Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two if:book essays

if:book, the blog for the Institute for the Future of the Book, has had two great literature-themed essay-posts this past week.

The first post is about Graham Rowle's recent book, Woman's World--a novel entirely composed of fragments cut out of women's magazines. (The book's ransom note-like page design preserves the mode of construction; see above.) Dan Visel offers a dense but fascinating meditation on this weird hybrid work, touching on Barthes, Ted Nelson, and
The Devil Wears Prada along the way. Worth a read.

The second post is about cell phone (or flash, or keitai) novels, the tiny, bite-size fictions made for mobile phone screens. The post--written by my good friend Ben Vershbow--is pegged to a recent interview of Barry Yourgrau, a New York/South African practitioner of this mostly Japanese genre. Ben treats keitai novels as more than just a goofy Japanese trend, offering some serious reflection on the form:
Western publishers would do well to study this free-flowing model. A story need not be bound to one particular delivery mechanism, be it a cell phone, web page (or book). In fact, the ecology of forms can make a more comprehensive narrative universe. This is not only the accepted wisdom of cross-media marketing franchisers and brand blizzardeers (Spiderman the comic, Spiderman the action figure, the lunchbox, the movie, the game, the Halloween costume etc.), but an age-old principle underlying the transmission of culture. The Arthurian legends, for instance, weren't spun in one single authoritative text, but in many different textual itertations over time, a plethora of visual depictions, oral storytelling, songs, objets d'art etc.
Ben also delves a bit into how the tools of writing affect the content of what is written, noting that Yourgrau writes his incredibly terse stories longhand because "the computer is too suited to Flow." He also notes that many of the most successful keitai novels were actually composed on cell phones, which (even if you have fleet little Asian fingers) takes a lot longer than tapping away on a keyboard. "[O]ne wonders whether the bloat of much contemporary fiction is a direct effect of word processors and the ease of Inernet research," he writes.

This is a point emphasized in Sven Birkets' book
The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, which I've been reading on the train. Birkets, musing on the word processor in 1995, wrote:

The dual function of print is the immobilization and preservation of language. To make a mark on a page is to gesture toward permanence; it is to make a choice from an array of expressive possibilities. In former days, the writer, en route to a product that could be edited, typeset, and more or less permanently imprinted on paper, wrestled incessantly with this primary attribute of the medium. If he wrote with pencil or pen, then he had to erase or scratch out his mistakes; if he typed, then he either had to retype or use some correcting tool. The path between impulse and inscription was made thornier by the knowledge that errors meant having to retrace steps and do more work. The writer was more likely to test the phrasing on the ear, to edit mentally before committing to the paper. The underlying momentum was toward the right, irrevocable expression.

This ever-present awareness of fixity, of indelibility, is no longer so pressing a part of the writer's daily struggle. That is, the writing technology no longer enforces it. Words now arrive onto the screen under the aspect of provisionality. They can be transferred with a stroke or deleted altogether. And when they are deleted it is as if they had never been. There is no physical reminder of the wrong turn, the failure. At a very fundamental and obvious level, the consequentiality of bringing forth language has been altered. Where the limitations of the medium once encouraged a very practical resistance to the spewing out of the unformulated expression, that responsibility has now passed to the writer. (page 157 in the 2007 paperback edition)

Both posts are vintage if:book--complex and erudite, yet engagingly conversational. I also think they do a great job balancing their forward-thinking thirst for change with a healthy skepticism, not to mention a firm grounding in literary history. They're excited about the new, but not shocked by it.

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