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Can you Murder a Novel? Part 1

 Published on July 26, 2015 /  Written by , , and /  Reviewed by Chris Friend and Robin Wharton /  “The Crow” by Brian Uhreen; CC BY 2.0 /  0

After including the GenLit Project in my Experimental Writing course during the Fall 2014 semester, three senior undergraduates remained mesmerized by the perceived novelty of a generative, digital novel. For the following semester all four of us shared our frustrations, questions, and perplexities, which later drove our inquiry into the nature of the novel in its digital future. Many of those started as definitional questions around the confines of a novel while some others were reactionary, addressing why many are fearful of literature’s migration to digital platforms. As it turns out, much of the criticism we read to spur thought on our questions addressed materiality of the codex in conjunction with literature’s responses to digital technologies. We each read from a corpus of essays I chose and students augmented. With each week of reading we all wrote responses to the ideas we encountered, compiling and rearranging them as our collaborative essay developed. Each section of the essay had a “parent” author that worked to consolidate, develop, and edit more heavily than others in the group. To open our four-part essay, we share our reflections on the theories that supported our thinking.

Prologue

During the Fall 2014 semester seven writing courses from around the world contributed content to the Generative Literature Project, a digital, gamified novel. Professor Elise Takehana’s Experimental Writing course at Fitchburg State University was one of those seven. The Generative Literature Project is a murder mystery that endeavors to determine which distinguished alumnus murdered fictional Theopolis College President, Cadence Mackarthur. The class collaboratively built the character of one alumnus, O Jorgensen, a transgendered, neo-Pagan, Nobel Prize winning author. Each student in the class was then tasked with creating an ancillary character that was in some way associated with O Jorgenson. The resulting web of short scenes and artifacts would plant the seeds of multiple interpretations for O’s role in the murder and her overall character.

The process of contributing to this project encouraged the students in the course (mostly writing and film majors) to question what now counts as a novel and how literature can define itself beyond the printed codex. Now, these are not new questions, but that the image and impression of the study of writing and literature is so closely associated with the book form made many of us wonder if the end product that the Generative Literature Project becomes will even be considered a novel. Certainly, the students often did not feel that the project replicated their idea of what creating a novel would entail.

After finishing the semester and submitting all our work, a handful of students were still perplexed by the idea of a digital novel and the future of literary production. So we used the Spring 2015 semester to pursue the questions that still hovered like ghosts above our work. Why is there such an attachment to the print codex form, especially when it comes to the novel; is it just nostalgia or something more? Why are we so wary of the codex giving way to other platforms for reading and composing long-form fiction? Couldn’t novels flourish in a different form than the codex? Are digital technologies compatible with the aesthetic and narrative characteristics of the novel or a great divergence?

Traits of the Book and the Novel

Almost twenty years ago on March 20th 1997, Jacques Derrida opened his speech “The Book to Come” with an important but often overlooked concept: writing and the book are not one and the same. The written word is the medium of the writer, but the book is one possible material presentation of language. Writing appears on scrolls, walls, pages, books, skin, in printed or handwritten forms. For Derrida, the book to come will challenge the form of the existing book as a spatial model for cataloging thought. Maybe the book as we know it will be extinct. Maybe it will be resurrected and survive, maybe it will survive but in a changed form, or maybe it will be rescued by a new form (9). But the codex now is more than just the physical. It has become the model of how humans think and organize thought — the more profound and fundamental perspective Derrida offers in his speech. We look at the world around us and consider it as something that can be folded into a book as a tome or tomb for the real world. But our minds are changing, and the book then is less central or sacred as a support to our thinking. The book has supported analytical comprehension but books like Stephan Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés show how the book form conflicts with some thought models (13). But there isn’t one way to think, so “the book that collects the mind thus collects an extreme capacity for rupture, a limitless anxiety, one that the book cannot contain” (14).

Moving past Derrida’s speech, maybe then the book has just served as a guise of orderly thought and unity that no longer tricks us. The binding leaves the impression that the contents of the book are closed and complete. Numbered pages arranged in chronological order direct readers to one reading path as do repeated parallel lines of written text. It certainly is easy to follow these cues and read a book as a closed text bound in one order. Leaving the material constraints and conventions of the codex calls us to question the impact those constraints and conventions had in our written expression. One question that the rise of multimodal and generative literature brings to the table is the question of where the book ends and how the bound aesthetic of a majority of books contains itself not only in physical form, but functions as the blueprint and as a timepiece of organization. In short, moving from the printed book to the digital screen is not just a change in platform, but a drastic switch in how humans process thought. This is more than an aesthetic or material question.

Before continuing further, it is essential to make a distinction between the “book” and the “novel,” as often the novel can become a synecdochal representation of all books, and vice-versa.  Although novels are by far the most prevalent and decidedly mainstream literary genre that appears in book form, they are despite their broad definition, merely a subset of the whole, akin to dictionaries, textbooks, or encyclopedias.  Novels are a collection of ideas, which are strung together by the writer’s imagination that are primarily fictitious, aiming their focus on the make-believe however grounded in reality the made-up world may be. Books, however, are the physical construction, the external architecture which binds the pages and ideas within together. Books physically have a beginning and end within their bindings, but, as is the case with dictionaries or math textbooks, not all of them need a plot-driven narrative. This need for narrative is one of the formal elements that give novels their characteristic progression, which although sometimes altered from being purely linear, follows the organizational principle of cause and effect.

Since its emergence and rise to popularity as the dominant literary form, the novel — printed and bound as a codex — has ingrained itself as the standard by which other narrative forms — e.g., comics, film, serialized television drama, MMRPGs — have been judged. Novels generally tackle a multitude of issues in broad but time-honored conventions of plot-driven narrative, character development, and linear progression, all of which mirror both the complexity and the rigidity of human life through the attempt of simulating the complex social and internal dynamics of people through words as well as mimicking the finite borders of birth and death through the material form of the codex. If the novel is recast into a new digital material form, would it suddenly appear to us as something else entirely or even become irrelevant, deprived of cultural currency and meaning except as an object of academic study, much like an old language which gets lost in the background of eternity?

In order to investigate this question further, it is helpful to ponder the material aesthetic of the novel in codex form. Most novels have a cover and a binding as well as some beginning, middle and end. The human compulsion to include these elements are analogous to our desire for consonance in music. Since the medieval period, Western music has experienced a phenomenon wherein with the creation of newer and newer music, our collective tastes in harmony are being changed over a period of time.  This concept is highlighted acutely in Arnold Schoenberg’s goal of the Emancipation of Dissonance, on which University of London professor Jim Samson writes, “As the ear becomes acclimatized to a sonority within a particular context, the sonority will gradually become ’emancipated’ from that context and seek a new one” (146).  In his Emancipation of Dissonance, Schoenberg believed and composed by the belief that when the ear is constantly exposed to things previously thought of as dissonant to the collective palate, they will cease to be recognized as dissonances and will find new places as consonances to the human ear.  When we apply this concept to literature, we can see that our need for a beginning, middle and an ending, down to the very need for binding on a novel, besides the practical use, stems from this same desire for the expected and the familiar.

In response to the fear around the demise of the novel, Kathleen Fitzpatrick says that there is “No necessary cause for alarm in this at all, except perhaps to certain novelists, and one way to handle such a feeling might be to write a novel about it. Whether historically the novel expires or persists seems immaterial to me; if enough writers and critics feel apocalyptical about it, their feeling becomes a considerable cultural fact…” (13). While the novel in codex form and even as literary genre may fade into obliquity, the very fervent cries and works written against and about that fading capture the same intense humanism that literature itself encapsulates.  Therefore, the very response to the possibility of literature’s “undoing” becomes material to work off of and sustenance to reignite our own humanism.

Because media and technology change our perception of the world — our social reality — it’s no surprise that they also affect literary narratives and forms. According to Sabrina Kusche, such influences aren’t a one-way street. New media and emerging technologies impact existing literary conventions and genres, but at the same time, existing literary practices inform the development of media and technologies. In many cases, new technologies can usher in and encourage further development of new genres. In “New Media and the Novel” Kusche reminds readers that genres aren’t constants, but are the result of a particular historical and cultural context. Kusche chronicles several examples of how the novel as genre has incorporated and adjusted to other genres and technologies including the train, telegraph, and letter. But genres aren’t just responsive. For Jerome Bruner, in his essay “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” whose ideas Kusche paraphrases, genres “co-direct how we perceive and communicate experience as well as reality within a certain period of time” (389). Genres then aren’t just categories to organize literature, but help organize human experience more broadly. But then we must ask a question; is it a novel? What constitutes a novel? More specifically, does a text on a computer enhanced by the technology exist in the same vein of the literary titans taught in English classes the world over?

Perhaps the long-standing presence of the novel rests with what Virginia Woolf has called its cannibalistic nature. In “The Narrow Bridge of Art” Woolf writes “That cannibal, the novel, which has devoured so many forms of art will [in the future] have devoured even more. We shall be forced to invent new names for the different books, which masquerade under this one heading. And it is possible that there will be among the so-called novels one which we shall scarcely know how to christen.” The novel swallows up and incorporates other genres and media eagerly. We see this with epistolary novels, illustrated books, or serialized narratives. In some cases these combinations are intermedial, where one medium will imitate another. In other cases, the blend results in a multimodal novel. Regardless of the end relationship between the “novel” and the cannibalized genre, Kusche claims that new media and technologies aren’t turning points to new genres but catalysts in a continual process of genre development.

A sizable shift in the novel as it attempts to gobble up new media is coming to terms with the screen rather than the page and the potential of dynamic content the screen can afford. Jean-Pierre Balpe’s story “The Bedrooms” characterizes this shift in space, movement, and the subsequent reading, thinking, and lived implication through Evita’s experience and gradual admiration of her “smart paper.” Evita at first resists the smart paper and turns back to the print codex that “spoke to her, not that let her dream; texts that told her she was still living and not that she was vanishing from a world that was not going on without her” (385). The smart paper act as interactive screens that Evita comes to love because of their unique abilities to spatialize and juxtapose disparate pieces of writing. Eventually seeing the text as a spatial expression, lets her adopt the “smart paper” as “part of her space, of her breathing, just as they had been for so long a time, a part of her memory” (387).

After sharing his fictional essay “The Bedrooms,” Balpe accuses literature of being a culture that “preserves more than they produce.” Literature’s attachment to the book “petrifies itself in insane rituals of fixity” (387) and “has become a reductive matrix that we have to reform” (388). Letting go of the book would allow literature to get past linearity and fixity. But such a transition is not just a formal or generic adjustment — as though that alone was simple. Moving from page to screen, fixity to dynamism, book to new media, requires a shift in perspective. For Balpe, “The ‘old’ writer, concerned with ‘the’ text’s sanctification, because of the need for formal references, looks backward; the digital writer, as a scientist in search of progress, looks forward” (389). Balpe equates this transition as one from conservation to risk. This distinction is too harsh, too biased toward the potential of the digital and the irrelevance of print’s experimentation, but its bombastic rhetoric certainly showcases the strong feelings writers and critics have of the transition from print to digital text production.

Certainly there are some whose work celebrates the physicality of the book and scholars like Jessica Pressman who considers such “bookishness,” as one response to technology’s rapid development. While Pressman considers Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts as one novel that fetishizes the codex form as part of a post 2000’s pattern she identifies, there are many more. Another example of a book made for print and survives better as a written artifact is  J.J. Abrams’s and Doug Dorst’s 2013 novel S.

Conceived by Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, this book is written as a book within a book and uses many paratextual elements such as hand-written notes in the margins as well as loose documents within the book’s pages.  The book diminishes the significance of the author. His name is in small fine print name on the inside front cover, and the novel is presented as a fictional text.  This is an example of a book that presents itself as an artifact that is simply impossible to replicate in any way except for the real printed page.  It stands as a testament to the power that books have beyond what most other media can offer, a written kind of venerable beauty, whose authenticity is not typed on a screen, but is bled in ink.

In looking to the fetishization of the book, Geoffrey Brusatto frames his graphic design projects as practices in grafting the use value of digital media onto a new form of the paper book. This seems an attempt to push the evolution of the book form to support the “modern user’s needs” (294). Perhaps like painting with the advent of photography, the book with the advent of digital media has more freedom to present “new visual ways of expression” and a new “meaning/structure” since transmitting information clearly isn’t something that only the printed word can do these days. The Internet with its newsfeeds and blogs can carry information (296).

But in other cases, artists, writers, performers, readers, and viewers are beginning to become more comfortable with accepting the variety of narrative potential beyond the book. One collection made more impactful as performative art when aided by video, music, and technological elements than pure print codex is the poetry and work of Canadian spoken-word poet, writer and performer Shane Koyczan.  Perhaps the most well-known and beautiful example of these collections is his project created to speak to the widespread and long-lasting effect of confronting bullying, entitled “To This Day” published in Our Deathbeds Will Be Thirsty.  Despite this, the true magic of the text comes alive when it is performed, as it was to a captivated audience of thousands during TED 2013.  Later, the video for it was published via crowd-sourcing on YouTube, became a viral success, amassing over 15.5 million views.

The idea of technological advancements playing a major role in the development of literature could enhance the narrative and literary experience. With the rise of technology, the novel will still exist however maybe not as a codex. The Generative Literature Project offered students the opportunity to explore new media as a platform for novelistic writing – an experiment that merged with the challenge of creating a multi-authored, generative piece, which might have proved harder to grasp. Perhaps rather than mourning the death of the book’s physical form, we might celebrate how the novel will be no longer restrained by the physical form of printed codex.

But what is the print codex pushing to preserve in the digital present? Is it chronology? Is it authorial control? Humanity in the face of technology? The boundaries of a distinct and unified text? Perhaps these are questions more productively asked when one does not consider print and digital as opposites. Koskimaa says that both print and digital literature could be ergodic, or “require ‘non-trivial effort’ to traverse a text” (306). In Espen Aarseth’s typology of text types, he forwards seven variables resulting in 576 different genre positions of which only about a dozen are in use. These variables could be exemplified in digital AND print platforms, but one medium may be better suited to certain variable combinations. Narrative has transitioned from orality, to writing on slabs, to papyrus, to ink, to computers, so might this simply be the dawn of a new way of storytelling which will not kill out the story as we know it, but give it more room to wander, and potentially greater heights to reach.

While this first installment included reflection and analysis of the novel in codex form, particularly how the novel as genre need not be bound to the codex, part II of IV will catalog what we found as core traits of digital narrative texts and how those traits played in our work and imaginings of future additions to the Generative Literature ProjectIn this second installment in the series, Elise Takehana, Jonathan Jena, Natasha Rocci, and Matthew Ramsden consider some of the questions that emerge when we unbind the novel from the material aesthetics of the print codex.


This article is the second in a series of reports on the Generative Literature Project, sponsored by Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing.

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