Friday, September 26, 2008

eLit for the illiterate

Interestingly provocative piece on the Guardian book blogs a few days ago from Andrew Gallix, asking if e-literature is a big anti-climax? I've definitely been disappointed at the way the web has gone in terms of literature - and I'm part of the problem - commentary rather than creativity. In fact, like the music business, its often the conventional rather than the experimental who have made the web their own. If in music its bands like King Crimson and Marillion communing with their fans, then on the web its writers like Susan Hill giving access to her readers. Where are the new, the young, the experimental? The web as a medium for all of those things is certainly that - but perhaps not in literature.

Certainly there are a million writers on the web. A few years ago I was part of an online writing community - and the one thing all the stories had in common was there utter lack of experimentation. In many ways the ideas of "hypertext" fiction and poetry remains a valid and vivid one - but many of these "techniques" are hardly new to the web, as a trawl through the wonderful Ubu.web reminds one. A newish avant garde magazine/publisher such as Manchester's ifpthenq or Norwich's Landfill appears to prefer the traditional book/pamphlet for their non-traditional work.

Just as a lot of visual poetry is more properly seen as being part of contemporary artistic practice than standing on the shoulders of literary giants, much of the more innovative web writing is hardly writing at all, in that sense, but multimedia, like Kate Pullinger's Inanimate Alice. "Media arts" is a cross genre label that can be spectacular - but where the literary component is crowded out by everything else.

I think the problems around developing a truly innovative web writing are many. For though the web itself is non-linear, so much writing on the web, from this blog outwards, is entirely linear. When Elizabeth Baines wrote last year's Manchester "blog story" the tendency towards the conventional was perhaps more pronounced than in her written work - for the linear pull of the blog, episode by episode, is in itself reductionist. Its a few years since I had a few stories as part of the-phone-book.com - which has only lately gone offline. Yet here's part of the problem. The web is both there forever (thanks Google), and gone as soon as the domain name or the hosting expires.

In about 2000 I wrote a somewhat experimental, episodic story about the internet called "Where do you want to go today?" and put it on the web with a vague attempt to make it as one with the medium (see image at the top - I've hunted it down off my hard disk.) The page seems terribly dated, quaint in its way. Pre-wikipedia, the idea was that things referenced in the story would be linked to. Yet, as soon as one goes out onto the internet the links start fraying, becoming dead over time.

I'm fascinated as a writer, with this idea of the incomplete - and I think that the idea of "permanence" around e-lit doesn't particularly worry me. Yet there remains the question: how can the words exist when the medium no longer does? Laurence Sterne and B.S. Johnson rely on their book origins - and neither would gain from being available as text files. Yet, surely a facsimile of "On the Road" would be a wonderful blog?

In the end, of course, it comes down to the writing - and very few of our best writers have made their work available on the web, at the expense of the print - and as for the others, who'll remember them anyway?

I'm thinking back to what I was trying to do with "Where do you want to go today?" and some other work I'd done at that time - I was into "exploding" the short story. Yet, as its recent partial renaissance has shown, the story doesn't want to be exploded. It is Carver, Mansfield, Chekhov who are more often than not the models, less so Borges. Those stories I've made available on the web are not always linear (see The Personals, for instance) but they are page-bound. For me, at least, the difficulty with doing something else - something more appropriate to the medium - is twofold; one, where is the audience? and two, have I the skills. Compared with a media artist or some digital production team, the increased sophistication of much media art these days means that the lone writer is no longer able to get away with something as simplistic as a hypertext story; whilst with a few honourable exceptions, such as Great Works, many web magazines are highly traditional.

Its perhaps time - as Gallix implies, in his comments if not in the initial article - for us to look at the possibilities of eLit with new eyes: an underexplored arm of contemporary literature - and it has to be literature, not anima, or podcasts, or media art - that is still waiting for a writer or two to make it their own.

2 comments:

Lee said...

Is remembering a writer important? I certainly don't write to be remembered. For an arrtist grace lies in the creative struggle to attain craftsmanship. In fact, I think there is a great benefit in private labour, in obscurity.

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