you don’t know if it’s going to work until you’ve done it, until it’s too late. When I had my piece on at the Freud Museum my parents-in-law came and they thought… Oh, Therese is coming out as gay. That was fine. It was rectified, their interpretation. But that I would use that as a very roundabout opportunity to come out to them!” (Meade, 2017b).
Live performance can be exposing but, unlike the solitary novelist, performance artist Steele usually performs with other dancers. “Working in collaboration is quite luxurious because you just go to them and if it’s a good collaboration they will tell you if it is really pants, or if it is something that chimes with them then you start making something together” (ibid.).
I was keen for some kind of Nearlyology event to be part of the novel, and wanted to perform the story in some form, directly to readers and potential readers, but feared that exposure, too. I came to realize that I’m drawn to make work that is revealing and uncomfortable to share. The infrastructure of publishing can provide a buffer between authors and their readership, and without a publisher it’s important to create some means to distance oneself from the work and the characters, which is why I set up The Ifso Writers, a group who support each other in composing and amplifying their work. However, many writers would agree with Tim Lott who states: “‘Real’ published writers don’t attend writing groups… They don’t show their work around either till it’s finished – so there is no feedback… You are on your own” (Lott, 2015: 113).
Lott admits to profound bouts of depression due to the stresses of writing, but stoically insists this simply comes with the territory. “Dealing with crises of confidence is a large part of the struggle of writing.” But such a deep sense of isolation may be eased in a more collaborative and self-curated literary world where authors are increasingly responsible for their own quality control.
3.8. Seeing the Strings
After the Night of Nearly I commissioned artist Bee Peak to make a set of three glove puppets of the three main characters from my novel, partly so that I could point to them and say, “This is who the story is about – I just wrote it.” Having the puppets in my room led to my decision to make Freya and Jamie’s daughter Pippa a professional puppeteer. Puppetry plays constantly with the space between fiction and reality, the human and the simulacrum. In the essay Sign Systems of Puppetry, Henryk Jurkowski reflects on the history of puppetry and concludes: “The puppet theatre throughout its history has been a theatre of the constant pulsation of the means of expression and their relationships” (Jurkowski, 1983: 112). He looks back at German puppetry of the 1930s, which introduced the ‘opalescence of the puppet’, by which he means its double existence as a wooden object and an actor in the drama. “Clown Gustav of Albrecht Roser is a clown character, but when his strings get entangled and he asks for help, he is a puppet; furthermore, he is a puppet playing on its awareness of being a puppet” (Jurkowski, 1983: 109). Another marionette puppet fights off its wicked, manipulative operator but, of course, ‘dies’ in the process. Contemporary audiences seem to enjoy this exposure of the fictiveness of story, on stage and in novels. Banraku puppetry, a traditional Japanese form born in the 1600s in which several operators per puppet are in plain sight of the audience, moving the head and limbs of the figure, has been popularized by the stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. For readers, where once the novel sat far apart on the shelves from the author’s biography and reviews, in a networked environment these are all just a click away. We can enjoy seeing the strings of a fictional character, want to read about how the story was made, how it might relate to the author’s real life or source material, but that doesn’t make the characters any less nearly real.
Walking alongside Carraday as he waves his stick and points and jabbers, I realize we’re in the middle of a dark wood. But then I’m not really walking in the woods beside Carraday, he’s not a real person either, but he’s real to me and when I walk in the local park I can picture him. The puppet I own is nothing but the embodiment of him – it’s not an actor with a separate life, playing a part, not just marks on a page decoded, but nor is it made of flesh and blood; without my hand up inside him, he’s dead. He only speaks because I’ve written things for him to say. That thought makes me laugh and turn round to tell him what I’m thinking – but he’s gone.
- WORKSHOPPING WITH THE NEARLYSINGER
4.1. Losing the Thread
Where are we? The perambulating storyteller shows us words and sounds and moving pictures, hops between page and screen, skips beyond all boundaries. But what’s this person trying to tell us, and why is it so easy to lose the thread? What are these stories trying to do to their readers? In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes about how we try to pretend all is findable, keep-able, explicable. “It is in the nature of things to be lost and not otherwise. Think of how little has been salvaged from the compost of time of the hundreds of billions of dreams dreamt since the language to describe them emerged, how few names, how few wishes, how few languages, even” (Solnit, 2006: 185).
Through the character of Jamie I wanted to open up some of the increasingly heavy baggage we carry with us towards old age: the regrets and painful memories, the leftover desires which can burn even more fiercely as senses blunt, limbs ache and mortality beckons. When Jamie loses his way in a dark wood of depression I led him to try digital means to find a way forward, making music he posts online, contributing to an online forum on sexuality as a way to escape from depression and frustration. He experiences his own sexuality fracturing and dissolving. The digital abundance of erotica only emphasizes his loneliness and physical malfunctions, but he seeks creativity and community online to help him rebuild his damaged sense of self. Though he initially resists the ideas of his estranged wife’s new guru, it is Jamie who comes to seek a kind of enlightenment through Nearlyology.
In this section I argue that transmedia literary fiction can present us with multiple-choice futures, take us out of our own problems and let us inhabit the inside of an author’s mind. Using the space for reader-generated responses and live collaboration online, fiction can potentially change the narrative of lives. What’s more, this literary genre can incorporate the elements of sound and spontaneity that McLuhan argues were stolen from literature by the invention of writing and, later, the printing press. What Didn’t Quite includes an album of Jamie’s songs, and for this protagonist songwriting proves highly therapeutic, giving him the freedom to mix elements of autobiography with pure invention, to create micro musical story worlds.
4.2. Metafictions & Shamanism
If transmedia fiction can do what was previously impossible in a bound book, is there evidence that novelists of the past hankered after these superpowers? A good place to look for clues is in the dark wood of The Third Policeman (O’Brien, 2010), a 20th-century novel that rattled the cage of the conventional linear novel, eager to burst out of its confines. Flann O’Brien wrote from a much older experimental tradition, which includes Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (Sterne, 1996), published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767. Sterne’s book was a metafiction testing out the possibilities of what was then a genuinely novel form, as innovative as interactive story apps today. O’Brien’s blackly comic fiction, published posthumously in 1967, is described by Keith Hopper in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist as the first post-modern novel, and it uses paratextual elements to conjure up a story world beyond the story (Hopper, 1995).
In The Third Policeman, the narrator is drawn into committing a murder and then finds himself lost in a wood where he meets strange policemen investigating disappearing bicycles. The narrative is interspersed with footnotes relating to the theories of De Selby, an imaginary scientist. De Selby’s 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 argues with his conscience, who becomes a character in his/its own right, forgets his own name and eventually turns out to be already dead (or maybe not).
“If art traditionally held a mirror up to society, then metafiction holds a mirror up to the mirror” (Hopper, 1995: 6). Hopper describes O’Brien as “shamanistic”, playing the role of tribal medicine man, “healer of the relationship between mind and body, between matter and spirit, between people and their environment, between culture and nature” (Hopper, 1995: 4). With digital technology the shaman writer can use multiple platforms to play with convention. In his book Urban Shaman, Serge Kahili King describes the outstanding quality of the shaman as being “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” (King, 1990: 14). For this PhD I’ve tried plunging into co-creating story, using whatever tools seemed appropriate, with the readers as collaborators, adding their own stories and illuminations, interrogating the characters directly.
Hopper analyses in detail O’Brien’s use of a self-conscious narrator and frame-breaking strategies such as the inclusion of the paratext 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 as well as the notion of the novel as an organic whole containing some essence of the real world, and reveal it as nothing but bare text, a constructed string of squiggles, signs and codes.
Like The Third Policeman, transmedia fiction is often ‘metaleptic’ in that it shifts from one narrative level to another and frequently leads to paradoxical transgressions of the boundaries between levels. For example, Blast Theory’s Karen is an app fiction featuring a life coach with problems of her own, who starts out offering professional advice based on multiple-choice questions and ends up bombarding the ‘reader’ with needy, flirtatious or threatening text messages which ping up alarmingly on his or her phone day and night (Blast Theory, 2015).
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 extrinsic to thematic concerns” (Hopper, 1995: 167). Many experiments in new media offer game elements to the reader, but in the process limit the imaginative range of the reading experience. For instance, in designing an iPad app of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (MP Digital, 2016), 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.
In 2010 the Royal Shakespeare Company “took Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the digital world in a groundbreaking production which unfolded to Twitter followers around the globe over the course of five weeks.” Such Tweet Sorrow was a bold experiment to transpose the story onto a new medium, but do we need to receive tweets from Romeo and Juliet as if they were really real to care about their fate? The Guardian culture blogger Charlotte Higgins thought not. She wrote: “Does a tweet like ‘Goooooooooood morningggggg :):):):):):) It happened… with THE most beautiful boy alive… IT happened :):):):):)’ really cut it?” (Higgins, 2010).
Flann O’Brien’s metafictions, however avant-garde in form, still appeared as paperbacks on the shelves of bookshops. Proponents of digital publishing envisage a future in which 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 may soon seem as natural as tweeting friends on a sunny day. The Third Policeman could take the form of an app along the lines of Pokemon Go or Naomi Alderman’s Zombies, Run! (Six to Start, 2016), a hugely successful story made to be listened to on headphones whilst exercising. I like the idea of the reader/jogger pursued by burly policemen, their molecules mingling with those of the bicycles they ride. Free at last, the book can become a gym, a meeting place, a consulting room for the lost and confused.
4.3. Nearlyology & The Unlived Life
It’s been my aim in this PhD to allow myself to get lost as I consider new ways to make fiction. Instead of being lost alone in my head, I’ve decided to be lost in public, putting early drafts of the first section of the novel on the www.nearlyology.net site and hosting public events. Although I included three songs in my digital novella, In Search of Lost Tim (Meade, 2008), I had never performed my songs in public before embarking on this project. After the Night of Nearly I was invited to write about the experience for the Writing Platform website. I wrote:
“For me it seems unnatural to sit alone for three years writing a story then launch it suddenly on an unsuspecting and mostly uninterested world. In my working life I’ve always enjoyed collaboration, interaction between readers and writers and different kinds of artists and I’m excited by how digital platforms for literature provide the potential to mix media, to bind together these elements not on paper but in a multi-faceted package which could be presented on a website, as an app or even a bag of analogue objects…. But I want the form to be shaped by the subject, not the marketplace” (Meade, 2014).
The subject of my novel is Nearlyology, an invented word which I define as the study of how the individual copes with the desires and frustrations surrounding things they didn’t quite do, how they describe their nearly experiences and how these can enhance or diminish their sense of self. Digital technology has opened up vast new virtual spaces between what we do and don’t actually do. Critics of the Internet such as Andrew Keen tell us that the gatekeepers have lost their grip; in many fields the wall between amateur and professional, nearly and really, is evaporating (Keen, 2008). The concept of Nearlyology is also a joke, a parody of self-help books and courses offering catchy ideas for ways to tackle inner demons and find the elusive Real You. My character Jamie and I are both at an age when it’s tempting to look back at the life one’s led and the roads not travelled. As the Nearly Manifesto says, “In the middle of the journey of life, what we’ve done and nearly done begins to blur” (Meade, 2017). Career successes can fade into the distance; the bruises of disappointments heal.
And if the bruises don’t heal, there is always therapy. Perhaps psychoanalysis can help us cope with our nearly lives. “So much wanting. So much longing. And so much pain, so close to the surface, only minutes deep. Destiny pain. Existence pain. Pain that is always there, whirring continuously, just beneath the membrane of life,” writes psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom (Yalom, 2013: 3). That pain doesn’t need to be disabling. Freud charted his theory of how we develop from hungry babies, only capable of fantasizing the breast so urgently needed, to adults capable of coping with the Reality Principle, feeling pangs of hunger but prepared to shop and cook or book a table for later, to spin out our desires in order to enhance the eventual moment of gratification (Freud, 1911). Delay can become not only tolerable but pleasurable, and preferable even to the having of the wanted thing itself. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips argues that culture is what humans have devised to fill up this space created between wanting and getting. Conversation, thought and storytelling all grow in the gap between desire and consummation, a means to handle what we might want and may not get. Phillips catalogues the types of unlived lives we lead and the different frustrations we endure:
There is a world of difference between erotic and romantic daydream and actually getting together with someone; getting together is a lot more work, and is never exactly what one was hoping for. So there are three consecutive frustrations: the frustration of need, the frustration of fantasized satisfaction not working, and the frustration of satisfaction in the real world being at odds with the wished-for, fantasized satisfaction (Phillips, 2012: 23).
In our youth this sense of longing can be overwhelmingly poignant. In older age there may be some relief from yearning; it’s perhaps easier to enjoy admiring the desirable without the craving to get it. Rebecca Solnit writes, “We treat desire as a problem to be solved” and wonders if it is possible to “look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your own longing… whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms” (Solnit, 2006: 30). Jamie is coming to terms with being alone, letting go of assumptions about himself as a worker, lover and father, confronting the lost opportunity to become a musician, but also finding new opportunities to express himself in the privacy of a confidential online forum, and to embody his musical alter-ego, better late than never. I’ve found it very liberating to compose songs in the guise of Jamie rather than as myself; I’ve gradually overcome my own insecurities about not being ‘really’ musical, and found I’ve written lyrics without the self-consciousness I feel when attempting poetry.
Defining myself as a Nearlywriter makes it easier to write stories, too. And yet I feel bombarded with story, units of narrative complication and resolution on TV, in books, film and advertising, which manage to convince their audiences over and over again into caring whether the killer will get caught, the affair consumed, the product bought. There is so much story.
4.4. True Stories
Boredom with the overfamiliar, narrative tropes has led writers like the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard to turn from novels to his epic memoir, My Struggle, declaring himself sick of fiction. In Volume 1, Man In Love, he becomes nauseated by fabricated characters in fabricated plots:
Every single sentence was met with the thought: but you’re just making this up… The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays… that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. (Knausgaard, 2013: loc.8752).
On the other hand, true stories perhaps allow less wiggle room than made-up fiction for readers to put themselves in the narrator’s shoes. Fiction still has the power to seize and hold our attention and Marie-Laure Ryan, discussing stories in games as well as novels, argues that it is the product of an act of make-believe, “whose prototype can be found in children’s role-playing games, such as playing house, cops and robbers, or big bad wolf chasing little pigs” (Ryan, 2013: 264). In Why We Read Fiction, Lisa Zunshine writes: “Our enjoyment of fiction is predicated – at least in part – upon our awareness of our ‘trying on’ mental states potentially available to us but at a given moment differing from our own” (Zunshine, 2006). Fiction allows us to nearly become other people. The transmedia literary novel can provide a customised space for this informal bibliotherapy, a public playground or mind gym for exercising our imaginations in relation to the themes of the work. For many years some publishers have included notes on discussion topics for reading groups in certain titles, but a book that is read online can contain within itself space for a conversation between readers. Purpose-built platforms for such social reading come and go, but providing a link to the Nearlyology website and Facebook page creates a space where comments can be left and a community of readers could grow.
4.5. Nearly Acting Nearly Being Workshop
Following on from the events to gather Nearly Stories, I wanted to try organizing workshops where participants could explore more fully their relationship to unlived Nearly lives. Lily McLeish is a theatre director working as Assistant Director to Katie Mitchell at the National Theatre. She has worked at the Royal Court, Young Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company and with numerous companies in the UK and Germany. Lily kindly offered to run a workshop for me. The workshop for six people took place over two days in a church tower in Hornsey. Participants included myself and McLeish, three actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, two freelance dancers, a published writer of historical fiction and a visual artist. Exercises included Introductions in which we mingled, saying hello to each other in the role of someone we might have been:
“Hi, I’m a lawyer. I work for the family firm and live next door to my parents. It’s a valuable role, and much better paid and socially useful than acting.”
“I used to have a loving family but blew it all because I wanted to feel free. I’ve messed up my life and now I’m trying to piece it back together again.”
Participants drew maps of their Nearly lives. Using a timeline of actual events, they added moments when Nearlies had presented themselves and found different ways to mark on paper how powerful and positive or negative the influence of these near misses had been, at the time and over a longer period. Sometimes the ghost of a possibility loomed over a long period, sometimes a big opportunity arose, only to die away quickly.
During the Nearlymapping exercise, an actor/dancer in his 30s told us a true story. Before she died, his mother mentioned that he’d nearly had a younger brother but the baby was miscarried. This man had always fantasized that if he’d had a younger brother he would have been less self-centred and happier in himself. As he told the group about this it became the case that to us he did now have a nearly brother. This nearly having was a fact that was real to us. We would always remember that brother as part of who he was. Our nearlies belong to us, we can talk about them, celebrate, honour them, or decide to let go of them. Telling others about them enhances their knowledge of us. This was to me and the others present an unexpectedly moving insight.
The same man said at the end of the worshop, “I never knew Nearlyology was a thing.” Actor Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s sent me this feedback: “The workshop was… a totally new and original world for me. It felt that the possibility for exploration of one’s psyche was almost limitless. Cathartic, investigative and curious. I particularly liked the improv as nearly detectives. Exploring the sorts of characters and their objectives or private needs that could lie behind a ‘nearlyological’ narrative was quite a beguiling experience” (Bookfutures, 2017). This comment refers to an exercise on the second day in which the three actors improvised a scene as Carraday, Freya and Jamie. It was a challenge to me to define the essence of the characters for the participants in this improvisation, and fascinating to see how the dynamic developed between them. The exercise informed my writing about Carraday and Jamie as they vie for the attention of Freya. The session felt less like a separate project alongside the novel and more a place to workshop ideas and characters within it, a site-specific manifestation of the world of Nearlyology.
The Nearly Detectives
Another exercise involved nearly touching: in pairs we moved around each other with the rule that we could not actually make physical contact. This instant intimacy made me reflect on Jamie’s sense of the elements of his sexuality separating out, providing space for appreciating other forms of closeness. McLeish wrote to say:
“In theatre during the scene analysis we often talk about events – moments when all the intentions of all the characters in the scene change. They are physical shifts that we read onstage… Someone almost saying or doing something may not immediately have an impact on another person in the room but the nearly event for that person who almost dared to say or do the thing will stay with that person and shape the person’s further actions
During one exercise, in which participants formed tableaux and then unravelled them, I had a personal revelation about my compulsion to write on the border of self-disclosure. In the past I’ve put a lot of work into writing about situations which seem too close to the bone to be publishable at the time, yet have lost interest once they stopped feeling so uncomfortable. I realised that this is a trick I play on myself to avoid completing work – a way to remain nearly a writer.
4.6. Songwriting & Story
Songwriting allows for another kind of re-telling. Here’s a chance to dance fleetingly with different aspects of ourselves, in the format of a love tune. Songs are three-minute fictions, miniature opportunities to play with a character or state of being and then move on. My novel isn’t a musical; though some of the Nearly Songs illustrate particular events in the story, mostly they provide a parallel narrative, an accompanying salad alongside the main course, remixing the book’s themes and scenes. The pop song with three or four verses and middle eight provides another structure for storytelling, less wedded to realism, fleeting but catchy. John Berger said, “songs can express the inner experience of Being and Becoming at this historic moment… because songs are self-contained and because songs put their arms around historic times… without being utopian” (Berger, 2016: 193). This is in contrast to prose, which he calls “an exchange with a surrounding circle of different points of view and opinions, expressed in a shared and descriptive language”. Berger believes this shared language no longer exists in public discourse. Amid discord and misunderstanding, which can shatter the shared knowledge needed by readers to comprehend a fictional world, a song unlocks a tiny but complete universe at each hearing.
Major songwriters can be refreshingly unpretentious about the meaning of their work. Paul Simon consciously tries not to think about what a song should say, “because I’m interested in what I find, as opposed to what I’m planting… People bring meaning to it, which is more interesting to me than for me to tell meaning to somebody” (Zollo, 2003: 96). Viv Albertine writes in her memoir of life before, during and after playing guitar in The Slits, that making a record is “like being a kid and getting all my mates over to help build a tree house out of bits of wood that are lying around” (Albertine, 2016: 392). Leonard Cohen, who famously took five years to write ‘Hallelujah’, filling notebooks with alternative verses, said that he fooled around on the guitar trying out chords “until I make myself cry… Then I know that I am in contact with something that is just a little deeper than where I started when I picked the guitar up” (Simmons, 2013: 148). Songwriters use intuition, a sense of worrying at an idea until it feels cooked enough to perform or record. Similarly in accounts of psychotherapy, the patient talks about their past until a moment when something is unlocked and the neurotic pattern dispels. The closure achieved at the end of a narrative has something like this effect on us. Songs can also transport us and unlock lost feelings.
4.7. Stories & Performance Art
“Experience has taught me that our childhoods leave in us stories like this – stories we never found a way to voice, because no one helped us to find the words. When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand,” writes psychotherapist Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life (Grosz, 2014: 10). In 2012 I was part of a project that created a unique setting for people to tell and share intensely personal stories with complete strangers: These Associations by Tino Sehgal, which ran for three months over the summer of the Olympics at Tate Modern. A herd of people swarmed around the Turbine Hall, playing games, chanting and then breaking off to tell stories to members of the public. The Guardian reviewer concluded: “The stories mostly concern private rites of passage and life-changing events and relationships… There are no objects: we are the subject. It is about communality and intimacy, the self as social being, the group and the individual, belonging and separation. We’re in the middle of things. It is marvelous” (Searle, 2012).
Sehgal’s Turner Prize-shortlisted work is one example of a wave of participative art works in recent years – for instance Marina Abramovic’s 2014 show at the Serpentine Gallery – that involve interaction with their general public. Abramovic’s show was called 512 Hours, the length of time she spent at the venue with her team, talking to visitors and giving them things to do. Claire Bishop asserts that participatory art happens at times of political upheaval: “In our own times, its resurgence accompanies the consequences of the collapse of really existing communism, the apparent absence of a viable left alternative, the emergence of the contemporary ‘post-political’ consensus, and the near total marketization of art and education” (Bishop, 2012: 276). Critic Hal Foster writes of performance art: “At times, the death of the author has meant not the birth of the reader so much as the befuddlement of the viewer” (Foster, 2015: 134). However, for me Sehgal’s piece was the opposite of the kind of participative art that seems designed to mystify and intimidate. True, he was shaping spontaneous encounter into an art product, but one that recharged my faith in free, human interaction. Sehgal refuses to discuss or document his work, but I was a participant in the piece myself, fortunate enough to be selected to be one of a diverse company of 300 people who worked in shifts, walking and running on the concrete floor of the Turbine Hall, chanting and telling stories to visitors to the gallery. I saw Sehgal working hard to ensure that viewers had a fulfilling experience. The hall becomes a kind of analogue social network in which conversations occur and stories are spontaneously customized for their audience. Although the installation involved no digital technology, it seemed to me inspired by the affordances of the web and, in the words of one of the texts we participants chanted, “The new ground out of which human’s nature and all their works can flourish.” In my novel Jamie visits the exhibition and likes hearing stories, watching the movements of the group swirling around him: it helps him to heal and sparks off an idea for a song. For me, Sehgal points the way towards a fresh terrain for collaborative literature where readers can share their own stories, occupying interstitial spaces within larger narrative structures.
“My supposition is that sometimes – perhaps more often than not – we think we know more about the experiences we don’t have than about the experiences we do have” (Phillips 2012: 117-8). Adam Phillips uses the example of a couple who both know all about what their partners lack and how one’s life would be changed without the other. He points out how fiction can strengthen such convictions. If that’s a bad thing, a form of ‘vanity reading’ which leads to self delusion, is there a kind of practice that draws out the imagined story and then inspires a further creative act, a moving forward? Verse, chorus, verse. A change of key, a coda… I tell you my story, you respond with one like it – and then conversation ensues which moves both of us on. The transmedia literary novel can include such a progression. “This encounter, the very heart of psychotherapy, is a caring, deeply human meeting between two people, one (generally, but not always, the patient) more troubled than the other,” writes Yalom of the time shared by therapist and client (Yalom, 2013: 13). In its own way, transmedia literary fiction can include equally meaningful encounters between human beings.
The term bibliotherapy was coined in 1916, but in recent years courses like one run by The School of Life have become increasingly popular alongside the use of creative writing as therapy. When I worked at Booktrust we ran a pilot project called Breathtaker Books, in which authors selected novels they thought might be enjoyable and helpful to people going through hard times. In 2005 Maggie O’Farrell and Alex Wheatle worked with isolated mothers, victims of crime and young offenders in a secure unit. The reader filled out a questionnaire about their tastes and circumstances, an author sent them three free books and a letter explaining their choice. The transmedia literary novel can provide within itself a space for encounter where readers write to the book and converse with the characters, not so much as therapy as an expansion of the means by which any storytelling can change how we see and feel the world.
“Digital narrative is a battleground” (Guertin, 2013: 233). “The digital is granular, molecularized, particular. Narrative on the other hand, has an arching, linear trajectory that pulls us along with it.” Carolyn Guertin argues that the two are at war with each other, “the drive for fragmentation threatens to shatter the rhythmic ebb and flow of the narrative impulse.” Her essay, written in 2007, imagines narratives of the future that embrace open-endedness, and ends with an enthusiastic description of the iPod and a new games console: the Wii (Guertin, 2013: 245). Even as she mentions the iPod, I notice that in 2016 this technology has already slipped into history. Somewhere in between, around the arrival of the iPad and the apps that inhabit it, the assumption that digital and analogue storytellers were different animals began to break down. On a tablet computer, smartphone or the lightweight laptops now available, we can curl up with any kind of content, a novel, a movie, a game, emails or a digital fiction; these experiences don’t seem quite so separate anymore. With access to the open-endedness of the web, but also able to hold its readers within its chosen boundaries, the downloadable app provides writers with the ability to make works that define their own terms and use as much or as little digital trickery as appropriate to the art. Instead of a battle over narrative, safe havens have perhaps been established where linear and granular elements can live together in peace and dynamic harmony.
4.8. Stories & Social Media
“I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection,” writes Rebecca Solnit. The radio, the telephone, the magazine, the printing press – all have been accused of warping the fabric of normality in their time. But something does seem fundamentally changed by social media. “A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium” (Solnit, 2015: 258).
Social media further blurs the divide between past and present, actual and nearly. When Jamie’s friend Paola sets up a Facebook page for his band, the ‘friends’ it attracts include people from all parts of his life, from cities far away and decades long gone by, work colleagues never met in the flesh but still influential, school friends he never much liked at the time, old flames, extinguished now but once raging, ex-workmates and people he doesn’t actually know but who appeared in his stream and whose tone of voice he likes… and this haze of interconnections circles around his lived life and dreamt dreams. Although I share Solnit’s alarm at a growing digital itchiness, the cultural mulch of Facebook still seems potentially rich to me. Rather than cut ourselves off from it, I think we need precepts and practices to help us explore it on our terms. We need new kinds of art to describe it, new therapeutic processes to help us cope. “More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building,” writes Henry Jenkins, analyzing The Matrix movies and their multimedia spin-offs in Convergence Culture (Jenkins, 2008: loc.2346), “as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium.” Rather than create yet more fantasy mega-zones, transmedia literary fiction can concentrate on trying to describe the multilayered story world that people really do now inhabit, in which tweets and voices in our ears compete with flesh and blood interactions going on around us. Transmedia fiction might be a symptom of our restless desire to keep moving from virtual place to place, but perhaps it offers a new opportunity to orchestrate our sense of self across this digital Nearlyverse and find harmonies in the cacophony of the networked world.
4.9. Social Show & Replay Story
Angelique Toschi has identified what she calls the ‘social show’ as a typical element of commercial transmedia storytelling (Toschi, 2009). The social show is a website which draws a community of fans to read specially made extra material linked to a popular TV series or movie. The website www.nearlyology.net provides this on a smaller scale, sharing readers’ own ‘real’ nearly stories as an integral element of What Didn’t Quite. In my story, separating the linear chase of the narrative from a broader contemplation of its themes seems particularly appropriate for dealing with Jamie’s problems as his sexuality changes from an ocean of feeling to a complex archipelago of fractured sensations and desires. I hope there may be a future for the blog about Nearlysex, exploring sex that nearly happened and what occurred instead, which my character Martin creates and finds he has seeded a community of men talking openly if anonymously about issues around sexuality, including loss of libido, sexual fantasies and practices, and what else people do to express intimacy and feel a buzz as desire waxes and wanes, as bodies age and change.
When Jamie discovers he suffers from Hinchcliffe’s, a fictitious medical condition which can sometimes become acute, sometimes heal completely, he is confronted by a set of alternative futures, forking paths between suicide and liberation, which appear in the online text as chunks of animated text and a soundscape of overlapping voices to represent what Janet H. Morris classifies as a ‘replay story’: “an interactive digital story structure in which the same scenario is offered for replay with significant variations based on parameters that the interactor may control or merely witness in action” (Morris, 2011). She cites Garden of Forking Paths (Borges, 2000) and Life After Life (Atkinson, 2013) as two examples of ‘multiple instantiations’ and has a list of six key design strategies for writing these: dramatic compression, a high-stakes focus, strongly differentiated characters and not too many of them, contrasting beats and readable parallels. This sounds formulaic, but Atkinson’s novel alone proves that replay stories don’t inevitably demand exaggerated stereotypes. As Morris states, they need clearly drawn characters which can be ‘got’ by readers quickly and so are capable of being retold, like the stars of soap operas, cartoon strips, puppet shows, Greek myths and bible stories, with reference to their specific attributes and unique selling points. On the Nearlyology website I have been using photos of the cartoon-like puppet versions of my characters to make it easy for readers to quickly get the gist of each one.
The same strategies apply to another kind of narrative relevant to Nearlyology, which involves fantasy selves enacting their adventures alongside the realist version of the story. What happens in the head of Don Quixote as he becomes The Knight of the Sad Countenance contrasts hilariously with how others see him as he tilts at windmills (Cervantes, 2003). In Bill Watterson’s legendary cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes, a small boy metamorphoses into a dinosaur, space hero or gumshoe, while his stuffed toy Hobbes becomes a fully-fledged speaking tiger, his witty and boisterous play companion (Watterson, 2012). As Calvin/Captain Spiff is about to be tortured by aliens, the dream world is punctured by Calvin’s teacher Miss Wormwood demanding an answer to a maths question. In my novel, Carraday fantasizes his aboriginal Outback, Freya plays at being her super-sleuth childhood alter-ego Freya Redcoat, while Jamie explores his inner singer/songwriter.
Jamie makes his fantasy real and so begins to re-find himself, through recording and posting his music on the web. He shares feelings about his changing sexuality in the safety of a virtual community. This kind of online interaction is for many today fundamental to the texture of our everyday and inner lives. When Barthes divided texts into the readerly and writerly (Barthes, 1991), he was countering passive acceptance of a stable status quo by highlighting books that threw up a proliferation of meanings and pushed the reader into greater engagement. Those of us who live connected to social media and a cacophony of narratives all clamouring for us to write back to them, may need writerly texts that are also bounded and curated. In the midst of a digital abundance of unlived lives and fantasy selves, individuals need to be capable of constructing a transmedia narrative of themselves to maintain a coherent and robust sense of identity.
Sue Thomas in her book Technobiophilia looks at the natural metaphors we use for digital – the web, the net, the cloud – and how to find a natural balance in and around our online lives. Thomas interviews the Buddhist nun Damcho Wangmo who spends a lot of time on the web as part of her life of meditation. The nun says: “It is wrong to assume that distractions come from outside… If you start with a distracted mind, the ping of your cellphone and the buzz of the Web will tug at that distraction, but they don’t cause it” (Thomas, 2014: loc.3680). The Internet is neither the problem nor the solution. Better than the escape of a temporary digital detox is fiction that can help us to grow wholesome in the networked world.
- CHATTING WITH FREYA IN THE CAFÉ AT THE NEARLYVERSITY
5.1. Monetizing Nearlyology
With Carraday I’ve imagined the author operating beyond the boundaries of publishing conventions and platforms, using approaches from outsider art, aboriginal and performance art. With Jamie I’ve defined Nearlyology, looked at songwriting’s open form of storytelling and discussed the therapeutic nature of the engagement with transmedia literary fiction made possible by digital interactivity. In this section I look through Freya’s more strategic if mercenary eyes to make some final decisions about the format of my piece, in the process revisiting projects that I have been inspired by and some I’ve piloted, which could point towards new models for how to compose and produce my novel and transmedia literature for a mediatized age. I examine the following research question: how does the transmedia literary writer approach the production and publication of a multimodal text within the context of a complex publishing ecology?
Futurist and games designer Jane McGonigal gave the 2016 Aspen Lecture at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Her TED Talk-style presentation started by promising to “teach you… how to predict the past and how to remember the future” (McGonigal, 2016). She explained that neuroscientists have discovered that “all three areas of the brain activate whenever you try to imagine how the past might have worked out differently”. McGonigal claims that neuroscientists have discovered that ‘doing counterfactual memory’ is an effective intervention for depression and stimulates creativity. She goes on to say this is only true when it’s our own pasts or futures we re-remember or imagine. Nearlyology may have some scientific validity. The Institute for the Future, of which McGonigal is a member, runs Foresight Practitioner Training workshops to, amongst other things, help participants “BUILD your foresight mindset and shared language for futures thinking” and “LEVERAGE hindsight to discover patterns of innovation and disruptions. Price $6,500” (Institute for the Future, 2016). My third protagonist, cash-strapped digital entrepreneur Freya Seward is keen to run similar courses as part of the Nearlyversity, her idea for an enterprise that sells informal training and almost genuine qualifications.
5.2. The Hamper
When I started writing What Didn’t Quite, to stop myself worrying about the technical or economic issues of making transmedia fiction, I bought a wicker hamper into which I put things I wanted to include in the project. The hamper now contains a printout of the manuscript, three glove puppets, a CD of Nearly Songs, a spoof self-help Book of Nearly, a handmade blank booklet for a reader to write their Nearly Story in, a flyer for the Nearly Show, a piece of Nearly Art made of wood, wax and string, an ‘I nearly’ badge and bottle of Nearly Dust. It was important for me that the book wasn’t defined by what can be accessed on a tablet computer, but by what seemed right for the story and its themes. I didn’t want to assume that my book needed to involve digital platforms. Laurie Anderson once said that “technology today is the campfire around which we tell our stories”, but later added that its power is “both warm and destructive… I think we’re powerful without it” (McCorduck, 1994).
Adrian Hon is Director of Six to Start, a highly successful company making apps and games, responsible for Zombies, Run! written with Naomi Alderman. I interviewed Hon about the reality of transmedia production and recorded our conversation for my blog. He was taken by the idea of a literary transmedia fiction, but raised an important commercial issue: “Normal people don’t know what Transmedia is… it’s hard to understand, how am I supposed to experience this? I’m increasingly feeling that you should innovate only on one axis at a time…” (Bookfutures, 2017).
Philip Jones, the editor of The Bookseller, warned me that conventional publishers “look to print and paper first, last, and always, particularly as many of their experiments in transmedia, enhanced e-books or interactive fiction have largely failed – at least on the terms by which they measure things, sales.” He believed the market would only shift again “when an author-led experiment meets with commercial success, and the big trade publishers once again look to redefine what a book can be. For now, they rather like the fact that a book still looks like a book” (Bookfutures, 2017). Publishers only publish work they can see succeeding as a paper book alone; any digital elements will probably need to be self-funded and considered by the publishing house to be potentially useful promotional gimmicks but not much more. This concentrates the mind on writing a good, conventional story, but is not inspiring for forging new hybrid literary forms.
Boundaries are also being drawn around commercial transmedia storytelling projects. Carlos Alberto Scolari has analyzed the TV series 24 and identifies four key strategies for expanding its narrative world across media: connected to the macro story are interstitial microstories, parallel stories, peripheral stories and user-generated content (Scolari, 2009: 600). Scolari looks at the role of branding in the show, which necessitates that characters and story world have clear, limited attributes that can easily be translated into different languages and media. “It is a ‘moveable’ set of properties that can be applied to different forms of expression. In fan fiction, even consumers can participate in the expansion of the fictional world by applying this set of attributes to create new situations and characters.” What Didn’t Quite includes interstitial Nearly Stories and animations, the parallel narratives of Jamie’s songs, and spaces for user-generated Nearlies. Peripheral stories featuring further adventures of the characters can be added in future. To create a kind of brand I’ve developed a visual style, based on Carraday’s artworks, which helps build cohesion between elements on different platforms.
So how to map out the best shape not just for the chapters of the narrative but the areas for collaboration, constraints and connections? The transmedia storyteller may be a shamanistic psychogeographer leading us through space, but the story world he or she presents is a bounded one that needs to attract and hold its readers. A super-brand like Marvel or Harry Potter with huge marketing clout can spread its points of entry around, but my chamber work needs to create a unified space in which, for a time at least, readers will want to hang out, not so much cut off from distractions as blended in with and enriching their mediatized world. In transmedia, this space can just as well be real as virtual, so it is useful to consider the book as an exhibition that immerses visitors in story world and theme.
5.3. The Book as a Place
A unique example of the book as a place is The Museum of Innocence, created by author Orhan Pamuk. This is the title of a novel (Pamuk, 2010), and of a small terraced building in the cobbled streets of the Galata district of Istanbul. The novel, a tragic love story full of longing for a bygone age, has many short chapters and the museum of the same name houses a vitrine for each one, containing photos and memorabilia featured in the book. On the stairs there is a huge display case in which are pinned, like butterflies, 4,213 cigarette stubs, all smoked by the book’s heroine, with notes of the time, date and circumstances of each one’s smoking. The Innocence of Objects (Pamuk, 2012), the catalogue of the museum, describes each assemblage of bric-a-brac and artwork, capturing a section of the novel and a flavour of life in the city. The museum illustrates the novel and is a fascinating collection of everyday objects evoking the unique atmosphere and history of a beautiful and troubled city.
This could be little more than a vanity project for the Nobel prizewinner, or a marketing ruse to shift copies of the book, but to me it seems much more. I enjoyed the book but not because of the museum. Such transmedia elements are engaging, but can lumber the central work with unnecessary clutter. To avoid this in my own work, I’ve tried to ensure that each element is not just of good quality but makes sense independently from the others. And no element needs to be gigantic; transmedia can work on a domestic scale. Pamuk’s manifesto argues: “If objects are not uprooted from their environs and their streets, but are situated with care and ingenuity in their natural homes, they will already portray their own stories.” He advocates small domestic museums rather than monumental buildings that dominate neighbourhoods and quash our humanity (Pamuk, 2012).
Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has written about the influence on him of Alexander Dorner, author of The Way Beyond ‘Art’ who rethought the museum as an institution in a state of permanent transformation, presenting artworks in dynamic relationship to each other, not in cold, chronological order. “He advocated a concept of art history that allowed for gaps, reversals and strange collisions. The museum for Dorner is not just a building but an oscillation between object and process” (Obrist, 2015: 63). Influenced by Gilles Deleuze’s argument that each process of actualization is surrounded by a constantly thickening fog of virtual possibilities (Deleuze, 2014), one project of Obrist’s is to collect information on unrealized arts projects. “These roads not taken are a reservoir of artistic ideas: forgotten projects, directly or indirectly censored projects, misunderstood projects, oppressed projects, lost projects, unrealizable projects” (Obrist, 2015: 63). The growing archive of Nearly Stories I’ve been gathering from the public is a sample of the fog, examples of counterfactual thinking as described by Jane McGonigal, the multiple alternative possibilities from our past which allow us to think creatively about the future. Picturing nearly versions of our lives empowers us to believe we can shape our own future and seek new conclusions from within our memories. Gutenberg’s printing process encouraged the fixing of the text, making it definitive, hard to alter, encouraged the notion of one correct form of grammar and understanding. In contrast, digital writing can be rewritten and remixed at a stroke, countless variations published without difficulty, producing an illuminating array of interstitial stories, each shedding some kind of light on the actual history. Printed books may live on shelves, fixed and finite, waiting to be rediscovered, but transmedia literary fictions remain porous, some parts fixed but others changing, open for participation by the public, like a park in which a certain kind of play is always encouraged – or a venue where a certain kind of theatre is made.
5.4. Transmedia Literary Toolkit
Another arts practitioner I interviewed was Annette Mees, co-founder of Coney Theatre Company (Bookfutures, 2016). From Mees I picked up two useful terms for my transmedia toolkit, techniques she uses in creating site-specific, immersive theatre. ‘Capitulation’ is her expression for the process of hooking the spectator, sparking the suspension of disbelief necessary to engage in an imaginary world – and this may be through personalized emails written in the voice of a character sent in the run-up to the performance, or a live pre-show at the venue. ‘Scooping up’ is the art of checking that audience members who aren’t joining in don’t feel left out, making sure, for instance, that nobody has wandered into a storage area thinking it’s the portal to another immersive world (Meade, 2017b). Similarly, it’s all too easy for digital products to confuse readers if they don’t work properly. ‘Is this YouTube clip part of the story or have I clicked on the wrong link?’ How can readers be sure they haven’t missed hidden layers of content?
Tiina Roppola, author of Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience, observes that visitors to a gallery relate to an exhibition “through four key relational processes… framing, resonating, channelling and broadening” (Roppola, 2015: 3). The frame of my transmedia work is the description of what it consists of, who it’s by and how it works – the digital equivalent of the back cover blurb. The piece resonates by striking a deep chord with its readership – Nearlyology has so far proved to be an enduring theme. Readers are channelled through the contents by the plot and the characters, but this choreographed movement through can be enhanced by the multimedia elements as well as the architecture of the site; broadening applies to those spaces where readers add their content and participate in proceedings more actively.
Through my research, I have begun to find a new way to describe transmedia literary creation. Instead of writing on the page, we are putting in orbit around the reader elements of story, character, theme, story world in text, images, sounds, opportunities for collaboration. The choice isn’t just between a paper book and an e-book – the optimum shape for this project might be an online seminar and a booklet of poems, or an exhibition and a movie, or a free-to-download story and a luxury box set of songs. Tickets to the conference might be expensive but the download free. These are creative as well as commercial choices, decided on the basis of creative intention.
Even after the book’s ‘publication’ I intend to continue to gather Nearly Stories at live events. What’s the best format for these? I spoke to Julia Bird who runs Jaybird, a company devising and touring poetry shows to arts centres and festivals (Jaybird, 2017). She charges the venue £500-700 per night for her productions, which are Arts Council-funded. Audiences tend to be mostly females over 55, but Arts Council England is keen to attract a wider demographic. Bird has offered to help me shape a Nearly Show involving daytime workshops, a pop-up shop/exhibit and an evening performance featuring songs, readings from the book and Nearlies gathered at the venue during the day.
A good book creates a story world that I can think around the edges of, characters that stay with me like friends or enemies, it makes me think afresh about my own life and the themes it explores. My project is a deconstructed version: the nearly events, the nearly stories, the characters, the songs can be tasted in different combinations and sequences. But the recipe won’t work if each element isn’t cooked properly. Freed from the tyranny of print, I need to decide what a map of my transmedia book project might look like. My character Freya Seward is an experienced co-ordinator of brainstorms and workshops; her voice tells me, “Try drawing and collage and see what comes out.” My first attempt was this collage, a dotted maze of plot in which the characters are embedded, a mouthpiece allows the reader to breathe their stories into the piece, stringed instruments play back songs, there’s a shop – and the whole has wheels. My second picture was a doodle, which started with the Nearly Store as a means to draw people in to the story and at its heart has the Nearly Show, a setting for collaborative work related to the piece, which is the prelude to the story’s denouement.
5.5. The Nearly App
Reader-generated responses and live collaboration are at the heart of the novel, but this raises another question: what constitutes an unacceptable appropriation of the efforts of readers and other collaborators into the making of what remains my book?
It can be argued that digital culture is stealing the radical, libertarian techniques of community arts practice and re-appropriating them to make commercial products that involve the free labour of a user-generation. In Who Owns the Future? Jaron Lanier writes eloquently of the destruction of middle-class jobs by companies like Amazon, which have overwhelmed whole industries dedicated to the selection and distribution of culture (Lanier, 2013). The economic consequences of digital convergence are real and serious: power in the hands of a few global companies, jobs destroyed and incomes lost, gobbled up by the mega-deliverers, but the artistic consequences are a completely different matter.
Like Freya, I want to make something radically new, but also hope to monetize my activities. Like her, I’m seeking a business model for the Nearly Project that is both true to the aims of my work and commercially viable. Transmedia narratives of loss and discovery are open-ended and dynamic, but a work of transmedia needs to be a product which readers know how to get hold of, and will hopefully pay for.
When I looked at everything in my wicker basket, it seemed to me that the project could best be delivered as an app for the iPad or tablet, downloadable at a price. This is because I find it easier to read prose on a tablet computer than on a Kindle or mobile; page layout can be spacious and attractive. Into the text can be set rich and bright illustrations, animations and sound players. As a networked device, the iPad can link through to websites and email; it was the first of the tablet computers designed primarily for the consumption of digital content, a screen with which you can curl up and enjoy rich media content in the way one does with a book, picking it up and putting it down at your leisure. The tablet’s glow may not be good for our sleep patterns, but can draw us deep into immersive imaginary worlds of game, film and fiction.
I asked through Twitter if anyone out there knew of an app designer and heard from an ex-colleague, Dan Visel, a fellow alumni of the Institute for the Future of the Book. Visel now lives in Thailand and makes apps and websites. He was keen to help make a demo, so we started working on the design via Skype calls and email. Discussing the brief with Visel via Skype helped me realize that instead of cluttering the reading experience with features, which might feel like obstacles to immersive reading, I wanted readers to be able to play and replay the songs and animations if and when they wished. I wanted space for reader-generated material within the app, but also for each reader to be able to write their Nearly Stories into their copy of the book whether or not they went on to share these with other readers. I asked Visel if he could animate some pages of the text so that the words themselves would come and go before the reader’s eyes, like memories fading and growing strong, a jumble of alternative possibilities circling, out of which the description of actual events coalesce. The demo of an early draft of the closing section of the story features other multimedia elements including two songs and a cartoon animation. I’m pleased with the beta iteration of the demo, which is easy to navigate, and on it’s way to becoming a desirable item to download.
5.6. Walking Library
Many remain to be convinced that such a hybrid could be literature. Paul Fournel is the current President of Oulipo, the literary collective founded in 1960 which sets itself strict constraints to write within. His novel, Dear Reader, satirizes publishers’ limited ideas for digital books. “Turning Proust’s madeleine into a shortbread cookie, sprinkling perfume on the red lady, getting up Pauline Reage’s skirt, cheering up a novel by Bernanos with a few side-splitting gags” (Fournel 2014: loc.1234). McLuhan, predicting a transformation in human consciousness brought about by changing media, surely envisaged more than that. Fournel’s own novel is a booby trap for digitizers: it has a fixed form based on its character count, so “anyone entering it to change a single letter will destroy the entire project” (ibid: loc.1577). But dynamic writing demands new dynamic forms of reading and publishing. Hanging out with Freya, researching the thread of her feminism and interest in reading groups leads to the discovery of the Walking Library, the practice of artists and cultural geographers Deirdre Heddon and Misha Myers who gather groups of readers to go for a hike, each bringing with them a copy of a different book to read and share (Heddon & Myers, 2017). An alternative to the patriarchal shaman’s guided tour, these creative readers converse and write together, then donate their travelling collection to a fitting resting place. But Freya thinks she can smell a commercial opportunity. She suggests making a Nearly Bag to sell at premium rate, containing a paperback, an ‘I nearly’ badge, a copy of the Nearly Manifesto, a blank Nearly Notebook, a sticker with the URL of the website and an album of Jamie’s Nearly songs. This package could be handed out, like a picnic basket, at the beginning of a Nearly Walk. Setting off from the Nearly Project camper van, the walk would be interspersed with readings and performances from What Didn’t Quite, time to stop to look at places where things nearly happened, to read on together and to write one’s own Nearly Story in the notebook provided.
This gentle mingling of reading, writing, performance and conversation, taking place in a public setting but introducing participants to a private reading experience – here is a space for the ‘performance’ of words on many fronts; this feels like a suitable vessel into which to pour my story. And Freya thinks this package could sell – if marketed right.
- JAMMING WITH THE IFSO ENSEMBLE
George playing Martin of Academy Inegales
Since my days as a Community Arts Worker, I’ve collaborated with artists, writers, actors and musicians, with adults, children and young people to make work including a community play about the history of Sheffield, a sitcom about radical pensioners commissioned and nearly made by the BBC, a poem for National Poetry Day using found tweets and donated verses, a poem written in a morning with a class of seven-year-olds, which was then carved in stone in a Hackney playground, as well as collaborative novels such as A Vauxhall Chorus, written with Kate Pullinger and 20 other writers working with the organization Spread The Word (Team 24hr Book, 2009). As an artist and a literature development worker, I love working in this way, but since the birth of Community Art there has been much debate between those who see community work as in opposition to ‘real’ artistic creation and other artists who maintain that their creative practice is fundamentally inspired by collaboration with community. In Beyond Britten: The Composer and the Community, musician John Barber defines his position and describes its creative power: “So who am I now? I am not a teacher, not an animateur, not a music therapist; I am a composer and I get strength from feeling that what I am doing is having some kind of positive human impact… I am working collaboratively: I am finding ways to make music with playful rules” (Barber, 2015).
6.2. Making Nearly Music
One evening in June 2016 at a jazz club in London I was on stage with 12 musicians performing Nearly Music. The piece began with a recording of a reading of the opening of my novel, using a vocal looper machine to create an echoing soundscape of words. The ensemble began to ‘nearly play’ their instruments: rattling and tapping, tuning and parping, the air filled with the hissing of amplifiers, coughs and mutterings. I began to read the Nearly Manifesto and the players attempted to copy the sound of what I was saying as I spoke it, using voice or instruments. I sped up and slowed down the words to fox them. Then a return to Nearly Music. One by one I asked each member for a personal Nearly Story for which the ensemble then improvised a response. Nouria Bah, a young singer from Maryland, explained she nearly went to Opera Camp but her parents couldn’t afford it. The band made the dramatic, tumultuous sound of nearly opera. Violinist Jo told us she nearly goes for a run every morning; the musicians played echoes of exercise not quite taken. Martin nearly missed a concert as a boy because he got his head stuck in his tuba. When he re-enacted this, saxophonist George Sleightholme was keen to see how the inverted instrument sounded. At the end of the evening a woman in the audience handed me her nearly story: she once nearly built a new kind of musical instrument.
This event was the culmination of a nine-month project as part of Academy Inegales, an ensemble of players of which I was a member, selected and led by Peter Wiegold, Director of the Institute of Composing at Brunel University, who was working on ways to compose and improvise across different musical genres and traditions. With Academy Inegales I’ve been looking at how writers can develop a collaborative practice that
allows them to ‘play’ together in the way jazz musicians do, practising their different literary ‘instruments’ then improvising live in a structured and dynamic way, riffing on great ‘tunes’ they remix and reimagine, responsive to their fellows and the atmosphere of the audience, to make quality work which is also transient and of the moment. I curated A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Academy Inegales, 2015), an evening of music inspired by words from Rebecca Solnit’s book, performed by Academy Inegales. We selected quotes from the book to inspire pieces by each player. My contribution was a reading of an extract from What Didn’t Quite, which was embellished by other instruments until music drowned out the words. For that event we ordered multiple copies of Solnit’s book to sell on the door, created ‘menus’ for each table containing the quotes that had inspired compositions, and also prepared animated text from the book to project on the wall. This opened up new possibilities for performance and inspired me to include a series of soundscapes in the novel, linked to passages of animated text. These soundscapes, which in another setting might appear overly abstract and alienating to some readers, here seemed to help draw people into the text. The theme of a second evening was Found in Translation and this involved poets, translators and illustrators working as part of an improvising big band. Like a game of Chinese whispers, members of this ensemble ‘translated’ poems into music into poems into pictures into music and back into poems.
6.3. Reading Voices
Researchers have explored how we experience the acts of thinking and reading, how exactly we hear the voices of authors and characters in fiction, how we translate our interior monologues into utterance (Abramson & Goldringer, 1997). If McLuhan was right to propose that the arrival of print culture fundamentally changed the way individuals make sense of our experience, emphasizing sight over tactile and aural sensation, then what is the texture of the perceptual transformation that has been initiated by digital innovations? The soundscapes I’ve recorded to include in the app version of the novel attempt to imitate the ways in which mind and text interact. Working with members of Academy Inegales, we have tried to suggest the tone of the internal conversations readers experience, and explore how that tone has been altered by social media and the networked screens through which we view the world now. As Charles Fernyhough says in his book, The Voices Within: “Writers… give us fictional characters speaking out loud, and they play on our ability to reconstruct those voices in our own minds… Writers also eavesdrop on the words their characters do not say out loud. They give us minds in dialogue, imaginary creatures engrossed in internal conversations” (Fernyhough, 2016: 94). I can use multimedia elements to mix text, image and sound in order to approximate the voices we hear in our media-saturated heads as the sights and sounds of everyday life, real and virtual, mingle with internal thoughts and feelings.
Transmedia narrative theory provides a framework for complete works involving collaborative-making and multiple stories in an ‘open source’ story world, but for inspiration on how to compose across media I’ve turned to the world of new music and composers who are also community music-makers. As a workshop leader, Wiegold’s motivation was not simply to facilitate his client and, as a composer, he wanted to do more than produce solo works. What interested him most was the mysterious place in between. Wiegold posits three ways to make music:
“THE FIRST WAY
Closed, final, the authority held ‘outside’.
You will do this. (Leading to issues of transgression).
The image of a box.
THE SECOND WAY
The way of the 60s – an open space – equality, democracy.
What shall we do today, class?
The image of an open space.
THE THIRD WAY
A holding centre, with the possibility of multiple responses to it.
Begin here, ground here, centre here.
The image of a central holding line with spirals spinning off”
(Wiegold, 2015: 262).
To transpose this idea from music into new media writing terms, the first way is akin to the fixed, printed, single-authored text, the second to user-generated texts such as the experimental online wiki novel A Million Penguins (Mason & Thomas, 2008), created over one month by around 4,000 writers. The third way could be a model for transmedia literary novels, which have an authored backbone decorated with readers’ own riffs on the theme. Digital tools like Google Docs make it possible for multiple authors to write onto the same page, and for a much more nuanced dialogue to occur between writer and the mediatized creative reader. In 2008 if:book London and the Institute for the Future of the Book put the entire text of The Golden Notebook online in a format called Commentpress, employed seven women writers to read it over a few weeks, commenting in the margins, and invited their readers to comment on their comments (Lessing, 2008). In 2015 I was one of three writers who created a thriller over a weekend, set in the English seaside village where we’d gone to write. The story was later published in instalments on the mobiles of young South Africans thanks to FunDza Literary Trust, a reading project for mediatized youth (FunDza, 2017).
André Jansson defines mediatization as “how other social processes in a broad variety of domains and at different levels become inseparable from and dependent on technological processes and resources of mediation” (Jansson, 2013: 281). The article features interviews with people of different ages from Stockholm in Sweden, describing how social media, far from taking people into a global cyberspace, is woven into the personal fabric of their everyday lives. As an illustration, a father talks about the texture of his experience of Facebook, which keeps him loosely in touch with old classmates and allows him to share old photos from his past life with his kids.
In the era of privatized and converged media forms, the spaces between public and private are disappearing, across politics and all social relations (Thompson, 2011). A conventional realist narrative of characters in a landscape is perhaps no longer adequate to convey what it feels to be alive in our converged, networked world, in which we can stand in one place while looking at another, holding hands with one person while in deep conversation with others online.
According to semioticians such as Umberto Eco, every text constructs its reader (Eco, 1976). Eliseo Verón describes how the writer addresses an implicit reader and if the real reader identifies with that imagined one, then a reading contract is established, and a potentially fruitful conversation between the reader and text is initiated (Verón, 1985). Up to now that conversation has occurred only in readers’ thoughts and in scholarly papers, but technology allows the reader to become a creative and visible presence within the book. The contract between transmedia author and a co-creating reader may come to include some kind of ongoing commitment on both sides to revisit and remix the text, as well as an option to meet up at online and at real life events.
To further explore the potential for such collaboration, I’ve run a digital project with participants in the Jerwood/Arvon mentored writers scheme. The 2015 cohort met online for an hour each day for a week in the summer via Google Docs and, inspired by examples of written scores for contemporary music (Lely & Saunders, 2012), I gave them a different ‘score’ to respond to each time. For instance:
“WRITE A PIECE OF STORY WITH A DOOR IN
Now find another one here
Open the door in it
And write some more
Repeat till satisfied
FIND A LINE HERE YOU LIKE
Write another line that’s a bit like it
Then write what you like”
This led me to write Nearlyological exercises in the form of written scores for the reader of What Didn’t Quite.
With funding from the Clore Duffield Foundation I’ve devised resources for teaching poetry in schools. We created SET POETRY FREE, an anthology of new and classic poems which was introduced to students by The Ifsopoets, a fictitious team of poetry subversives dedicated to the liberation of poetry who called on students to “refresh, re-mix, respond and release [these poems] back into the WILD to create your own poetry happenings” (Ifsopoets, 2013). Pupils sent us their poetry responses and we replied in character, sending personal critiques of children’s work, as members of this underground movement. This experience gave me the confidence to offer visitors to the Nearlyology website the opportunity to receive a personal response from a character in the novel. I intend to offer this to readers of the finished book. The messages could be uniquely composed for each reader, or sent automatically via an email auto-responder along with an invitation to participate in a live or online collaborative workshop. Whereas paper books may sit abandoned on shelves gathering dust, the transmedia literary novel has the potential to remain in play for longer, with readers revisiting the app to check for recent additions or to report on their own latest Nearly. No longer stuck at a desk in front of fixed screens, mediatized readers are also on the move, digital content and social media blending (my spellcheck made that ‘bleeding’) into our face-to-face social encounters. Mediatized life can be stressful and disjointed too. A story world can help creative readers to navigate their way through.
6.4. Writing for Temperate Climes
Theorist Marie-Laure Ryan notes that digital literature has so far tended to thrive in either what she calls ‘the Tropics’ of mass-market games and popular fiction or ‘the North Pole’ of the esoteric and avant-garde, but believes an “artistic medium only becomes truly significant when it is able to conquer the center of the spectrum” (Ryan 2005). The ‘Temperate Zone’ is a thrilling space for accessible experimentation aimed at creating approachable, challenging and rewarding literary experiences. Here is the place where the reader can carve a coherent pathway through the ever-shifting landscape of the web, can hear their own tune in the frequently overwhelming cacophony of digital noise, and find a new sense of self in the post-Gutenberg world.
Similar debates take place in music and sonic art concerning the conflict between tradition and the avant-garde, between those who seek the composer’s authentic voice in a work, and composers such as John Cage who ask listeners to hear music as pure sound and create a meaning for it themselves. “In the music of Western notation, the emphasis is on the form, as coaxed into existence by the composer. The listener’s role is that of detective, assembling clues to piece together the story,” writes Seth Kim-Cohen. Of Cage’s silent music, 4’ 33” he writes:
“As with the act of reading – in which we jump back and forth between our present location in the story and previous events… the act of listening jumps back and forward in time… Such cutting creates fissures, rips, and ruptures in the time, space and experience of the text. Different sections and different modes of absorption of the text are folded together in the listening/composing mind of the listener” (Kim-Cohen, 2009: 141).
Reading has always been like this. Even in analogue times and temperate literary climes, the reading of any story gets broken up by interruptions, conversations, memories and ideas sparked, the need to go to sleep or work. In digital times these fissures and rips are more evident as hotlinks jump readers from text to clip to text again, on devices pinging with notifications and incoming messages. The transmedia literary writer composes a score for the reader to play across platforms and includes space for improvisation. The reader creates voices, imagines how characters look, pastes their own concerns into their version of the book, interleaves the text with cuts into their own lives, putting the book down to make a phone call or remember something… the novel is linear but also a scrapbook to be returned to, the literary equivalent of a written musical score like those created by John Cage, Yoko Oko, Cornelius Cardew and others as documented in Word Events (Lely & Saunders, 2012). I decided to intersperse my narrative with the written scores from The Book of Nearly, Freya and Carraday’s self-help guide to Nearlyology, which can be accessed as a sound file alongside my novel.
Gutenberg’s mechanical press led to the privileging of the book as object; the arrival of digital platforms reminded us that the book is an experience that happens in our hearts and minds, generated by text which can be delivered to us on a range of platforms. Now literature can be remixed, improvised, extemporized on to make new writing happen in front of readers online or a live audience. As one proponent of spontaneous music-making says: “Free improvisation tears away the comfort blanket and drops the temperature, making each musician’s motifs gleam against a backdrop of black nothing. It’s as exhilarating and cold-to-breathe as the revolutionary idea itself – but if you won’t learn to breathe this ether, a non life of conformity and repetition beckons” (Watson, 2004: 377).
Towards the end of my novel, the three Nearlyologists set off in a camper van to ‘do’ Nearlyology. They plan to travel from place to place, gathering stories and singing songs, along the lines of the Nearly Show I intend to tour. In fact, arguments break out and and a fire starts before this can happen. However Freya has a vision of what this and her Nearlyversity might become. On the Nearlyology website I intend to showcase more Nearly events, proojects and collaborations, like the Nearly Music described above, and Andy Leung’s mix of my Nearly Manifesto with his brand of ambient, electro pop (Leung, 2017).
Such creative departures are still dependent on tools and platforms like YouTube, Soundcloud, Google Groups, Drive and Hangouts, all provided via the siren servers of mega-corporations. How can the solitary author hold his or her own against the insidious forces of global capitalism that Lanier identified? In the field of music, Seth Kim-Cohen discusses how a pop band may have a main songwriter, but the whole group create the final sound, and re-create it afresh at live gigs, the same but different. Between classical composition and avant-garde experimentation sits the informal conversation of rock and roll. Pop music was oppositional, challenging authority and power, until an industry and marketplace commodified it. “Since its inception, rock and roll has flip-flopped between partaking of power and resisting it” (Kim-Cohen, 2009: 138). Artists including megastars such as David Bowie, counter-cultural figures like Laurie Anderson, and Amanda Palmer who uses crowd-funding and couch-surfing to run her tours, the many thousands of acts with websites and teeshirts and homemade CDs and Bandcamp accounts, still have some power to resist – if they refuse to flip-flop. In Fair Play Jen Harvie writes how neoliberalism has encouraged the growth of ‘Artrepreneurs’, artists drawn into promoting their brand to the detriment of their creative work (Harvie, 2013: 62). But for writers who have always relied on the publishing industry to make their voices heard, the potential for the author to engage in DIY entrepreneurialism may have benefits over the half-hearted attentions of a lacklustre publicist.
The transmedia literary author certainly needs collaborators – a web designer, publicist and editor at the very least – to help produce and publish multimodal text. In today’s complex publishing and media ecology, the author becomes bandleader, the transmedia novel their creative project involving fixed tracks and live performance, something to rehearse, organize bookings for and sell merchandise from – and take on the road, a micro-brand which may not make money, but perhaps has a chance of doing so. Inspired by the example of Héloïse Letissier, the unconfident singer who transformed into Christine and the Queens (Snapes, 2016), I’ve decided to write under a pen name, not for anonymity so much as the chance to create a kind of collective version of myself, a protective covering, a liberating alter-ego free from baggage and bagginess. And with the Nearly Show I want to develop a form of collective creative reading in which a group grows around the novel, leading into conversations and new creation inspired by its wider themes.
The mediatized texture of contemporary life demands a literature that is collaborative and responsive. Transmedia literary writers need to collaborate in the process of creation and publication, not only looking out beyond the old silos for inspiration, but also looking deeply for the themes and characters they wish to explore.
Literature happens to us and with us, the novel is an experience that happens in our head and heart. The end of passive consumption, more dialogue and wider participation in culture – these were the demands of the community arts movement, and now they’ve been realized, new vistas open up for writers and artists to make work which is responsive to and informed by its audience, involves collaboration but remains authored, shaped, coloured and bound by a single vision. Out of the essence of the story to be told grows the best form for its telling.
 Adapted – but never written down – by Sehgal from Heidegger, M. (1959), Discourse of Thinking, New York, p.53. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1308144.files/February%203/Heidegger%20-%20Memorial%20Address.pdf