What does it mean when you move words from the printed page on to the screen? If I was to never publish in print ever again, what would this mean to me as a writer? What would a world without printed books be like? What happens to the notion of ‘authorial voice’ within a networked project that is open to reader participation?
Going online changed my life: it changed my life as a writer and it changed my life as a teacher. It’s taken me out of the classroom and into networked pedagogy. It has changed the way I think about books, their place in our culture, their place on my shelves. It has made me question deeply held beliefs about authorship and the role of publishers, what it means to be published, what it means to be a reader. It has propelled me into a space where my work is more often ‘exhibited’ than ‘published’ and where I am rarely a sole author, almost always a collaborator. It has made me ask questions, and these questions often don’t have answers; or, rather, the answers mutate and change constantly.
I first started thinking about the possibilities for digital fiction at the beginning of 2002. I had embarked on a year long research fellowship, given to me by TrAce, the pioneering online writers community based in the midlands of England. Teaching for TrAce led to the aforementioned fellowship and the chance to spend a year looking at new forms of narrative online, a unique opportunity for an established print writer to take time out to potter around in cyberspace. But I stumbled before I got started: a few days before my fellowship began, my father died unexpectedly and I flew to Canada to be with my family. While away, I missed my planned week-long intensive induction into all things HTML and code-related; once back in England it was only a couple of weeks before I was off with my fellow TrAcees to Los Angeles, for the 2002 ELO conference. As a result I remained code-shy, a programming naïve, and this was reinforced by my reading: at the time it seemed to me that too many writers and artists working in this field were more interested in computers and code than they were in telling stories.
After my stumbling start and lack of enthusiasm for acquiring technical skills, I began to find collaborators, most significantly, Chris Joseph, who has since become my co-conspirator on many of my digital fiction projects. TrAce reached its ten year anniversary in 2004 and then came to a natural end; the folks there moved on to other projects. I followed Sue Thomas and Simon Mills as they made their way to De Montfort University; Sue and I took much of what we had learned about teaching online for the TrAce Online Writing School and transformed it into an online MA in Creative Writing and New Media. Teaching this degree allowed me to continue my perambulations through cyberspace, checking out the latest digital fiction projects. Since those early days of text and code heavy experiments, the field has exploded in many directions at the same time, and ‘digital fiction’ and/or ‘electronic literature’ remains difficult to define or, indeed, name, crossing as it does the boundaries between text and visual arts, music, animation, video, and plain old fashioned story-telling. There is now a huge amount of good work out there that uses new media to tell stories; my chosen featured artists - fellow writer/artist Caitlin Fisher, and my two former students, Christine Wilks and Renee Turner - all demonstrate this vividly.
Renee produced ‘She…’ for her MA Dissertation; her creative mentor on the project was Caitlin Fisher. Christine collaborates on http://www.runran.net/remix_runran/ with my collaborator Chris Joseph, among other people. It’s a simple fact that, without the internet, none of us would ever have met.
Lately I find myself lying in bed at night wondering if I should get rid of all my books. This is a nonsense, of course, I’d never be able to part with my books, books by friends, favourite books, let alone books I’ve written myself. But, for me, the questions around the future of the book that I’ve been exploring over the past few years have morphed into questions around the future of story-telling. A book is nothing more than a piece of technology for reading, created by a printing press, moved from warehouse to retailer to reader via a network of transport technology, thus conveying the writer’s words to you in a manner to which you are completely accustomed; a technology you were taught to use on your mother’s knee, most likely. But many people are deeply attached to books, for reasons much more complex than the simple statement ‘I like to read’ could ever convey. It could be argued that the novel, as defined as a single work by a single author aimed at the solitary reader published on paper using fixed print type is a relic of a cultural moment, a moment that lasted more than two hundred and fifty years but, in the context of our shared history of story-telling, a moment nonetheless.
But as a fiction writer, I’m not really interested in the technological platform itself, be that book,internet, phone, or e-reader. I am interested in stories. I am interested in language; words, crafted and precise and beautiful; and the way that the right words in the right order can create mental pictures as indelible as the greatest film or photograph or painting. I’m interested in what happens when you take words and place them somewhere other than the printed page.
Flight Paths: ’a Networked Novel’ by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph
Since November 2007, Chris Joseph and I have been working on ‘Flight Paths: a Networked Novel’, collecting and creating stories, fragments,ideas, videos, RSS feeds, news items, photographs, sound files, and memories through www.flightpaths.net. Opening up the research and creative process to this net-native participatory media fiction project from the outset, we have invited, received, and curated a range of reader-generated contributions, while continuing to create content for the project ourselves.
The concept of the networked book of non-fiction is not new and there is along history of new media fiction works that include user-generated content. But there are few fiction projects that from the earliest,research phase attempt to harness participatory media and audiencegenerated content in the way that ‘Flight Paths: a networked novel’ is currently. ‘Flight Paths’ attempts to explore the potential for writing,collaboration, reading and viewing online. It builds upon my established track record in this field; while the world of traditional book publishing has been slow to respond to the opportunities afforded by the internet,‘Flight Paths’ is a serious literary endeavour that seizes upon the possibilities for participation and inclusion that the network can provide. ‘Flight Paths’ resides in and on the network; it has no true life away from the network and is as far removed from the traditional print novel as fully-featured instant messaging is from the fax machine.
To coincide with the Line of Influence exhibition at Binary Katwalk, Chris Joseph and I have created five new short flash stories, taking five plothotpoints, or flashpoints, to animate moments from the story that has begun to emerge through the project’s history of discussion and collaboration. We’ve created a temporary homepage at www.flightpaths.net, showcasing these five stories; you can navigate through to the main ‘Flight Paths’ site, which resides in a NetvibesUniverse. You can comment on the project via our relaunched blog: www.flightpaths.net/blog. Please contribute to Flight Paths’ if you feel inspired.
Kate Pullinger works both in print and new media. Her most recent novels include 'A Little Stranger" (2006), 'Weird Sister' (1999) and the short story collection 'My Life as a Girl in a Men’s Prison' (1997). Her new novel, The Mistress of Nothing, will come out in July 09. Her digital fiction projects include her multiple award-winning collaboration with Chris Joseph on 'Inanimate Alice', a multimedia episodic digital fiction and 'Flight Paths' www.flightpaths.net – a networked novel, created on an through the internet. Kate Pullinger is Reader in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University.