Forum / Platform shifts and the technology of composition - MIT Technology Review

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    Marcus Speh
    Nov 05, 07:20pm

    How Authors Write is important food for thought (and includes stuff about my current favorite writer, W G Sebald, as a pre-web pathfinder):

    don't lose your appetite! Does this inspire or not? Why (not)?

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Nov 06, 11:55am

    When the method becomes the art, where does the art go?

    I've seen here the many phases/faces of fiction travel in and out of new/old waves, twist by artsy twist... clever all, lovely to see... even pleasantly pleasing and trendy for a moment, but still it be fiction whether it's micro, flash, meta, mini, bubble wrapped or frozen.

    When it's not fiction, it's something else, but sometimes the more effective method is simple, straightforward, human and recognizable.

    [Footnote: These are dangerous thoughts, probably inordinately affected by the natural decline associated with overexposure to classic literature at an impressionable age, sometimes cured by the application of medicinal herbs.]

    If I allowed myself to speak out of the corner of my mouth like I do when smoking, I'd say, "I remember a time, long ago, when new was much more new than it is today."

    I do, but am aware of the stigma attached to age, so I don't say things like that anymore.

    [Footnote: On a very old television comedy show, the blithe, dry comedian, Henry Gibson asked, "Marshall McLuhan, what'cha doin'?" and pretty much answered his own question.]

    The MIT article, by the way, was a bit dry.

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    David Ackley
    Nov 08, 02:52pm

    I've been so obsessed with the presidential campaign here, Marcus, I haven't been able to think of much else but I did read the article( agree with Jim, " a bit dry.") but nonetheless interesting. It does raise again the old Mcluhan thing about the medium and the message.It seems to me though that experimentation with forms in writing goes on somewhat independently of the medium. I think for example of a novel written by the very fine poet, James Merrill, back in the 60's(?) called THE DIBLOS NOTEBOOK which must have been one of the earliest examples of metafiction, it being in part the novel about the writing of itself, with rewritten sentences following the original sentences, complete with typographical strikethroughs displayed on the page. And of course there was Burroughs's work from the same era with his cutouts and inserts and parrallel pages.
    I think the thing that sets apart the better work is whether the writer's purpose is served by adapting the medium to it or whether the writer--as in the case of the blogger mentioned in the article--was simply succumbing, probably unwittingly, to modes that are current on the medium, its standard lingo.

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    Marcus Speh
    Nov 08, 09:40pm

    Yes, perhaps the article is a tad dry, but I thought it was well-founded and grounded in interesting findings. Of all the writers mentioned, only Sebald is close to my heart and it is indeed as described: Sebald's books are exquisitely composed and architected. However, the quality of his books comes from the quality of his prose and it would come through even if his words were hand-painted on medieval glass windows, shattered and digitized, mixed and mangled or whatever technology may be up to… in other words, I'm fully with Jim Davis. I'm also with David, and I think you expressed especially lucidly in your last paragraph what the relationship between technology and the writer is all about (or should be all about). It'll be interesting to watch this arena in the years to come, as printed paper will be more and more challenged, as old molds of meaning will go out of fashion. We'll see an increase in the number of articles decrying the imminent end of the novel and an equal number of articles insisting that long prose consisting of nothing but words strung together like sentimental sausages is what the gods meant us to do.

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    Chris Galvin
    Nov 08, 10:32pm

    Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing the link, Marcus. I agree with what Pontin says, and sums up so well in the last paragraph:

    "The explanation is that literary writers are solitary creatures: their days are spent alone, with keyboards and pens under their fingers and a humming photocopying machine down the road at the university. Those things are real, and what one can do with them exciting, while websites, e-readers, and even books seem abstractions, mere mechanisms of distribution."

    Perhaps those who crank out best-sellers are writing for the platforms on which their work will be read, but the rest of us, I believe, take pleasure and interesst in what we can do with the media we use to write more than with the possible platforms on which it will be read.

    Am now fascinated with the idea of typing on a never-ending scroll, à la Kerouac, but then, by using a digital document as the recipient of my words, I guess I am doing exactly that. Something special though, about that yellowed scroll with its old typewriter-black-ink letters.

    I agree with David's statement in his last paragraph. There is a difference between the writer as innovator,manipulating text and media to produce something new and *good*, and someone who falls into a style that is already there, that is simply the vernacular of the day. As to the article being dry, perhaps it is but I found it too interesting to notice.

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    Marcus Speh
    Nov 09, 06:05pm

    I told you so...: another one on "death of the novel", fresh off the press...

    «The Death of the Novel: How E-Lit Revolutionizes Fiction»

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Nov 09, 06:37pm

    IS: So, Mr. Davis, since the consensus is clear and growing... that the novel is dead, why do you continue to write them?

    JLD: I didn't get the memo. The novel is dead? Why wasn't I told?

    IS: Why certainly. Everyone's been talking about it. Here... read these links:
    Even Wikipedia has weighed in: I can't believe you haven't heard.

    JLD: Well, I've been busy lately... um, writing novels.

    IS: Well, sir, no wonder. You've been out of touch, I understand, but do you really believe anyone will publish your novels?

    JLD: If I truly believed that, I would have foregone everything else and written those novels years ago when they were relevant and so much in demand. This is most disconcerting.

    IS: What will you do... now that you know that your work is superfluous?

    JLD: Well, I've always wanted to be a prizefighter... or a cowboy. Yes, a cowboy would be a very nice thing to be, indeed. I suppose, first thing tomorrow, I'll go out and find myself a horse. I'll have to move back to Texas, find some cows. Lots to do. I'd better get started. Bye now.

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    Marcus Speh
    Nov 09, 10:04pm

    I thought first you were joking but indeed this Wikipedia article exists...astounding. Fortunately, it's double-crossed by another article,

    which says "that all arguments postulating the death of the novel are fallacious".

    It makes me want to join you on your farm, Jim. Send a postcard when you're settled in, typewriter unpacked and all. Even better: smoke signs.

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Nov 10, 02:19am

    Marcus, I'll leave a trail of empty Lone Star beer bottles and Marlboro packs. If I pick up some cows on the way, there will be other signs laying in the roadway as well.

    Bring a six gun. Or a six pack. Or both.

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Nov 10, 11:33pm

    Marcus, seriously, though...

    I don't believe the novel is dead, or that it will be dead anytime soon. 'Concept' novels and genre fiction, noir and such still abound on the shelves. People buy a lot of books and every now and them, genres like mysteries, thrillers and such manage to transcend mediocrity and actually present excellent, literate work. I think that if well-written novels can entertain, they will always succeed.

    From my perspective, the best examples of succesful novels that retain literary value are those written by people like Ken Bruen or Cormac McCarthy. There are countless authors working today who manage to break out the molds publishers try to use... ever with an eye to marketing. And why shouldn't they? I don't believe any art can survive by endowment alone. Commercial success is necessary and achievable.

    I enjoyed writing flash fiction, short pieces, even enjoyed a nice little run for a while, but in my case, it's more a diversion than substantive. Consistent publication of flash fiction relies heavily on trends and friends, so the upkeep of 'who to know' and 'what's hot and what's not' requires a lot of maintenance. Sure, it's satisfying to work on some small piece and to see it published quickly, either in print or online, but I can't seem to derive much pleasure from the writing itself unless there is significant effort in a singular focus and an opportunity to expand a story beyond insinuation and metaphor. Depth of character and complexities of plot are wonderful fields to plow. Putting such depth and convolutions into an interesting form and with language that will keep a reader engaged is just plain hard work, but when it all comes together, it's pure joy.

    I've been tapering off with the short fiction for the past couple months, found it hard to do. It was a little like trying to quit smoking. You stop, you start... but I decided recently that I should work on novels exclusively.

    Here's hoping the novel as concept doesn't die before I finish the one I'm working on. And I hope that everyone here who is working on a novel will continue to keep the faith.

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    Nov 10, 11:42pm

    "trends and friends"

    Avoid 'em
    like the

    * "as if" they were the plague...)

    (remember 55 Words!!! ?)

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    W.F. Lantry
    Nov 11, 03:42am


    I wonder about this. As far as process of composition goes, I'm one of the most tech-heavy writers I know. I can't imagine now how we ever did it any other way. I simply can't write when I'm away from my workstation: I need every tool I can get, and instantly! ;)

    And yet, changes in the methods of composition pale when compared to changes in 'mode of delivery.' Poets have known this forever: we're constrained by the width and height of the page, Howl notwithstanding. In fact, Howl is proof of these constraints. Why don't people write in fourteeners? Precisely because they wouldn't fit horizontally on the page.

    But technology has lead to new flourishings in other areas. It's as if Flash Fiction was made for the new electronic mediums... the two have grown up together. Would Flash be anything like where it is without the web?

    Beyond that, the author misses several key points. Hard to imagine he doesn't mention Pale Fire, or the notes along the right hand column of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He also leaves Coover out completely. Seems odd.

    On the 'death of the novel' stuff, which I didn't find in the article, all I can say is 'Welcome to the club.' People have been declaring the death of poetry for centuries. Since the web sprang up, poetry has made a rather remarkable recovery. I suspect the same is true for novels: more people are reading them than at any time in history. At this point, that seems unlikely to change.



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    David Ackley
    Nov 11, 04:09pm


    There's a very nice discussion between Creeley and Ginsberg--you may know it-- published as "The Contexts of Poetry." In it Creeley argues his need to write under consistent conditions of medium--sharpened #2 pencils and yellow legal pad, I believe--and circumstance. Ginsberg says that he has begun trying, deliberately, to write under every condition of his peripatetic life, travelling on trains, in hotels, wherever he happens to be and with whatever instrument is to hand, feeling that ( and here I speculate from my vague recollection) that poetry is suited to register all the variety and nuance of life and that he is interested in how that results from the changes. Creeley resisted in the discussion but in an addendum to it admits that he went ahead to try what Ginsberg had suggested, and that his poetry was the better for it, he felt.

    Just something called to mind by your remark about needing to use the computer.Believe me I'm very far from suggesting that anyone change what works for him.

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    Marcus Speh
    Nov 11, 05:52pm

    @Jim I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say on the life of the novel—if I were with you, I'd drink to that on Dostoevsky's birthday!

    @Bill I also missed Coover! That's a bad oversight, but the author evidently is a techie not an artist. Still, I think it's interesting to see what comes out when technologists look into the artist's workshop. Though I'm an ur-techie myself, I don't feel affected: there has never been any doubt in my heart regarding the pre-eminence of art over science. In fact all good science follows aesthetic guidelines as far as I can discern (the best scientists knew that—Einstein, Bohr, Feynman, Dyson, Schrödinger, Crick, Pascal etc.)

    @David I really loved reading this about Ginsberg...I can but agree: since June I haven't written a line proper, I've dictated all my work, all my letters (even this post) because of tendonitis, and much of it not at home but on the road...

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    Marcus Speh
    Nov 11, 05:53pm

    Also, I'm through with flash. I had a great time while it lasted!

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Nov 11, 07:34pm

    Time for an article on "The Death of Flash." Equally premature, but delicious to consider a corresponding resurrection of novelism.

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    stephen hastings-king
    Nov 11, 11:25pm

    Declaring a form dead or not-dead is a move for power in a particular field of cultural production. It's not an interesting exercise unless you are also play that game.

    But I've long been confused by the idea that somehow or another working in novel form is "real writing" and working other forms is somehow less. The positions strikes me as arbitrary, something on the order of strongly preferring chunky to smooth peanut butter.

    All that matters is the sense of possibilities that you find opening for you through engagement with the form that you work with.

    For example, in principle I think that longer forms tend to default into treating characters as if they are things that one moves through situations. That seems to me philosophically naive. Identity is a juncture between experience and memory, one that is continuously in motion, continuously being figured and refigured. There's nothing substantive about it. Time is not a container inside of which we move around--it is discontinuous, expanding and contracting as a function of modalities of attention.

    Personally I find shorter forms to be a more adequate way to explore questions of identity and time. Conceptually, these can be a rigorous as is possible in longer forms; formally it seems to me there are options quite different from what a traditional novel presents.

    But at the level of execution, it goes back to working in a form that engages you simply because it's only in working on the basis of that engagement that any of these questions can be opened up. And there's no obligation on anyone to find these to be the main questions that engage them: the world is very big and obviously multiple.

    Insofar as technological mediations are concerned, I doubt they result in any single outcome. JG Ballard once said that he could tell if a write worked on a computer or typewriter because the attention span of one working on the former was the size of the screen. Maybe there's something to that, but I don't see it as a bad thing--it's certainly something that can be compensated for at other levels of organization.

    But maybe altering the technological platform one works with is like learning a new instrument--they open different spaces, but the particularities tend to be less and less a big deal the more one develops a kinetic repertoire adapted to the medium over time.

    My, that's a lot of words.

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Nov 12, 07:12pm

    So many people say and declare so many things... I guess the best rule to follow is your own.

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    Marcus Speh
    Nov 12, 07:47pm

    @Stephen I LIKE your view "altering the technological platform one works with is like learning a new instrument"—very much in line with what I read in a book I just started: "Book was there: Reading in electronic times" by Andrew Piper — — a great read!

    I'll steal your lines re: identity for an upcoming seminar if I may? I hope you don't mind that I quote out of context. That crowd (games designers, virtual world scholars) won't care about short or long writing...

    In case any of you wish to comment—in this or in another section of this document—please be my guest:

    (this Wiki is a draft paper/workflow plan for my workshop later this week at the University of Stockholm).

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    eamon byrne
    Nov 15, 11:24am

    Coming in late here, but would like to pick up on a point raised by Bill Lantry and Stephen H.K. It concerns the use of a computer as a writing tool.

    I think it's virtually indispensible these days but, alas, the word-processor has not kept pace with our expectations, let alone wishes.

    My main issue with word-processors is the reliance on scrolling, and the sheer clutter and poor design of the screen layout. Ideally, I would prefer a blank screen simulating a sheet of paper, and to be able to page through the pages as I compose. With most current WP's, these design parameters can never be fully realised, and even partially only with a lot of clumsy fiddling.

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Nov 21, 11:04pm

    Eamon, it still beats a clucky old Underwood with more moving parts than a 16 cylinder Bugatti engine.

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Nov 22, 02:46am


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    eamon byrne
    Nov 22, 09:28am

    James, changing clucky to clunky is almost a metaphor for a word processor. But with the Underwood, you'd have thrown the first sheet in the bin, and we'd have never known you hadn't written clunky. When you think about it, the word processor has facilitated a cyber universe of misspellings, whereas the simple sheet of paper by its very impermanent nature aids the composer in obliterating its blemished avatars.

    (The above being typical tosh written on a word processor.)

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