Blinkered by books

I like to think I have a broad outlook on the potential of writing and new media. But in speaking with John Weldon, writer, author (Spincycle), academic (Victoria University) and coordinator (Meanland), I realise there is something my research has failed to uncover. I am embarrassed by the oversight. But I’m taken by it too because it shows me that I am conceptually blinkered, that my view of writing and new media is thwarted by the way I consume the printed word. Weldon’s approach has expanded my view, and makes me wonder what else I am missing.

‘The effect of digitisation on narrative and story [is] the idea that it’s no longer confined or contained within the pages of a book,’ he tells me. He’s talking about a comment he attributes to author William Gibson, ‘The text doesn’t stop at the end of the page.’ The comment is the title of a paper Weldon will present at next week’s Independent Publishers Conference. But the phrase is more than that. It has informed Weldon’s approach to storytelling and new media.

When this suite made it into the world most of us couldn’t comprehend the changes it would bring. The innovations in publishing now are simply baby-steps in taking the text beyond the page. Thanks to ouvyt for use of this image under Creative Commons.

‘We can see that books have very much moved beyond the printed page. But most of the digital books are simply… a photocopy of the page,’ says Weldon. He’s keen to see authors and publishers move beyond this linear approach to both reading and writing.

If you’re as blinkered as me by a ‘delineation’ of print and digital you might presume that Weldon is talking about hypermedia. But he’s not.

‘We have to be careful we don’t take it too far beyond the page. Enhanced e-books are often too alienating for the reader. They’re not sure how to interrogate [them]: where to start, whether to watch the picture, listen to the sound or read the text… The actual physical form of the book is integral to the way we read – that’s how we’re used to doing it,’ Weldon says.

It was while working on his recently published novel, Spincycle, that Weldon realised the potential of new media and fiction. He was grappling with problems of perspective and character, ‘but if felt clumsy and forced,’ he says. He came up with the idea of a character writing a blog, ‘which exists in the book and exists in the real, virtual world… [It was] a way for me to do [the] internal monolog, and … a way for readers to actively and actually engage in the conversation that goes on in the book,’ he says. He describes character-voiced blogs as ‘a gentle step’ toward taking fiction beyond the page.

There are two blogs associated with Weldon’s novel, (notetoelf.blogspot.com and hotseat2000.blogspot.com) and these were the pieces missing from my research. Before interviewing Weldon it hadn’t occurred to me that a piece of fiction could diversify in this way, but I’m captured by the idea. As Weldon says, ‘Those readers who don’t want to go beyond the page can have a normal print-novel reading experience and those who want to play a little bit can play a little bit.’

For Weldon, this conversation between author and reader harks back to oral storytelling. ‘When all stories lived without the page, there wasn’t a page. In all the storytelling cultures those lines weren’t as harshly drawn,’ he says. When people tell stories orally the storyteller responds differently to each audience. The audience can comment, heckle and through this, change the form and direction of a narrative. ‘[New media] offers us a chance to play with those things again – where the reader can become author, and the character can become author, and the author can become character and reader,’ he says.

In his paper next week Weldon will be appealing to small publishers to rethink their approaches to print and new media. ‘Marshall McLuhan said [that] when we have these new technologies it’s always the artists that show us how to use [them]. I think small publishers who are more willing to experiment in conjunction with authors might show us how to take the text beyond the page,’ Weldon says.

I wonder if wider society is becoming more accepting of consuming text beyond the page. Have we failed to understand how storytelling might evolve digitally because we haven’t fully understood the technology and its potential? Weldon reminds me that as early as Ancient Greece we have questioned new technologies be they writing, printing, photography, film, television and so on.

‘Every time we have a new media… we get panicky. We think it’s the end and we’re going to lose what we have. It’s a good thought to keep in the back of your head because we have to be vigilant about what we have (and what we’re willing to let go of), he says. But of all those new technologies, the new hasn’t killed the old, he says, ‘it just shuffled everything along a little bit. Perhaps we’re in the middle of that shuffling along period now [with new media]. Everything gets upset for a bit, then we realise, “OK, there’s room for both.”’

John Weldon will be presenting his paper, ‘The Text Doesn’t Stop at the End of the Page’ at the Authorship and Digital Publishing session of the Independent Publishers Conference 9am, Thursday 8 November at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.

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