[Featured image: Screenshot of the Amazon UK rendering of the Faber & Faber codex version.]
In an earlier post on The Silent History, I discussed the “remediation” of a digital work into print. We are now accustomed to thinking that the traffic always flows in the opposite direction–that the Internet is quickly hoovering up the entirety of our print (and chirographic for that matter) inheritance. Thus, we can easily overlook the opposite scenario: when the “born digital” is “reborn print.” (I have in mind here digitalia that’s born on software other than word processors whose goal is print, though we shouldn’t, as I’ve argued, always take word processing lightly.) In the earlier post, I concluded that The Silent History wasn’t much of a digital work in the first place, making its transition from app to print fairly smooth. This isn’t to belittle The Silent History as a novel or to complain that the app stages a hoax. From the perspective of serial publication (once again), the app remains notable. The post-serialization app just isn’t the “new kind of novel” that its advertising campaign billed it. And its one innovative feature (in my estimation), the reader-created field reporting, is carefully kept on the margin of the “authorized” text. (If you’d like to read a rich alternative take on The Silent History, take up Amy Hungerford’s Making Literature Now.) I recently came across another such remediation of an app fiction to print; it’s given me fresh food for thought on issues assayed in the earlier post. The following remarks comprise some early impressions about the app. In part 2, we’ll turn to the print and ebook versions.
The fiction in question is Arcadia by Iain Pears. It’s the product of a partnership between Faber & Faber and Touch Press, whose previous collaborations include apps for the Waste Land, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and Heaney’s translations of Henryson’s fables. Pears, meanwhile, is a highly regarded English writer of history and fiction, particularly, in the case of the latter genre, for his experimentation with narrative structure.
In an article published in the Guardian last year, “Why you need an app to understand my new novel,” Pears frames his move into app fiction as an extension of this quest to innovate structurally (rather than a lifelong fascination with computers):
I do not even have any natural enthusiasm for computing, which now perplexes me even more than it did when I began, and I certainly did not want to thrust myself into the vanguard of digital innovation. Rather, I undertook the project because I had reached the limit of my storytelling in book form and needed some new tools to get me to the next stage. I have always written novels that are complex structurally; in An Instance of the Fingerpost, published many years ago now, I told the same story four times from different points of view; The Dream of Scipio was three stories interleaved; while Stone’s Fall was three stories told backwards. All worked, but all placed quite heavy demands on the readers’ patience by requiring them to remember details often inserted hundreds of pages before, or to jump centuries at a time at regular intervals. Not surprisingly, whatever structure I chose there were some who did not like it.
As I wanted to write something even more complex, I began to think about how to make my readers’ lives as easy as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure. Once you do that, it becomes possible to build a multi-stranded story (10 separate ones in this case) where each narrative is complete but is enhanced when mingled with all the others; to offer readers the chance to structure the book as best suits them. To put it another way, it becomes fairly straightforward (in theory) to create a narrative that was vastly more complex than anything that could be done in an orthodox book, at the same time as making it far more simple to read.
There’s so much that I could say about these remarks–and I might circle back to them at some point in the coming months–but for now I want to comment briefly on Pears’s argument that the app makes readers’ lives easier. His implicit assumption appears to be one that I have discussed before on Booktrades. In the [vo]codex to co[in]dex post, I noted what Jeffrey Masten, Peter Stallybrass, and Nancy Vickers (hereafter MSV) call the “myth of teleological narrative”: “the myth that ‘the book’; as a technological form, is organized so as to be read from page 1 to page 2, from page 2 to page 3, and so on to the end of the book.” As MSV note, teleological reading has a close historical relationship with the rise of the novel (for which the “highest compliment” is that it’s a “page-turner”). For MSV, that myth “can be seen as a curious, if culturally productive, deformation of the book as a technology,” and they pose an alternative myth of the book as what I called in the earlier post “the book as a back-and-forth machine.” The difficulty, as Pears explains it, is that his readers seem to stumble with his back-and-forthing in time and space and among his wide array of characters exactly because they–and perhaps he?–seem to assume that you must read the pages in numerical order. He’s never been one to include elaborate paratextual guides that would allow the reader to jump swiftly between chapters focused on particular characters or time periods within his grand designs (Stone’s Fall does, however, have temporal headings for its sections). The reader may skip around, of course, but she is likely to have trouble determining where she’s landed. Apparently Pears and his readership didn’t condescend to read choose-your-own-adventure stories when they were adolescents.
Anyhow, in this case the app really does function differently than a codex, since the traversal of the text depends not on following paratextual markers (the table of contents, chapter numbers, etc.) but through the manipulation of a map. Can you ride the Underground? If so, you’ll have no trouble navigating this:
I argued in the earlier post that The Silent History app in fact imposes more limitations on the reader’s ability to maneuver within the text than the print book because the app forces the user–when moving forward in time at least–to progress through the chapters sequentially. The reader cannot skip around according to his or her whim. The Arcadia app places no such locks on its content: one can move swiftly between threads in whatever direction one wishes to go. The structure of the map and chapter sections in fact emphasize the reader’s capacity to choose, particularly by highlighting moments of intersection between plot threads (had enough of her, why not follow him for a while?). Pears makes this a stated goal: “I wanted to give you the freedom to put the tale together in your own way.” Moreover, the reader is free to pursue however much of the various “strands” (to use Pears’s nomenclature) pleases. And should a strand displease, well, as Pears acknowledges to close the Guardian piece, “you can always leave that bit out.”
The map, meanwhile, has its effect on the writer, too. More from the Guardian:
Writing Arcadia did produce odd effects in ways that an ordinary book or ebook could not; scenes became more episodic and vignette-like; the demands of shifting from one point of view to another, and then to multiple ones in different worlds, required different ways of writing. Most peculiarly of all, I found that the story was most easily structured by looking at it visually; whole strands were expanded or even deleted simply to create a more pleasing shape in the writing program I was using. On every occasion, the more satisfactory the appearance, the better the story read, and I still haven’t quite figured out how that works.
Here again there’s much that I could make of these remarks, but I’ll limit myself to issue raised in the previous post: the work of revision. We’re again in Kirschenbaum territory–one might recall Kirschenbaum’s observations about George Martin’s creation of The Game of Thrones fantasy series on the WordStar word processor. Writers had, of course, been able to fabricate complicated multi-plot stories before the advent of word processing, as Kirschenbaum argues (and the Victorian period bears extensive witness). Yet WordStar, K continues, “surely does facilitate” this kind of undertaking in “practical ways.” K uses Martin as an example of “tacit knowledge”: “the extraordinary combination of muscle memory and unarticulated experience that enables us to perform very complex tasks without conscious effort or consciously knowing how to do them.” Pears does not have the kind of experience or expertise with his software (which isn’t even named) that Martin has with WordStar, of course. So, based on K’s criteria, “tacit knowledge” doesn’t seem the proper name for what he describes. But Pears still attests to a kind of tacit dimension of writing and revising of his own, one opened up by the visual representation of his plotting. His description strikingly recalls Sullivan’s language (discussed in the Trevor post) of revision as “re-vision” and “re-presentation.” The new writing context–the app software–didn’t suddenly grant Pears the power to write sprawling, multi-layered narratives; rather, it allowed him to measure the “strands” in new ways. Revision became a matter, it appears, of ideal cartography (fitting for a book called Arcadia, no?). For both writer and reader, then, Arcadia is very much a “(m)app fiction.”
With these observations in mind, we’ll turn in part 2 (once again) to the print and ebook versions. Stay tuned.