Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Digital Fiction Desert

A friend of mine recently described the e-literature/digital fiction scene as a ‘small and marginal field with active people spread across continents.’ This was in response to a rather miserable message I sent to her about feeling – sometimes – like I was ‘working in a bit of a desert’. 

The e-lit scene of course isn’t a desert at all, as a quick glance at this impressive list of authors demonstrates http://elmcip.net/author. There is a lot going on (albeit slowly) and I enjoy regular communication via email and Twitter with a number of brilliant people in the field. My comment was more aimed at the lack of a sense of a central community; of sharing ideas, source code, work in progress and development techniques; of why there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go to experience that on a wider scale.

Having recently switched from producing digital fiction in Flash to developing it using open source technologies like jQuery and HTML5 – a move largely triggered by Apple’s banning of Flash from the iPad and iPhone platforms  – I can see why words like small, marginal and desert might sometimes ring true to others working in this field: creating digital fiction in Flash used to be hard enough in itself, but now the visual tools that at least held some sort of hope seem to have disappeared – as has the consistency of knowing that one file, thanks to the magic of Flash, will look pretty much the same across all Flash-enabled browsers and devices. Now it’s down to hand-coding; back to the unpleasant fundamentals.

Although I haven’t been put off by this adjustment, it does make me feel very sad that the majority of writers without a strong background/intense interest in technology wouldn’t even entertain trying to create work in this way; you’d have to be pretty obsessed (like I am unfortunately) to even begin to tackle the technical barriers. And that’s a great shame, because creating this sort of digital fiction can actually be very exciting.

Thanks to the fantastic efforts of Peggy Riley at East Kent Live Literature, I had the rare chance to run a ‘digital fiction workshop’ for interested writers this month. Spanning two days, the workshop included a brief introduction to the concept of electronic literature before moving on to accumulating resources, finding free (and not so free) software and even attempting to hand code a simple open source page of digital writing. The final few hours were not for the faint of heart: having downloaded my new Digital Fiction Boilerplate (a resource aimed at simplifying things for writers with a bit of scripting knowledge), the group then opened HTML and Javascript files in bare-bones text editors and modified the syntax to achieve minimal but gratifying results. I remember thinking how fantastic it was that these writers were getting their hands dirty and having a crack at this – but also thinking why the hell does it have to be so complex?

Of course, there are many visual tools available for designing web pages. You can also freely build stories online using blogs, content management systems, social networking and online media creation tools – all without touching a line of code. But what about realising imaginative ideas that don’t fit into any of these pigeon-hole software packages or highly branded services? What about trying to create truly hybrid forms of fiction that place the written word onto a new kind of canvas compatible with any sort of popular device or platform? There doesn’t seem to be much out there for that.

For Lyle Skains, a PhD researcher exploring multimodal creativity through print and digital stories and a participant on the workshop with strong technical knowledge, the session was “the first time I've gotten to actually sit down with anyone else who writes this stuff”. On her blog entry Thoughts on @dreamingmethods’ Digital Fiction Workshop’ she continues “I don't know why everyone doesn't do this. This kind of work isn’t going away. These workshops need to happen WAY more often.” 

It would be great if they could. Once the tough curtains of web technology have been poked open a little, it’s not hard to get writers excited by this new form of literary expression. It’s a shame though that there’s no globally compatible drag-and-drop tool for creating imaginative digital fiction, one that would cut out the dreadfully off-putting need to know the HTML code for embedding video or the commands required to make text move, transform, or appear and disappear. This, along with a central community and resource, might form a valuable oasis as it were, where writers relatively new to the practice could freely experiment, see instant results, get a leg up over the technical barriers and truly start to make some digital fiction inroads.

Monday, 9 May 2011