Category Archives: The sound of blogging

Interactive – and shallow? — fiction spells contentious Vookworm

Let’s say that you’re a novelist a bit bored with yourself and by the usual plots, who feels like trying to put two characters into a gravity-smashing relationship with each other.

Why not, say, a woman who allows herself to be seduced by a much younger man? Would she necessarily have to look like Demi Moore or Francesca Annis for this romance to get off the ground – and with or without the alpha-to-omega knife work that made Demi the cheerful, landmark advertisement for plastic surgery that she is?

How do you demonstrate — believably — that there’s nothing seriously wrong with your male character when he chooses this love interest over internet porn depicting lovelies as dewy-eyed as fake or real twelve year-olds, or flesh-and-blood women his own age or younger? Would you necessarily have to make him as wild as Demi’s Ashton Kutcher or as gnomish and remote as Ralph Fiennes, Francesca’s ex-partner of something like a decade?

So you post a few pages of this story on your website, refreshed by stretching your imagination for a psychological high-wire act. But then in the comments section beneath your work-in-progress, you find a reader usually well-behaved and cooperative spitting nails. ‘Never!’ says the post. You ask, ‘Why not?’ And the outraged commenter types, ‘Because it’s not a relationship that’s going to go anywhere.’ [my ital.]

Time for me to admit, now, that I’ve borrowed most of that disagreement from real life – specifically, from Alexander McCall Smith‘s riveting piece in The Wall Street Journal of all places, about a fortnight ago. He explained that he’s been publishing a Scottish series of books with a fortysomething heroine and a lover fourteen years her junior – ‘considerably younger,’ he said. He got into the argument with a reader making the case for undefeatable gravity at a book signing in Australia. He told her that he thought that the romance ‘was going rather well.’

Again my reader lost no time in replying. “No, it isn’t,” she said emphatically.

That was me put in my place. After all, I was merely the author. As it happens, Isabel’s relationship with Jamie had not been my idea in the first place, but had come about because at an earlier stage in the series I came under attack from a journalist — another woman — for not allowing Isabel to become romantically involved with Jamie. I had originally intended that their friendship be platonic, but had been told in the course of an interview with this journalist that I really had to allow something closer to develop. “Your readers will expect it,” she said. “And it would be so empowering for them.”

Not one to stand between my readers and their empowerment, I had decided to let Isabel develop a romantic liaison, only to be taken to task later by my Sydney critics for exactly this.

And there you have one reason why I find it so hard to wax enthusiastic about the prospect of collaborative (and) (or) interactive fiction, as I told our Talleyrand of the blogosphere, @BaronCharlus – technically @exitbarnadine, now — on this very site. Writers working alone are already taxed by choosing from such a superabundance of imaginative possibilities – switching from one set to another, reversing themselves, arguing furiously against their own decisions – that some (for instance, John le Carré) notoriously lean heavily on editors to keep their own plots straight. And anyway, how can literary composition and decisions subsequently second-guessed, contorted and distorted by a nearly dialectical process, like the one McCall Smith endured, count as improving anything? Literary quality? Plausibility? Proof of the depth of an author’s understanding of his characters – or of life experience re-imagined or recollected in tranquillity?

Still, this post is actually an admission of defeat, since technological change – I refuse to equate it with progress, in this instance – is apparently pushing us in the direction of shallow literary conception-by-committee, willy-nilly.

The kind of multimedia book-as-Bondmobile recently considered in this space already has a name – a Vook, if the man who coined it is as influential as he hopes to be. He made a fortune in property and has established his own company specialising in the ‘author videos’ to which @Sean Murray has introduced us, and is also reported to have written a thriller all by himself. Here is the New York Times’ description of his Vook vision:

Plenty of authors dream of writing the great American novel.

Bradley Inman wants to create great fiction, dramatic online video and compelling Twitter stream — and then roll them all into a multimedia hybrid that is tailored to the rapidly growing number of digital reading devices.

Collaboration is naturally at the heart of the idea – as in his demonstration of a proto-Vook, built from his own novel, whose title doesn’t trip quite so lightly on tongues as his neologism. For The Right Way to Do Wrong, he

got TurnHere to film two dozen short videos with actors that augment the book’s main mystery.

If I had to settle for giving just one reason why I think that books really are going to be displaced by Vookishness – and sooner than we think – it’s the endemic distractibility, the death of concentration, that the same article mentions:

Even worse, on multipurpose reading devices like the iPhone, more immediately gratifying pastimes like video games are a click away for readers with short attention spans.

And this reasoning also struck me as sound:

“Publishers are going to be confronted with the idea that either the words on the page have to be completely compelling on their own, or they have to figure out a way to create new sorts of subliminal draws in the new medium,” said Sara Nelson, the former editor of Publishers Weekly and a publishing industry consultant.

Ms. Nelson has seen the Vook prototype and says it is intriguing, but the challenge is to avoid feeling gimmicky. “If you are going to put video in a book, it has to flow so naturally into the story that readers don’t even realize they are switching mediums,” she said.

…. Collaboration is seen by many as virtually the nervous system of the digital camels swaying lumpily into view (as in ‘horse designed by committee’), @BaronCharlus will be delighted to see — for instance:

WEBook, a venture-backed start-up in New York, allows people to collaborate on writing books and is working on new ways to let readers give writers real-time feedback on their work.

Perhaps one kind of novel-writing – though in the near future, I expect we’ll say, novel-direction – will simply become a branch of Civics, and we’ll forget that novels were ever about high aesthetics, or certainly inspiration from a single set of viscera. McCall Smith concluded from his experience with his dissenting readers, that

… the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent. . . . Stories … are part of our moral conversation as a society.



Filed under Book publishing, Social trends, The blogosphere, The sound of blogging

On books as Bondmobiles . . . and a translation web site

When books become Bondmobiles, I expect that writers will be trans-textual getaway artists cobbling together scribbles, recorded music, spoken words, . . . moving and still pictures – some of all that newly minted, and the rest borrowed, licensed or filched.

Bondmobiles – who dat? You’ll know exactly what I mean if, like me, you hadn’t grasped the powers of special effects when you gasped, the first time you saw 007’s getaway wheels leave the ground — or dive into water and speed away serenely, just as the baddies close in on the Prince of Suaveness.

But what will scribes of the future escape through technologically assisted shape-shifting? I mean, aside from poverty – if they are lucky, and the audiences for mixed media creations prove larger than for old, purist forms. Perhaps they will evade the years of concentrated effort it takes to get good enough at any one craft – for instance, writing — to justify sacrificing the rest of your life at its altar. Yesterday I saw that early research by one Anders Ericsson and colleagues at a university in Florida suggests that it takes an average of ten years or 10,000 hours of ‘persistent, focused training and experience’ to reach the threshold of ‘world-class expertise in any discipline – music, sports, chess, science . . .’.

What I’m trying to say – the long way around — is that the push from computerised tools towards media scrambling in the arts could well mean that virtually all the great literature there will ever be has already been written. When most works of art are blends of several forms, why should anyone strive to outdo the old masters of any one form?

I recognise this as prejudiced thinking. But there’s no alternative to it since, as some of our youngest (twentysomething) comrades were recently complaining on this site, professional writers have lagged behind other creators in investigating the possibilities of mixed media. That means that there is hardly any basis for comparison. Some bloggers are heavy users of graphics and sound clips, but I’ve yet to see an established, serious, literary writer with a site like that – posting long-ish texts up to his or her mark.

I’d suggest two reasons for this:

The fear of artistry interruptus – losing the seductive powers of unified form, development and close attention.

In an essay I’ve posted in another part of this site, Robert Frost mentions ‘the figure a poem makes’. Works in all the art forms we’re used to have a shape and a progression – which are present even when deliberately subverted, so that our brains reflexively reassemble one of Picasso’s beauties with an eyeball in her cheek and luscious lips in an ear lobe to give us a fair idea of what his model looked like, in life.

‘No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place,’ Frost said of the shape of a poem, in one of the most beautiful sentences ever written. A poem ‘assumes direction with the first line laid down . . . has denouement . . . has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood … ’.

As for poetry, so for other kinds of literature. Wouldn’t bloggers who have posted literary fiction on the net want us readers to be utterly absorbed by the structures they have chosen for those stories or novels – whether loose or tight, classic, modernist or post-modernist? Some of these dear comrades have been complaining about writers not incorporating at the very least, music, into their works.

But if music or, say, striking images were spliced into texts, wouldn’t that steal both attention and the tension of their unfolding – and in the end, amount to the artistic equivalent of coitus interruptus? . . . It’s different with, for instance, cinema, which has always been a more diffuse and inclusive medium, blending elements of theatre, painting, sculpture, music and literature — at least, for the lifespan of anyone blogging here. Looking backwards at early mixed-media objects, I can’t think of any part of the text of an illuminated manuscript that a language-lover would quote with as much pleasure as, say, ‘Consider the lilies of the field,’ from a book not intended to share creative effort or concentration with pictures.

The lack of a ‘killer-app’ for the textual revolution – so far.

. . . for instance, microwave ovens – the accidental discovery of an engineer working with radar in the 1940s – never took off as substitutes for conventional ovens, for most people. These gadgets only found customers when presented as accelerated reheaters and defrosters of food, the ‘killer applications’ of this particular invention.

I’m guessing that media scrambling by writers won’t happen in any significant way until it meets a vital need that has so far gone unmet, or has yet to be invented . . . I’m thinking, for instance, of a scaling-up of a relatively trivial proposition I posted almost exactly two years ago. It was in a discussion of translating Don Quixote, on another site – and I was suggesting a way of making the literary heirlooms of other cultures less impenetrable, and of giving foreigners deeper insight into what makes them great.

I reposted those thoughts a few days later on a blog about digital publishing on the same site by Chris Meade, the head of an organisation — Bookfutures— that has been using public funds to look into what comes after print. He liked the idea well enough to come below the line to suggest getting in touch with him to discuss it in detail. I’m pasting in some of the original posts below, and putting a more complete record of our conversation about multimedia translation in the Long Posts section of this site.

Everyone who hates the idea will please spell out exactly why, being as insulting as you like. If it’s a flightless bird, I’d like to know that as soon as possible and free the mental patch it’s been occupying for other (far madder) uses.

03 Mar 07, 11:57am


Maybe it is enjoyable for me because I am reading it in Portuguese translation (he’s pronounced key-SHO-chee in Brazilian Portuguese – I hear much 16th/17th-century Castilian pronunciation is closer to Portuguese than modern Spanish) as my limited Spanish would make it too laborious. Perhaps the humour, historical assumptions and other bases for the humour, the funny turns of phrase etc aren’t as e asily translatable in English as into languages closer to Castilian.

[. . .]

07 Mar 07, 6:28pm

[…] The passion of a reader much closer than I am to the original language of a book could make up for the chief annoyance of translations, not being able to hear the language and harmonies (or dissonance) that the author chose. . . [W]ouldn’t it be wonderful if each of the great classics could have its own web site, with experts or lovers of the original language on hand to answer questions and help foreigners struggling with uninspired and stodgy renderings into their mother tongues? To cheer that foreign reader through longueurs – if only with an excellent chat?

The site I have in mind would also make it possible to highlight a passage, and then listen to a beautiful reading of it in the original, to get the kind of feeling for the language that bypasses a literal understanding of it. It’s already possible to do this at the movies, when you can stop reading the subtitles in, say, a film by Almodovar (surely another Spanish artist indebted to Cervantes, as maybe Dali was, too) and just listen for a while.

07 Mar 07, 7:16pm

It’s a good idea wordnerd. Some works really lend themselves to that kind of treatment. Some kind of English site with a direct per-chapter linkage to the Spanish site could be a starter. [. . .]

. . . I didn’t take Chris Meade up on his invitation. Government-funded organisations tend to substitute endless meetings and white paper-drafting for action – and I like to move fast (as some of us did in a a flash blogging experiment organised by @ISA a few weeks ago). Yes, another kind of prejudice, I’ll admit. The explosively irate reaction of a few fellow-bloggers to Meade and his blog (see Long Posts) didn’t help matters.

But there you have it: one miniature case study of the obstacles to textual or indeed any other kind of innovation – an example of a low-grade Bondmobile blueprint that found some support but still got nowhere.

. . . It’s not hard to imagine laughing at myself, some day, for the reservations I’ve expressed about artistic hybrids replacing _all_ today’s pure forms – not just supplementing them, as in a captivating YouTube video I recently mentioned. Just as I smiled at reading, the other day, about Samuel Beckett’s disgust with a venerable media hybrid in which it takes effort for the rest of us to perceive aesthetic miscegenation. ‘It is precisely because music has a subordinate part in it that ballet annoys me,’ he said. ‘For serious music cannot be of use.’

The 20th century’s greatest playwright was being a grump: No one can really hold that the medium should be static and stand still in one place.


Filed under Book publishing, Music and words, Poetry, The blogosphere, The sound of blogging

Adding sound to fury, signifying everything . . . ahem

Americans like to make a fuss about a writer’s ‘voice,’ or distinctive style of writing. Well, let’s say that I think the locution is more popular in North America than anywhere else — and I could be mistaken.

What interests me is speaking voices – not just the way they can sound exactly as you’d expect, after reading someone’s words, but for being, in my experience, far more revealing about the essential who-ness of someone than looks, facial expressions or certainly, accents.

For all sorts of reasons, I’ve often had to make instant decisions about trusting strangers in risky circumstances. Thinking about this one day, it occurred to me that the cases in which I’d guessed right and wrong about trustworthiness naturally sorted themselves into classes to which voices were a pretty good – if not infallible – guide. Had I paid closer attention to them, I might have made fewer mistakes. . . .This is of course a thoroughly unscientific suspicion and not for five seconds do I expect anyone else to take it seriously.

I only mention it to explain why it was such a particular treat to find the recording I’m going to try and upload here for a four-minute diversion for any night-owl — or lark — checking in: 02-now-is-the-winter-of-our-discontent-8t1

What I’ve most longed to know about some of you comrades is not what you look like but how you sound. So. . . 3p4/drop-in-bucket/Nicholas, you’re a prince among bloggers for giving me permission to use this audio clip. Everyone else: see if you could compete with ‘enry ‘iggins – not as a ‘ ‘tec, tekkin’ me down,’ as Eliza Doolittle put it, but for guessing about our comrade’s provenance, occupation, . . . or anything else that interests you. I won’t be able to confirm your accuracy, and don’t know if 3p4 will – but if his delightfully unexpected entertainment makes you chuckle, as it did me, you might prefer to interrogate him about that.


Filed under The sound of blogging