February 26, 2009
I don't think there's any question the most significant, indisputable driver of innovation is technology. I was just reading about Les Paul and the Les Paul guitar, the pioneering electronic instrument. He also invented multi-track recording for good measure. Up until that point people were simply trying to amplify acoustic guitars. He (and Fender) created the electric guitar, a whole new animal. As he sees it, he had no choice but to invent the tools he needed.
Trying to figure out the Supernovel, sometimes I feel like a tool.
Printing technology pre-dated the book, and the book has had amazing endurance, largely because it works so well as a delivery vehicle for ideas. It still works, but it's no longer the best possible mechanism for some obvious reasons: though great for text and pictures, books are inherently mute and without the ability to support the moving picture (AKA video). Books are a wonderful, versatile wrapper, but inside the wrapper the ingredients are limited. As for delivery, books are inherently finite and local--they are relatively expensive to produce and to ship and even to archive. When books go out of print they go to the hospice and wait to die quietly after a reasonably good life.
Which brings us to the Supernovel.
On the Web text is every bit as viable as in a book but it's only the beginning. The online papyrus accommodates text, sound, photographs, audio, video -- really anything that can be reduced to digital form. Delivery is equally important: the ubiquity of the Web means everyone has worldwide delivery.
Sounds great, doesn't it? But with the Web comes unbelievably difficult problems for anyone who fancies themselves a writer or an artist.
Here's what I mean. The conventions of the book require an obvious organizational structure: words, pages, chapters, with an unwritten agreement between writer and reader that things won't get too confusing. You go from Page 1 to Page Whatever, from Point A to B to C and so on in linear fashion. The story is invariably told from a single point of view (with many exceptions), and you know as a reader exactly when your journey will end. (On the last page.) As writers and readers we are so used to the requirements of books we don't even notice the parameters anymore.
The multimedia Web is the new book--I call this beast the Supernovel for fictional purposes--and with that comes all kinds of confusion. A to B linear is out the window, for starters. Suddenly text is a starting point and not an endgame: hyperlinks mean you can go anywhere, and you can click on photographs or videos or graphics or pretty much anything on the page.
How can you tell a story in that environment?
The old book is not much help but the old rules and conventions are out the window because now you have all the media in every form at your disposal. And you also have the added riddle of the reader-listener-viewer who can read and/or react to what you're doing, with results impossible to predict.
So where does the Supernovel begin...and where will it end?
Start with story, story, story because the Web has already bequeathed us location, location, location. Story, paradoxically, is the easy part that never gets any easier regardless of time, media, method. To have a great story is sublime. That's why it almost never happens. But let's assume a great story for the sake of argument.
How do you tell the story when you have so many tools on the table?
I don't pretend to know but my hunch is that it must be native to the medium. Unlike a book -- one-on-one, author to reader -- the Supernovel is obviously wide open to the wider world on the World Wide Web. So the Supernovel has to begin by encompassing all possibilities -- and the skills (audio, video, photography) they require. But it's a story that can go in any direction in time-space, within any character, place, or event. There's the rub, bub.
So the SN has linear elements but also qualities that brook interruption. There are pieces you can read or see straight through, but that's not automatically required. The story, story, story can also veer dramatically and careen off the more traditional trajectory, without knowing when the story will come back to where you started. Parts of the story can be self-contained, existing in their own standalone container. But the implication for the reader is layering: layer upon layer of nuance and detail whereby the true agenda of the author has to unfold. (And the layering is different from Les Paul's multi-track, because you can't hear-see-watch it all at once.) There has to be a richness there, a sense that there's always more because there always will be. The Supernovel is inherently open-ended and without end.
In text online it's pretty simple -- you jump around the story -- even if you might jump from novel to press release to screenplay to novella. You're still in the world of text and text, even hyper-linked, is not that complicated. If you stick to the spoken story, books on tape, the same rules apply because it's text-driven. Add multiple media and the task becomes immeasurably more complicated. You can still jump around the story, but now you're jumping from text to a picture, from a picture to a fragment, from a YouTube video to a radio broadcast, from a poem to a movie. How can the "reader" not be lost at sea.
I repeat: I don't have the answer but I'm beginning to understand the problem. Maybe multi-tracking of some kind is the answer. One must start somewhere, mustn't one?