English 693 – Conference Paper
Professor Charles Baldwin
August 4 2010
In the recent years, I have noticed a current trend in the way artists create websites to help build a repertoire with their followers, and these websites often seem to be a curtain drawn between the artist and viewer by means of selective input of information. The viewer does not always get a sense of the artist’s true self due to the layer of digital anonymity or electric façade that they can hide behind while maintaining a sense of authority or purpose. Websites do not have to be so limited in terms of viewer access; in fact, websites could be the opposite as a complete artist exposure by an overload of information. In terms of the writer, the website could be a full forum of exploration and creativity. In the 21st Century, authors have great opportunities for reinventing/conceptualizing the book that is outside standard print form and binding. The digital age will allow for authors to create a new kind of artist’s book through the creation of websites, and these websites will provide tools for rethinking the way in which a writer “publishes” or completes a work. After the author obtains a domain name and builds the website to the authors liking, then the author can start creating either the archive or book (or archive-book).
The archive-book may look a little like this: the initial homepage for easy navigation, tabs that may direct the viewer to different parts of the site (a book title, short stories, poems, essays, art, etc.) and with that the viewer can now have access to what the author presents for them. Say there is a “stories” tab that a viewer clicks on that directs them to a list of stories by the author (either previously published via lit mag or journal or self-published via the website), and the viewer will select a story of their liking. Here is where new possibilities form: there could be the text document of the story in its published state, revisions leading up to the most recent version, photocopied hand written drafts, audio bytes or video of the author (or someone) reading the story (or representing the story in some way), drawings/photographs making visual representations of the story, or even poems and essays that relate/link to the story. Hyperlinks inside the tabs themselves could redirect the viewer to other websites that could be helpful to the viewer in understanding the full scope of the work. In doing this, the author will create the world of the story itself, a world that is expansive, revisable, and creative as far as the author takes the site. If the author would like to create a comment function, the viewers could blog, present new work of their own or others, or merely add to the interactive experience of website writing. This goes beyond websites for publicity (say a newsfeed of lists of next readings, photographs from tours, pushing the new up and coming books, or even just a place for the author to make statements), the website writing would be a book in itself that is a place for archiving, creating new work, and giving the viewers a broader sense of who the author is as a person (if publicity came to mind it all it would be an afterthought).
I have yet to come across a current author website that is applicable to the process of an artist’s book, and more often than not, the websites are not even created by the author (rather someone who creates a website for public relations). Those few authors who create websites for themselves are still missing out on a great opportunity here for 21st Century writing, and I want to explore a few examples to help figure out exactly why they are not working to their full potential. Digital author Mark Amerika has a website (http://www.altx.com/amerika.online/) where the homepage is a simple white background, a picture of the author, a link to a brief author bio, and links to forty or more works by Amerika (with links in the articles themselves to redirect to other articles). The author offers a sound inside look at several articles that could help an audience understand a little better the Mark Amerika that they are examining through navigating the homepage. He does not take the next step for this website for it is merely a text site, somewhat crudely developed, without any other extra material except what Amerika wrote in essay form. There is still a digital façade in place, since Amerika does not reveal anymore than polished drafts of what he has written. There is no room for excess or vulnerability, no comment function for outside input, and no sense of author as person (more of author as author).
British author Jeanette Winterson has a very detailed website (http://www.jeanettewinterson.co.uk/) which includes a homepage with newsfeeds, previously published (and polished) short stories, a list of her books plus synopses/excerpts, columns, poetry (by other poets), and a section entitled: Digital. Digital offers videos of readings, audio readings, and a few animations created for her book The.powerbook which deals with characters inside and outside the digital world. The website also has tabs for a café she owns: Verde’s, a place to buy her books, a mailing list, and also a message board (for people to post and make comments). Winterson’s website is getting more to the point: it is excessive, full of stories and journalism, audio/visuals, and about anything one would want to know about this author (author as author). This deals with some of the key elements on how author websites can be a valuable tool in form of writing, but it still lacks a feel key points in what I am proposing. First off, all the stories and excerpts are very polished and previously published, no prior drafts to show the process that she went through to get at the final product. Winterson merely shows products that are not going to be changed or revised in any way, and everything presented to an audience is very rigid in terms of how the audience sees of the author. If the author reveals something about herself, it is only in
terms of what she wants the audience to know (leading back to the digital façade authors create). I have presented a rudimentary website and a very established website, and I wish to show more but due to time constraint these are the only two examples I will have time to give.
“The Book As Machine”
In thinking of digital writing/website writing, I must first establish the mechanics of the printed text. McCaffery and Nichol examine in the “The Book As Machine” the print text form of the book and how the book itself is “machinelike” in purpose by its “capacity and method for sorting information by arresting, in the relatively immutable form of the printed word, the flow of speech conveying that information.” The viewer in fact activates the machine by participating in its primary function of opening the page and reading the “lateral flow of the line, the vertical or columnar build-up of the lines on the page, and thirdly a linear movement organized through depth (the sequential arrangement of pages upon pages” (18). In the print form, books still act as a mechanized process in form of a storage unit for words and ideas. McCaffery and Nichol offer up different types of books: such as dictionaries and encyclopedias that are not meant to be read as whole, rather used as a means of navigating and finding the needed information. Dictionaries and encyclopedias are the true sense of a storage unit due to the fact that their main purpose is to store information rather than to read it chronologically (though this is also an option though not always pragmatic). A novel or a collection of essays, stories, poems; etc. tend to serve a different function. Though, one may still skip around, skim, find particular selections of their liking, there is a more active reading process that the book (via the printers) have already established through a primary mode of reading: top to bottom, from left to right, usually left aligned print with hyphenated syllables of words that do not fit the line (speaking more specifically of printing in the U.S.). Even poems that do not follow conventional form and may skew lines, break lines down, visually represent words by changing the structure and shape of the poem; etc. there is still a structure in which the reader reads the work (if not via the printer, via the author). The book is a machine by being structurally coherent, most of the time chronologically representative (i.e. the pages usually line up in order), and the work is usually broken up into smaller sections, chapters, titles, or subheadings. The books structure on the page is what holds the book together, not the page itself or the binding, rather than the idea of structure.
There is also an internal process outside the actual book that takes place through the “physical art using multiple senses: the body as a whole equals or sometimes replaces the voice in performance art, and even silent readers turn pages, move their heads, their eyes, the roots of their tongues if not their tongues and lips, and so forth.” This creates a “kinesthetic link between sight, sound, and speech is mirrored by an inner speech, inner sight, and inner sound” (Young 25). The physical act of reading is as participatory as the structure of the written work itself, and the fact that reading in itself is a performance, than the book also functions as a machine in this way that the book is completely usable: inside and out, mind and body.
According to Bernstein, technological advances have helped shape and change the way language and culture works within the world, and the biggest modern technological change “in the last two decades, digital writing and imaging (via computer, the Internet, and the Web). Writing in this age of photographic and electronic reproduction is fundamentally postalphabetic in that it no longer relies on scripts to store and transmit information: cultural memory is becoming digital, more image than letter… we are now living in a period of overlaid oral, alphabetic, and photo/electronic culture” (512). The new age of digital writing is evolving into and becoming infinitely more complex, and this evolution is helping to create that adage: out with the old, in with the new, at an alarming rate. Community no longer has to mean physical communities that one has to belong or live in, yet community can also specify a digital one, one that is based in the chat rooms, blogs, social networking cites, and online video games. This leap into the digital world has also changed the writing communities, and these new online communities can meet in a viral space where they can share and work on writing, send messages to one another, text or video chat, and keep open lines of communication when it comes to writing. The digital writing world can now be instantaneous file sharing where working on a writing project with someone on the other side of the country (or the world) can be as easy as having a computer and creativity. In this rapidly changing culture due to technological advancements, website writing may be one possible outcome for the future of litearture.
A Map of the Future, or the Machine as Book
The concept of “book as machine” is taken quite literary when examining website writing, and the machine/structure here is also very present, except there is a new definition to be added: the machine as book. The reading process can still be the same: left to write, top to bottom, and chronologically established. All of this similar except now there is not a physical page to turn, rather using the mouse, touch pad, or touch screen to scroll up and down. In fact, there is no page at all, just the computer screen that can move and shift in a virtual space that represents a page. The text becomes less horizontal and more vertical, less left to right and more up and down when it comes to scrolling or highlighting with the mouse cursor. Skimming for particular passages becomes a process of Control F, where the find function can seek out certain words or headings for the viewer. The website becomes a digital archive of the work where it is less about turning the page and more about unfolding the website, like origami structures, the website unfolds and folds through tabs and links. As writer as creator of the website, one must establish the navigational pattern that viewers will use to gain full access to the work presented. Like I stated before, a home page is paramount in setting up the catalyst in which readers will further explore. From the homepage, the viewer should be able to navigate the site through a tab system (unfolding and folding) to where the viewer can flow through the website in a more three dimensional way, and this viewing process makes the website similar to the dictionary/encyclopedia as a storage unit but also can be read like a book. Unlike a book, the website is multi-faceted in the fact that it brings in several forms of text and digital media together to become a hyper-being hybrid of book and website, and this hybridity is the link between the ancient form of the written text (from scrolls to hardback) and the new digital age.
The online community is often vast and infinitely diverse, and using websites as books offers a chance to build an online literary community through the exchange and presentation of work. This online community is a more recent development over the last several decades and “a practice of viewing, sampling, playing, participating, decoding, and receiving among communicative peers is being developed. These peers are not equally powerful. Earlier rhetoric about literary hypertext inappropriately suggested an equivalence or interchangeability of reader and writer.” This new online community depends on the technology itself to allow access for a viral space for the community and “it is rather the case that at least three agents (writer-coder, machine processor-network, player-reader) hold veto power over communication. Unless all are engaged, nothing is happening” (Strickland par 19). The way in which the online community interacts with online literature (whether that is through networking sites, blogs, or websites) is an ever expanding community. The digital boom brought computers into the Kindergarten classrooms making young children computer literate almost as quickly as reading literate. These two types of literacies are required to become a part of the online community (as well as a computer and internet access), and the digital boom practically gave anyone with a formal education in the last twenty years a computer literacy. Many people who enjoy reading literature sometimes dabble in writing, and the website writing allows a space for amateurish writing via message boards, comment/blog posts, or even a separate tab on the website itself for “community writing.” The “player-reader” has a stake in the website in that they are a part of the websites growth and development, and though website writing is not a social network per se (though this could be the next evolutionary step) the website still holds a significant purpose of both writer and reader (yet here, community is more secondary than primary). A possible scenario: someone who is a part of literature based community (say a professor at university or grad student) takes a major part in the physical community of writing and reading, and when that person goes home, they could bring that community into the digital world. Experience can become both personal and global, and author websites can be a great digital space for this to happen. There are many more nuances for community in the online world, and I do not have enough time to map out the full spectrum of the online community—that may be a topic for another conference.
Website writing offers a chance for participating in writing in the digital world and “the electronic medium is not only a publishing and distribution means, but as a technology, enters the material of writing. What writing is becomes altered by how it is physically written through its production technology, its files, codes and URL” and “as a writing medium, online electronic space depends on the fact that the Web is itself an instance of writing. Not only do web pages contain writing but these pages are presented through the medium of the home page and are themselves written in HTML” (Glazier par 11). I recommended certain ways to build this website, one of which was to present multiple revisions up to the most recent—this being a representation of progress which is important to all writers. Not many writers are done with one draft, whether it is an essay, chapter, story, or poem, the process of a writer is just as important, if not more important, than the writer’s product. Current modes of publishing leaves little to be desired as a means of process (rather it is mostly final product or a close approximation to a final product), whereas website writing is not so limited. The author does not have to go through publishing means to present new or old material. The “web itself is an instance of writing” can be utilized to full potential here by what is included, and I did say that the viewer will get a better sense of the author by an overload of information and presentations. The inclusions of photocopied handwritten drafts, rough drafts or outlines of work, and new representations of work all allow the web to be a new form of writing that goes beyond the personal and into the global online world. This overload of work gives the viewer/reader a true sense of the author because they can map the writer’s work through its roughest to polished or most vulnerable to secure, and this stripped down version of the author is important for the development of the writing. The fact that audio/video/visual can be added allows the author to have more creative freedom as far as how the work is viewed by the public, rather than letting the publishers take over how the book will look in text form and the visual cover. Website writing is a freeing process for the unpublished or published writer, for it is a virtual space that is controlled by the writer/creator of the site.
Unfolding the Electric Map
There are many difficulties working with an imagined space, and I am still not sure of all the outcomes of website writing. The proposal of a social networking site for writers may be more practical in terms of praxis and digital communities, yet website writing does offer unique abilities for an author to work outside the reach of the publishing house. It is an utopian idea where the author has free reign of audio/visual concepts for the work and where the process is deemed more honorable than product. It is the space for writers to think outside of their own text and wish to represent their work from numerous art mediums. More importantly, it is a space to grow as an artist; a digital garden to plant seeds and watch them grow and take shape—a place for others to help to feed and water the work through input of revisions. Ultimately, it is a viral space that all artists should consider investing.
Bernstein, Charles. “The Art of Immemorability”. A Book of the Book. Steven Clay and Jerome
Rothenberg, Eds. New York City: Granary Books, 2000. 504 – 518
Glazier, Loss Pequeño. “Language as Transmission: Poetry’s Electronic Presence”.
Digital Poetics. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001. http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/glazier/dp/intro1.html
McCaffery, Steve and bpNichol. “The Book as Machine”. A Book of the Book. Steven Clay and
Jerome Rothenberg, Eds. New York City: Granary Books, 2000. 504 – 518
Strickland, Stephanie. “Writing the Virtual: Eleven Dimensions of E-Poetry”. Leonardo On-line.
MIT Press, 2006. http://leoalmanac.org/journal/vol_14/lea_v14_n05-06/sstrickland.html
Young, Karl. “Notation and the Art of Reading”. A Book of the Book. Steven Clay and Jerome
Rothenberg, Eds. New York City: Granary Books, 2000. 504 – 518