Binary Code

Towards a 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 multimedia novel.

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 - that’s 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 I’m writing a novel I feel I’m 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 I’ve 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 didn’t 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 don’t have to listen to collaborators saying ‘you can’t 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 can’t 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 headphones on.

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 teller’s 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.

I’m 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 short story.

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 didn’t 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. It’s being written primarily for print but now for the first time I’m 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. I’ve recorded ambient sounds and piano music, and taken photos that will be used as part of the multimedia work.

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 haven’t 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 ‘i’s’:

  • Immediacy
  • Imagination
  • involvement
  • interactivity

And it revolves around the four ‘p’s:

  • Poetry
  • possibility
  • potency
  • playfulness

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.

Antoni Jach 1997