Future for the Novel
Two epigraphs to begin, both from Alain Robbe-Grillet:
(1) "It hardly seems reasonable at first glance to suppose that an entirely new
literature might one day - now for instance - be possible."
(2) "The stammering newborn work will always be regarded as a monster, even by
those who find experiment fascinating"
The new literature Robbe-Grillet was referring to in 1956 may become in the next ten
years a literature which Alain Robbe-Grillet would probably not have envisaged forty-one
years ago. It is a literature made possible by the advent of a new delivery platform for
the novel, which in five to ten years may be ready to sit beside time-honoured delivery
mechanisms such as print and the human voice.
At the moment there is the possibility to listen to a novel read to you, to read one
yourself in print format, to see a film of a novel or, if you have access to the
appropriate technology, to investigate what I call prototypes of the future
Even though such works on CD-ROM such as Puppet Motel by Laurie Anderson, Freak
Show and Bad Day on the Midway by The Residents were not created as multimedia
literature they still point the way for possible future developments in multimedia
narrative in general and for the multimedia novel in particular.
Throughout this talk this morning, my focus will be on multimedia for fixed media -
such as CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs - rather than for the Internet. The print novel, of course,
is still magnificent in its potential to express something of the complexities and
subtleties of what it means to be human. And in the hands of a few writers who are still
interested in literary fiction, rather than popular fiction or general fiction, the print
novel is still capable of revealing a complex world of shifting realities; it is still
capable of telling us about ourselves and others, forcing us to reflect upon how we
inter-act with people and the world at large.
Words placed one after another in a particular sequence - thats all a printed
novel is made of. One of the strengths of the printed novel is in the simplicity of its
building blocks and yet how difficult is the task to get the words in the right order. And
which are the right words to shepherd into line in the first place? Out of the dross of
worn-out, overused language can come gold - as in the Rumplestiltskin tale. But this time
with the writer as the weaver, and the straw of neurosis, disappointment, lack and loss,
of half-heard tale, of being in the wrong place at the right time...all being laboriously
spun into story.
But words have to do all the work. Sometimes when Im writing a novel I feel
Im drowning in words. When I sit down to write a novel - I am currently working on
my fourth - I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of words that I need to write to
tell my tale. My last published novel, The Weekly Card Game, was 84,000 words in
length. Those words have to do all the work. They have to carry all the weight for the
impact, for the effectiveness of the novel.
Recently Ive been saying to myself if only I could let those words off the hook.
Let them take a breather. Replace some of those over-burdened, pre-loved words with sounds
- with street sounds, with cafe sounds, with piano music, with cello music, with sounds of
the supermarket. And then again replace some more of those shop-soiled words with images,
either banal or exquisite as is appropriate. And make the whole a thought-provoking yet
sensual novel. Not a multimedia game, not an "immersive environment," not
multimedia art but a multimedia novel. A work which uses multimedia - text, image, sound
and interactivity in a digital environment - to tell a story readers of the literary novel
would recognise as a novel.
Partly I recognise my writing of a multimedia novel as a delicious way to
spend time creating images and manipulating sound rather than writing words, but the
overall impetus is for narrative purposes.
Before the advent of digital media I would ask myself how could I let words off the
hook. By moving into scriptwriting? You have to deal with too many people. In theatre?
When I wrote plays everyone in the cast and crew wanted to change the words. The sound
operator wanted to have her say, the actors didnt feel comfortable with what they
were saying. They had their own suggestions for dialogue. Everyone wanted to use their own
words: I wanted them to use mine. Theatre, cinema and opera are collaborative artforms.
The beauty of the novel, at least in the writing phase, is the solitariness. The absence
of a collaborator and the absence of the thought that this sequence is unfilmable,
unstageable. ("No one will ever find the money to do that!) And one of the
attractions for me of the multimedia novel is that I can create and manipulate the sound
and images without assistance from other collaborators. I dont have to listen to
collaborators saying you cant do that or why would you want to do
that! When I was writing librettos for opera I was always pulling in one direction
with my libretto while the composer would be pulling in another direction.
But to get back to novel-writing... The other problem with writing a novel - apart from
all those words - is putting sections in an order. Why cant all those sections be
more free-floating? In this part of the novel, say, everything happens simultaneously, why
do I then have to choose a sequence for a reader? Many other orderings are possible. But
of course in a printed book, pages are numbered and one section precedes another so you do
have to impose a sequence. But the possibility for the multimedia novelist is the promise
of an escape from say 84,000 words and an escape from an over-determined linear order.
There is the possibility of simultaneity of sound, text and image rather than being
confined to the sequentiality of printed words.
But of course to gain things you have to give up other things. To gain sound and image
you give up the quietude of the printed novel and its advantages of portability. The novel
is the perfect vehicle for the expression of thought. Not only rational thought but
drunken, poetic messy thought.
The novel is the perfect vehicle to bring characters on and off an imaginary stage and
let them parade around the grandeur and the misery of the human condition.
One of the first CD-ROMs I saw that opened my eyes to the narrative possibilities of
the form was Puppet Motel by Laurie Anderson. What caught my attention as a
novelist was its poetic image-making, its rich soundtrack and its delight in
non-linearity. It has the logic of a dreamworld. It needs to be seen/read in darkness with
Also what caught my eye was the return of the oral storyteller: the storyteller
appears, virtually, to tell her story. In this there is a circular return to the origins
of storytelling: a person and a voice but this time with an electronic facilitator. The
printed book got around the problem of how to disseminate the story without the presence
of the author or his/her representatives but created at the same time a new orthodoxy.
Some ways of storytelling are better suited to the print form than others. It suits a
linear development with a beginning middle and an end. It suits considered exposition. The
oral tellers advantages of immediacy, ability to perform, ability to interact with
an audience, ability to modify the story to suit an audience were no longer desirable
attributes in a storyteller who would work via the medium of print.
My personal interest in multimedia stems from my background in writing novels, poetry,
plays, librettos and stories for children; it also stems from my experiments in mucking
around with painting, photography, collage and the composition of music and random sounds.
Im currently interested in translation: from print into multimedia. I used to
translate French poets such as Baudelaire, Eluard and Apollinaire into English. I was
always aiming for the breath of the poet in my translation, and I wanted the
poems to sound French while being in English. (I actually hate translations that sound
like they were written in English in the first place.) But now my translations are of a
different sort. I started off a couple of years ago translating a series of interlinked
short stories about Melbourne which I had written into a hypertext of those short stories
using software called Storyspace.
I should explain that the hypertext strategy I was employing involved having each
paragraph of each story branch between 3 to 8 ways both within and outside of the original
What I enjoyed was the frisson of stories leaking into other stories, the
frisson of sentences written for one story ending up beside sentences written for another
story. Most of the stories are fairly modernist stories anyway and they evolved into a
linked sequence of stories, but suddenly the individual stories didnt have to stay
separate they could wade, wander and entwine themselves around other like-minded stories.
That hypertext project has been abandoned incomplete because something else caught my
eye: multimedia authoring software from Macromedia called Director. This is what I
had been looking for: sound, still image, moving image and text all together at the same
time. I was starting a new print novel, the one I am working on at the moment, a sequel to
The Weekly Card Game. Its being written primarily for print but now for the
first time Im writing it from the start with an eye to what the multimedia
translation of the novel will look like, sound like, feel like, read like. Ive
recorded ambient sounds and piano music, and taken photos that will be used as part of the
I want to translate my print novel myself into multimedia, so that paths not taken in
the novel can be explored with both artforms doing what they do best: the print novel
conveying thought within characterisation and the multimedia novel replacing large chunks
of text with sound and image. Like the transformation of a book into a film, some things
are gained while other things are lost in the process. Ricciotto Canudo in 1927 in a book
entitled The Factory of Images called cinema the seventh art. He described cinema
as the fusion of three arts of space - painting, architecture and dance - with three arts
of time - music, theatre and literature. Multimedia, the 8th art, is a fusion
of (1) art of space - photography - with (2) arts of time - music and literature- together
with one art of time and space and light - cinema.
Multimedia grows out of all the other artforms but like cinema seventy or eighty years
ago it is in the process of developing its own aesthetic vocabulary. What starts off
inauspiciously as violent game for teenage boys and databases for serious adults is
developing into an artform in its own right. And like cinema it will have both its
blockbusters and its arthouse classics. Cinema had to wait for the control of the finished
product to move out of the hands of the technicians - the cameramen - into the hands of
directors like Charlie Chaplin for film to advance as an artform. A similar thing has
happened recently in multimedia with the form moving out of the exclusive control of
programmers and into the hands of the creatives (and their producers).
Each artform has its own strengths. A play is most powerful in the interchange of
conversation between two people. Opera toys, coquettishly, with your emotions. Poetry is
magnificent at the perceived, caught moment, the unexpected illumination. Music transports
you into a mood swiftly. The cinema surrounds you with an experience. Painting helps you
to see what you havent noticed before.
Each artform has its own strengths and its corresponding weakneses. The artforms need
not replace each other but rather add to one another - making up in one aspect for what
another artform lacks.
To be an artform rather than merely functional an artform needs its own aesthetic
language, which multimedia is in the process of developing. An advantage of this point in
time in terms of multimedia is that we can have a say in the development of that aesthetic
vocabulary. The aesthetic vocabulary of multimedia revolves around the four
And it revolves around the four ps:
Interactivity - both choice, and the illusion of choice - sets multimedia apart from
cinema; that and the fact that multimedia is one to one rather than the communal
experience of one to many. At the heart of multimedia narratives will be storytelling, but
that storytelling will not exclusively be told through the device of text on a printed
page. The future for the novel may in part be a digital future.