Frederick and I are unlikely friends. We met as faculty members at Clark Atlanta University. We didn’t really know each other that well when we worked together, but after he left to take a job in Maryland and my job at Clark Atlanta started to shift, we talked more often, regularly sharing “war stories” of faculty life and administrative hassles. Then we started to talk about pedagogy, theory, and sometimes crazy ideas — like creating a huge generative digital literature project.

“What would it be like if we could have writers do project based writing, you know, having them write something that actually mattered in the ‘real world’?” I pondered aloud, pinching my phone between my shoulder and ear as I turned chicken wings on my backyard grill and refereed my kids’ latest fight.

“What are you thinking?” he said.

“I don’t know . . . something that they could create, but something fun.”

“Like a website or something?” he said.

“Great idea! A digital work . . .”

“A book? A novel?” he offered.

And that’s how it started. We spoke back and forth for weeks–what should we do, how would we do it, what did we want out of this project? Finally, as the project started to take a definite shape, we started to talk about how we could publish a work like this. What kind of platform would take a collaborative, gamified, digital novel?

“I have an idea,” I said. “Let me ask Robin at Hybrid Pedagogy. They do this kind of thing,” I said, “maybe they have some suggestions for how it can work.” I had just published two articles with them, and I enjoyed working with them because they took the time to work collaboratively in the editing and publication process, and they had an open idea about publication — which made me think they might be open to something a crazy as our idea.

I called Robin, and told her what Frederick and I were thinking about doing: A mystery that takes place at Theopolis College, an imaginary college in an imaginary suburb about 25 miles from Washington D.C. As part of it’s centennial celebration, Theopolis College publishes an Alumni Magazine featuring 10 of its “Most Distinguished Alumni.” After the alumni magazine is published, the president of the college is murdered. The clue? . . . an alumni magazine left at the site. Who did it? We don’t know. We will leave the building of the narrative to students and faculty at ten different colleges. Our vision is to involve 10-12 creative writing classes in the initial creation of the narrative in order to provide the “seeds” of a crowd-sourced participatory digital generative novel.

Theoretical Underpinnings

The idea of a generative novel is one that can be traced to the OuliPo group (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) in France. The loose group of mostly French Speaking authors and mathematicians began in 1960 in order to investigate different ways in which to create works of art and literature. According to the OuliPo website, the generative writer is “un rat qui construit lui-même le labyrinthe dont il se propose de sortir.” (Trans: “A rat who builds the maze he wishes to escape.”) In this understanding of art and literature, the idea of creation, especially literary creation, is one of wordplay and gameplay. Therefore, the generative novel is, in itself, a game, and, we sincerely hope, will give rise to a game — one of interplay between people, cultures,and institutions — with completely new and unexpected results. As author Alain Robbe-Grillet said in his work For a New Novel:

Each novelist, each novel must invent its own form. No recipe can replace this continual reflection. The book makes its own rules for itself and for itself alone. Indeed the movement of its style must often lead to jeopardizing them, breaking them, even exploding them. (12)

In order to create a work of generative literature, there must be a creative constraint (limitation) which forces the writer to direct writing toward a particular purpose. This constraint can be based upon anything that compels the writer to generate text, but these constraints are usually one of two types: linguistic and situational. Linguistic generators can take the form of puns, anagrams, alphabetic eliminations, even grammatical progressions; and situational constraints can take the form of a particular creative situation which gives rise to the generative writing. There are, literally, thousands of generative constraints proposed thus far (Michele Audin currently attempts to catalogue them in Draft Atlas on the OuliPo website). Therefore, through the situational generator of the murder of the Theopolis College president, and the invention of the distinguished alumni of Theopolis College, we mean to provide both a creative constraint and a basic framework for students and faculty to begin the work of providing the primary narrative of this (potentially) much bigger and more encompassing digital project. Although the character sketches we will ask for seem traditional, those character sketches will serve as the Exhibit X in a much larger, more involved, and potentially more exciting digital project than we can hope to imagine as the progenitors (pun intended) of this project.

The Mechanics of The Generative Literature Project

We hope to begin with 10-12 classes. Each class will be assigned a brief sketch of one of the “distinguished alumni” of Theopolis College, and provided with a copy of the obituary for the College President, Dr. Cadence MacKarthur. Faculty will introduce the alumnus/alumna that has been assigned to the class, and work with students to assign characters who knew that alumnus/alumni. Students will then register the name, relationship, and important “target phrase” of a specific character who knew the alumnus/alumni with The Generative Literature Project using a Google Form. Students will create a short character sketch of that character, sharing important details about their relationship with the alumnus/alumna. For example, say the class was assigned the character of “Sue Smith,” a professor of linguistics at a nearby college. The student would might register the character: Mary Adams, 26, Graduate Student doing her Master’s thesis under Dr. Smith. The target phrase may be, “Mary worried about her thesis constantly because her advisor, Dr. Sue Smith, was extremely brutal in her commentary. She had already rewritten the thesis three times.” The student would then create a full character sketch of Mary Adams, including the target phrase somewhere in the sketch, but making that target phrase indistinguishable from any other part of their sketch, keeping it secret even from the faculty member leading their project group.

The Faculty member would then use student sketches as background to create the 1,000 word article about the distinguished alumnus/alumna (in this example, alumna Dr. Susan Smith) for the Theopolis Alumni Magazine. Once that article is created, the students and faculty would collaborate on how their particular alumnus/alumna could have committed the murder, and what their alibi might be. They will send that information to The Generative Literature Project.

Transmedia Potential

The class, if they wish, can create transmedia clues — utilizing Twitter and blogs to build-out relationships between characters and plot points. The Generative Literature Project will provide a Twitter identification and an email address for each of the alumni characters. Classes may wish to tweet on behalf of their alumnus/alumna; build relationships between their alumnus/alumna and other alumni assigned to other colleges, and include clues (and red herrings).

Not only could classes begin working with Twitter and other social media in the initial phase of the project, but we see a potential for this project going far beyond its initial scope. We are working toward publishing the narrative student and faculty work in a way that it could be gamified, richly illustrated, and interactive. We want to invite crowdsourcing and fan fiction, and we could invite other types of classes to become involved in the project as well (think of legal classes preparing prosecution and defense for each of the characters, or forensic medicine classes building out some autopsies and clue trails). This project could take on a life of its own, and we began to think of the possibilities of an unconstrained digital project.

Moving Forward

I thought Robin was just being polite, listening so long to the ideas that Frederick and I had put together, but it was more than that: “I think we can do this,” she said. “I think this has a lot of potential.”

I called Frederick right away. “They want to work with us!” I blurted at him through my iPhone, needing to repeat it twice when the microphone was overwhelmed by my enthusiasm. We were excited, to put it mildly. Frederick and I worked on a concept, created a slideshow, and collaborated on the back-end stuff. Several meetings followed with Hybrid Pedagogy, as we hammered out the details of the project and how it might work, production schedules, ideas, ways in which we might approach participants, how we might publish the final work.

Then, finally, we come to today. (Drum Roll . . . )

It is with great excitement that Frederick Cope, Michelle Kassorla, and the wonderful people at Hybrid Pedagogy, possessed of equal parts excitement and terror, make this Call for Participation in the Generative Literature Project!

The Generative Literature Project is calling for the participation of 10-12 Creative Writing faculty from campuses across the United States to participate in the creation of a transmedia generative digital novel.

This project will take place during Fall Semester 2014, and will involve students and faculty in writing a minimum of one class assignment, one faculty character sketch, and a collaborative analysis of the main character’s motive and alibi. (See Sample Lesson Timeline for more information).

Students and faculty may also wish to create artifacts via social media and blogging, and participate in project “Tweet-Ups” and Google Hangouts as the project progresses. All project writing will be completed by November 1, 2014.

Authors will retain rights to their piece, but must agree to publish it under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Share-Alike license as part of the project narrative. We will also require a Memorandum of Understanding between our project and the participating faculty member that provides a clear understanding of the relationship between Hybrid Pedagogy and the faculty member so that there are no surprises down the line.

We anticipate a robust response to this call, so if you are interested in participating, please let us know as soon as possible. Deadline for Application: June 15, 2014

Please see the following slide presentation for an introduction to the project:

Application Form:

We hope that you will be as excited about participating in this crazy experiment as we are about bringing it to life. In the end, this may be a fabulous success, this may be a fabulous failure, but, no matter the outcome, it will be fabulous! We admit, up front, that we don’t know what will happen to this project as it begins to take on a life of its own, but we think that is part of the excitement of The Generative Literature Project. We hope you will want to be a part of this. We can’t wait to get started.