Reading into the Future

How the internet can change the way we look at literature in the years to come.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Published: October 6, 2013 4:46 am

How the internet can change the way we look at literature in the years to come.

“Memories curl like smoke… I inhale,but nothing…”

Anonymous post,Sorabji.com,1997

Seven years before Facebook,nine years before Twitter,there was Sorabji.com. The page loaded slowly,inch by inch,to the trilling music and disco lights of the modem to reveal something an age ahead of its time: a status update box. It posed a leading question: “What are you doing?” WAYD,as it came to be known,was a waypoint between bulletin boards,Usenet and IRC,eerily anticipating the social media that we are now steeped in. People from all over used WAYD to announce their existence,profess love for persons unseen,unknown and possibly nonexistent,have hysterics,sing to the electronic void and,by the way,produce bits and bytes of fine literature. Not quite Basho,but funnily deep stuff nevertheless.

For a while in the late Nineties,it looked like the internet would become the petri dish of an all-new culture,and also the carrier wave that would beam it out to an amazed world. The buzz was about convergence,the focus of countless international conferences from Gurgaon to Palo Alto. Convergence meant that your telephone,your computer,your radio set,your TV,your Walkman and your video cassette player could be scrunched up into a single device which was permanently connected with the global reservoir of human creativity. Today,the smartphone in your pocket does it effortlessly. No one talks about convergence any more because it’s as mundane as sliced bread.

At the time,literature was perceived to be poised on the lip of the most disruptive new wave since the Gutenberg revolution,when the ancient oral tradition of song and saga yielded to the infinitely replicable written word,paving the way to the age of the novel. New waves are generally changes in fashion driven by new ways of thinking,seeing and telling,but technological change can alter the very nature of literature. By changing the format and delivery systems,it determines who can write,what they write about and whom they address. Gutenberg had wrested literature from a select priesthood and made it a public good. Being an interactive medium,the internet was expected to produce interactive literature.

Interactivity among writers is an old tradition. The chain story could be as old as human language and the chain novel,with each chapter by a different writer,was a popular diversion in the 20th century. Then there are mosaic novels,in which an imagined world is shared by several authors. The shadow of this tradition fell across the multi-user games of the pre-graphical internet,when there were no images and words had to do all the talking. Today,you see its echo in fanfic. Finally,there was the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse,invented by Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton,among others,which created phrases and images from odds and ends contributed by many.

While these traditions were the fruit of interaction between writers,hyperfiction offered genuine interaction between reader and writer. Hyperfictions were experiments exploring how structure affects function in literature. A “story” consisted of a set of HTML pages heavily cross-linked with each other. You began reading on an index page set by the author but you chose which link on that page to click to continue reading. It was like starting to read a physical book from page one,then jumping to page 120,then to 360,then to 290,then to 542 and looping back to end on page three. At your next reading,the sequence could be one,45,365,11,499,92,93,producing a completely different text. The writer had to ensure that nothing on the tree of possible reader choices led to an unacceptably bizarre place.

Hyperfiction isn’t literature. It’s a mind game. But it is about the most interesting literary artefact incubated by the internet,barring fanfic,which is also a game — a what-if game. What if Poison Ivy lusted after Gollum? What if Batman had a small,bushy tail? Depressingly enough,the biggest publishing phenomenon to develop out of fanfic is the execrably boring Fifty Shades series.

Meanwhile,interactive fiction is still trying to find its voice. Hopeful but tentative beginnings have been audible for a decade-and-a-half,from computer scripts designed to craft spam that’s almost poetry,to epiphanic outbreaks on bulletin boards and sites like Sorabji.com. Internet literature will hit the right note one day,perhaps by accident. And what it sings could be something utterly new. Something as different from modern literature as Neuromancer is from the Nibelungenlied.

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