Friday, 17 December 2010

No going back

As readers move away from print-based conventions and habits, they inevitably begin to engage in a different process of reading and meaning-making. The role of the visual in the rendering of written texts is taking on new possibilities and transforming how literary fiction itself can be created and experienced.

Whilst many visual techniques have already been applied to fiction in print (House of Leaves, Only Revolutions, Filth, to name a few) the potential of the written word physically changing over time in the context of a story is much less explored.

But is it wrong, lazy, indecisive, gimmicky, or even downright superficial to time-manipulate the very language used in a story? Should the written word ever be "placed on a timeline" in the manner of video and audio and made to perform in this manner? Does it make the reading experience far too difficult, broken, distracting - even totally unnatural?

Dreaming Methods uses the idea of blurred out/barely-readable bits of writing in Capped, the story of a half-remembered childhood memory. There, fragments from the protagonist's recollections hang around in and amongst trees, bushes and bits of weeds as though on the fringes of consciousness. When the project was first launched back in 2006, some readers complained that they simply "couldn't tell what it said" - one person remarking that he thought it must be an error with his computer or within the project itself. Others - thankfully - got the idea that you weren't meant to be able to read it.

We used text fragments that animated/changed over time in The Diary of Anne Sykes (2003) (along with maths-generated text "sculptures" reflecting the protagonist's bizarrely ordered thoughts) but its clearest use is in Dim O'Gauble, where the voices of a young boy and an elderly woman ponder over a series of mysterious apocalyptic visions. Words within sentences physically transform into others without warning - sometimes polarising their meaning; at other times, running through lists as if the exact phrases can't quite be found. In this project there are no interface mechanisms in place that reflect the experience of "turning a page" or being able to leisurely return to re-read anything; once the writing has disappeared - and it does, quite quickly, over time - that's it, there is no going back.

The use of such techniques in literature may be so alien to readers' usual habits of having a steady flow of pages and the ability to control their reading pace that the immediate reaction is likely to be one of disruption and frustration. For many, there is something highly unsettling about the physical movement or transformation of writing. The written word with its history of having been honed down to high quality and published in a fixed and 'final' manner tears up its own roots and wanders a good distance out of its comfort zone when introduced as a transient/changeable/unreliable form.

Yet surely this is a powerful reflection of how human memories and personal histories fluctuate; how perceptions mutate and adjust; and how sometimes, painful as it is, there is no going back in quite the same way to that original relationship, memory or experience.

Perhaps this is one way in which future literary fiction might realise itself? Writer/s threading powerful, well-crafted, digitally enhanced/manipulated texts through a tapestry of other media forms that provide engaging new worlds for new kinds of readers - readers undaunted by the fact that going backwards or reading/understanding every word may not be possible, and who are prepared for the very fabric of the text to come alive.


Shaun said...

I find such a technique of progressive text (as it were) to be really interesting, given the different levels it could add to narrative mistrust.

Human perceptual limitations mean that it's simply impossible for a reader to directly apprehend more than a few words on a page at a time. The peripheral vision can't really detect more than indications of movement; if I remember right, the objects we see in our periphery are assembled on an ongoing basis from the memory, rather than being apprehended directly.

A result of this, combined with the technique you're suggesting Andy, would be to have the potential effect of words changing without the change being noticed by the reader. If someone re-reads a page, or perceptually 'zooms-out' of a certain section of the page, to find that (even while they've been looking at the screen) portions of the text have changed, this may be even more disorientating than simply having text changing as it is read. In fact, this happened to me a couple of times during Dim O'Gauble.

I guess the skill of the technique lies in balancing misdirection and fairness towards the reader: allowing the change in words to be witnessed by the sharp-eyed, while using other visual techniques to distract from the change as it occurs. But there're a number of possibilities which could be really exciting, from a storytelling point of view.

Mark Bernstein said...

Other work that explores related themes and techniques include

* Jim Rosenberg: Intergrams and The Barrier Frames (and his theoretical framework of actemes)

* Stuart Moulthrop: Hegirascope

* William Gibson: Agrippa: The Book of the Dead

* Jud Morrisey, The Jew's Daughter (Shaun, I think, will like this one especially)

Critical attention to the evanescence of electronic text and its potential to disrupt the familiar landscape of the late age of print goes back to Bolter's WRITING SPACE and Joyce's OF TWO MINDS, especially "nonce upon some times". Jill Walker's wonderful paper on "tearing apart and piecing together" (Hypertext 99) is an introduction ideally suited to readers who don't know (or dislike) the terminological thickets of narratology.

jhave said...

This post spoke to my preoccupations!

Although I wld add that parallel to the evocative narrative use of mutating text in Andy's (superb) work and the precedents outlined by Mark, there is another tradition parallel to e-literature where readers have rapidly adapted to transformative transgressive evolving kinetic-calculus typography: namely, advertising.

The question for me is how can the techniques developed in 30 seconds spots be viably used in sustained reading? Andy's work goes a way along that road.

As always, thanks.