Thursday, March 18, 2010

Narrative vs. Conversation

I spoke briefly with a colleague last week about "collaborative fiction" and how new e-book technology might light a fire under this relatively obscure pastime.

I'd recently seen an iPad demo made by the folks at Penguin Books in London (thanks to Nathan Bransford for the link), which gave a thought-provoking vision of publishing's future in which:

  • kids might initiate audio & animations at the touch of a finger and color their picture books with a digital palette;
  • anatomy textbooks allow zooming into 3D animations;
  • vampire novels for YA readers are integrated with on-line social communities;
  • hyperlinked travel guides can be arranged into individualized itineraries, call up street maps on the spot, and generate digital postcards to be sent home to family and friends
  • an interactive star map automagically displays maps and information about the part of the sky you're looking at, based on the device's digital compass and GPS features.

None of these are "collaborative fiction." My colleague and I were talking about a narrative built collaboratively and interactively by multiple participants. But the future-of-iPad video had made me think: books + social networking = ??? ... and that's what started us off.

For what it's worth, my colleague and I both have degrees in English literature (full disclosure: her degree is bigger than mine). Maybe having a stake in book-culture narrative explains why it was so easy for us to decide that social networking enables conversation, and that conversation is something other than narrative. And to agree that gaming, which involves stories that evolve in a way that is much like conversation -- with other players and/or with a game's algorithms -- feels different than stories of the bookish sort.

Narrative, we concluded, is a whole-cloth conception of a world imagined by a single, interesting human intelligence. There are exceptions, of course, both in the "single" and "interesting" departments. But let's leave that be.

My colleague and I both work in information technology. So we're aware that digital innovation is now making it possible for games, socially-networked virtual conversations, and collaboratively developed texts to look more and more like stories that have in Oulde Timen been rendered by authors and playwrights. Nonetheless, we thought, there are essential difference. We were skeptical that multiple contributors can evolve a shared conception of a world to a depth of detail and coherence that, when others peek in, they're enriched as deeply as one is enriched reading authors as skilled and evocative as, say, Mahfouz, McCarthy, McEwan, Melville, Milosz, Murakami -- not to mention authors whose names begin with letters other than "M."

But ... is that skepticism really justified?

What about film? Yes, there's a writer, usually several but often one who is principal. And a director. And an editor. The director is probably closest to the "single, interesting human intelligence" model, assembling cinematographers, actors, scenes, and sounds as an author assembles words. But what about those actors, actresses, location scouts, costume designers, composers, and the bazillion special effects people who seem to be essential to soooooooooo many movies nowadays (though not necessarily the ones that fall into the "interesting human intelligence" category). As far as film goes, there's a pretty decent argument for collaborative and interactive narrative, I'm thinking now.

And then consider narrative in fiction series that are written by multiple ghostwriters. What about The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew? Who are Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene, and is it fair to call the single, very possibly interesting human beings behind these facades "collective authors" of these enduring series?

Leaving aside YA mysteries, how 'bout Homer? Martin West of Oxford University says, in relation to the Iliad and the Odyssey, "Those who cling to the belief that one man was responsible for both poems seem to me to be hindered from a just assessment of the contrary evidence by a romantic attachment to the traditional idea of the one supreme poet." Similar statements might be made about The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, with some controversy about Beowulf, and so on.

There's also religious liturgy. Political party platforms. Legislation. Appellate Court decisions (lift that long black robe and see the clerks scribbling away underneath). These may not count as narrative, exactly, but they're usually coherent, and they engage or enrage or guide or otherwise affect big big bunches of people.

The question seems more complicated to me now than it did when my colleague and I tossed ideas over a cubicle wall.

What do you think? Will the technology enabling collaborative development of stories result in "narrative" of a sort that people living B.I.A. (Before the Internet Age) would recognize? Are the changes underway substantive or superficial? Are you looking forward to their evolution, or quaking in your metaphorical boots?

1 comment:

  1. (ok well am typing this on my ipad Steve...)The first thing I thought when I went to the book section was that its going to open things up, and not by adding those bells and whistles to books either. If the web has been great at allowing all of us, with our strange interests and subgroups to find each other,then the ipad should do the same thing for books and publishing.I thought of all of the artist' books that I received last year and about how fantastic they would look and feel here, on this thing.It is a machine of intimacy .That is essentially what books do, make a space for you to ignore the form and get submersed in the material, a def possibilty here.Still to be seen but it is maybe a savior of small presses...they def have a page where artists can now go and self publish small books to the ipad cheaply. Many friends will try it and they have their fans.