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Fiction In The Digital Age: Windows Within Windows

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Let’s add change to the short list of things we can count on. As we all know, all things change, eventually. Even the most self-assured, stubborn, ossified, lockstep thinking changes. Consider: Disciples of divinely-inspired religions have been known to tweak their theology. Physicists, once committed to universal absolutes, eventually embraced relativity. It should be no surprise then that 21st-century writers are revising their notions of the book.

Actually, the book has never been static, immutable. Content and internal structures have continually changed over the years. In fact, it’s this protean quality of the book that is largely responsible for the form’s staying power. But of all the changes applied to the book, it may be that new digital technologies will change the form so radically as to inspire a new label or category.

I read my first digital smart-book about 20 years ago. As I recall, it was a social studies book about the Harlem Renaissance, produced by Scholastic Book Company and targeted to middle-school readers. (I was then an editor and writer of educational materials, not a student.) Not only did I read this book on a desktop computer, but it was my first experience with hypertext links. I remember clicking on the blue-highlighted word ‘renaissance’ and then staring, awestruck, at its pop-up definitions, general and contextual. I remember clicking on Langston Hughes and being transported to a brief biography, which included other hypertext links, including one to his poem “Dreams.” This linkage of subject to subject astounded me. Still, I was unprepared for the thrill of clicking on Duke Ellington and finding myself watching — in the middle of the book I was reading — a video of Ellington and his band playing their hit song “Take the A Train.”

The experience was unforgettable. As I continued “reading,” I heard, saw, and understood much more deeply, I believe, than if I had been reading a traditional print article. At the very least, it was a different reading experience. For one thing, it was circuitous, not linear. There was choice. There was no single, prescriptive way to experience the process of reading. Each reader’s experience would be unique, depending on time and initiative. The break with the sequential, page-by-page experience did not distract me, much less derail my attention. In fact, I felt enlivened and enriched — better prepared to understand the subject and more likely to remember what I was reading.

I am convinced that the digital smart-book will be a boon for education. In fact, I think most genres of nonfiction will prove well-suited for digital reinvention. I look forward to the next generation of history smart-books that are augmented with interactive maps, newsreels, video interviews, and automatically updating data. Given what an unhandy klutz I am, I look forward to reading my first how-to smart-book, which I expect will include tabs for converting measurements, rotating 3-D photographs, and embedded videos that actually show how to complete each phase of a process. This is not sci-fi speculation. This is not if, but when.

What about novels and poetry? (These are the books I was reared on, the ones closest to my heart.) How might these adapt in order to maintain their relevance? Will future changes be superficial gimmickry or value added? How will the essential experience of reading fiction be altered? Will the future novel and poem evolve into dramatically new art forms?

Actually, it’s already begun. As any wired reader knows, sound and video have long been staples of online content, and these basics are currently being used by writers of experimental novels to transform the basic ebook into a multimedia art form. Novelists are discovering what computers users have known for years: the electronic screen is not the limit of the visual or textual field. It is a window to a series of windows… and windows within windows… and, possibly, a vision of simultaneous windows, like the facets of a fly’s eye.

Another hallmark of online content, the hypertext link, also figures to become an integral element of the next-generation novel. Writers are already employing these in ways that comes close to a literary computer game, creating linked stories and even opportunities for the reader to interact with plot lines and story endings. (Personally, I am not encouraged by this direction. Most novelists I know want to maintain complete, auteur control. They believe, as I do, that most readers want to immerse themselves in a narrative and be carried along by a single, guiding intelligence. Though reading represents a more active mental engagement than watching TV, it presumes a willing passivity on the part of the reader. Active participation, like in a video game, where the reader has a hand on the joystick, may not afford future readers the same satisfaction as the traditional reading experience. We’ll see, sooner than later.)

What’s the future for poetry? Experimentation is not new to poets. For centuries, poets have been investigating the possibilities of new forms and formlessness. Up until recently, most of these experiments related to the constraints of the printed page: space, structure, typography, graphics and other visual enhancements. But digital technology, hypermedia as it’s sometimes called, is already taking poetry into new realms.

Dr. Laura López Fernández, known for her research in experimental poetry, writes that critics and theorists of the new digital poetry say we “must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks.” Apparently, arguments about rhyme and free verse are très passé. Today, poets are using computers to shape their words into fractal patterns and to generate animation, holographs, and sound. Fernandez also points out that digital poems that are multilinear, interactive, and open-ended cannot be translated or printed completely into paper. But that doesn’t mean digital poetry can’t be expressed in a physical reality outside the computer. Poems that were written, or rather created, with the help of computer technology can be experienced as three-dimensional installations. Some of these poems are meant to be experienced in a virtual reality cubic room (vr-cube), in which the reader / viewer / participant is totally immersed in a six-sided room where stereo images, light, sound, text, etc., are used to create a unique, digitally-enhanced environment.
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That the traditional book has inherent, inimitable values is indisputable. Whether it survives, however, appears doubtful. Darwinian Theory seems to apply here. Things must successfully adapt to changing circumstances or else outlive their usefulness and risk extinction. The printed book, popular for hundreds of years, has not yet outlived its usefulness. Millions are still sold and enjoyed by readers all over the world. But the evidence—the cultural and market forces—suggests that the traditional book may go the way of the dinosaur and dodo. In all likelihood, the static printed form will continue to transform through a process that increasingly accepts a variety of kinetic media as capable of bearing literary meaning.

[ In addition to Griffel’s 4000-volume book library, he owns four e-books on his computer and smartphone.]

Media theorists have taught us that if we change the medium we change the message. So, if new forms of fiction will be based on multiple, unfinished chains of textuality, how does that change the import between writer and reader? It’s hard to say, but it shouldn’t be long before we begin to find out. After all, to be born digital is quickly becoming the norm, not the exception. In a world where apps can turn your smartphone into a compass or camera, it makes perfect sense that the traditional paper page and bound book will be transformed in fantastical ways.

In his thoughtful book A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, Dennis Baron writes: “[T]he digitized text permeating our lives today is the next stage, not the last stage, in the saga of human communication” and “it’s impossible to tell from what we’re doing now exactly where it is that we will be going with our words tomorrow.”

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About Steven Jay Griffel