The Art of Digital Storytelling

Leave the e-readers to Madison Avenue and their computer geeks. It’s time to start playing with the prose.

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In a world  where new technology launches regularly make the news—and a development at Apple practically creates a news blackout—perhaps it’s no surprise that speculation about the future of books has been reduced to a dull faceoff between bound pages and “reading devices” like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. For many of us, framing a discussion about literature’s future around which gadget is cheapest, or most compact, or enjoys the longest battery life is as uninspiring as it is unimaginative.

If mainstream cultural commentators were talking about the projects I see covered in the alternative sources circulating through the Utne Reader library, however, devotees of print would perk right up: There are a number of start-ups that have the potential to turn conventional, commercial publishing upside down; free initiatives that dish up riveting prose in bite-size nuggets; and literary communities forming around the art (not the business) of storytelling. None of these models are out to replace ink and paper outright, nor do they rely on expensive devices whose rapid obsolescence is all but guaranteed. They’re simply designed to foster clear, compelling communication.

 

One of the most promising trends in digital delivery is a move toward building community around stories, including new ways to conceive of reading and writing as a social experience. One hyper-participatory reading project being explored by the Institute for the Future of the Book (IF) is discussed with contagious enthusiasm in Humanities magazine (July-Aug. 2009). Founded by Bob Stein, who launched the CD-ROM pioneering Voyager Company in 1984, IF is focused on an open-source tool called CommentPress, which allows users to make notes in the digital margins of a book or essay, as well as engage in discussions with other readers.

 You can peek at version 1.1 of Gamer Theory, a CommentPress-enabled “networked book” by McKenzie Wark, professor of media studies at New York’s Eugene Lang College, on IF’s website (www.futureofthebook.org). Wark teamed up with IF in 2006 to create a portal for his work in progress about gamers and gaming. Visitors tagged typographical errors, questioned citations, and expressed respectful differences of opinion and what appear, to my non-gamer’s eye, to be fundamental philosophical differences. “If we really disliked the inconsistency of real life,” writes one commenter alongside the second chapter, “gamers wouldn’t constantly be thirsting after more complex game engines that throw tricks like wind and other types of chaos into the fray.”

“But a game engine is still a game engine,” Wark responds the next day. “It’s not chaos.”

The final hardcover edition of Gamer Theory, published in 2007 by Harvard University Press, includes changes that Wark made based on some of the CommentPress feedback. The book also incorporates some of the back-and-forth, including a nostalgic reflection on CB radio and a cogent note from “Lucy Cade” about competitiveness and materialism in the gaming world: “Interesting how in many games (multiplayer ones in particular) we create real world inequalities. There are top ranks in the game world, ways of knowing that ‘we’ are better than ‘them,’ people strive to obtain armor or money (or anything else that = status or power) leading some people to complain that their game has become like a job.” 

The idea that readers might actually influence a book for the better could really shake up the publishing world, where companies big and small have traditionally kept audiences out of the loop until the presses roll. Richard Nash, a veteran of the industry who recently left his position at the helm of Soft Skull Press, is aiming to change that by building a model in which reader feedback and social networking are built in. With his new project, Cursor, Nash aims to avoid making risky, not to mention expensive, guesses about people’s interests and enthusiasms. Books published by Cursor’s imprints will be largely community-generated; members of Red Lemonade, a “pop-lit-alt-cult operation,” and charmQuark, for sci-fi and fantasy writers and fans, will weigh in on proposed manuscripts and share their own work with one another.

Several communities are already thriving at BookGlutton, a website that catalogs an expanding collection of cleanly designed digitized books that appear alongside a simple live-chat function, which can be turned off for those who prefer a more solitary, immersive experience. The site also hosts a number of self-convened special interest groups, such as Armchair Travel, Modernist Women, Stumbling Funsters, and Loser Fic Lovers, “for those of us who love those pathetic losers, the bunglers who just never seem to get it right.” BookGlutton is also popular as an interactive discussion forum for high school literature classes.

Readers are clearly interested in the social potential of stories, something that’s certainly not furthered by the existence of $200-plus devices that do only one thing—download and display e-books. That’s why a new project from Dan Sinker, former editor of the late, lamented indie rag Punk Planet, provides “a daily dose of awesome stories” on devices people already own and use for many other tasks: their cell phones.

CellStories, which launched in September, posts one short story or essay each day; at around 1,500 words, they can usually be read before the end of a short commute or a hot cup of coffee. Sinker has partnered with indie publishers, literary journals, and online lit sites that channel works to him, including New York–based Akashic Books, Barrelhouse magazine, and 2nd Story, a performance-oriented group that throws a weekly dose of nonfiction into the mix.

“I love short stories. I love magazine-length articles,” Sinker tells Chicago Reader (July 9, 2009). “That stuff doesn’t have a home right now. Talk to any publisher and ask how his short-story collections sell, and they sell poorly. Magazines have less and less place for long narrative pieces. They like lists.”

I’ve been reading CellStories on borrowed iPhones and have found the daily dispatches to be just the right length for the current limitations of the computer screen. By the time you get to the end, where there’s a short preview of the story that will await you the following morning, you’re both happy to move on and excited for the next installment.

Even shorter stories are hitting iPhones via the small Chicago publishing house Featherproof Books, which curates “short shorts” of no more than 333 words, which fit snugly onto three iPhone screens. The best of these can, like any great work of flash fiction, be pretty dazzling; and the unexceptional bits are usually worth the few minutes they take to digest. Featherproof also has a number of “mini-books” available for free download on its website (www.featherproof.com), with handy and adorably illustrated instructions for how to print and assemble these tiny works of literature.

Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, the husband-and-wife writer/illustrator team behind Maryland-based Idiots’ Books, are experimenting with a narrative device inspired by an old Cracker Jack prize. These stories require assembly. Called “one-page wonders,” they require you to cut and fold and refold a sheet of paper printed on both sides to generate all kinds of alternative plot paths and conclusions. A story called “The Plight of the Emerging Writer,” featured in the August issue of Urbanite, was a bit of work to put together, but it was worth it to see the protagonist both hit the jackpot with “an outrageous royalty check” and feel the burn of “27 rejection slips.”

As online communities, cell phones, and DIY stories proliferate, there will almost certainly be fewer books on our shelves, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More than 275,000 new titles and editions were published last year, including, I’d wager, more than a few that would have been better at magazine length or in the transom of the blog whence they came. What’s encouraging is that all of these digitally driven projects, and the many others that are fermenting out there, seem aimed at producing weightier stories, more engaged readers, and, in many cases, better print. And that’s a lot more exciting than waiting for the next best contraption.

 

Danielle Maestretti is the Utne Reader librarian. She manages the magazine’s library of 1,300 alternative periodicals, including magazines, journals, alt weeklies, and zines. Send her an indie-press tip at dmaestretti@utne.com.