Writing Machines is the course website for English 170L at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
I found a link to this site while wandering around online a little while ago. To summarize, it's a site offering software that supposedly allows anyone to "publish" their own books. While self-publishing is nothing new, the creators of this software claim that they have made it so easy as to render it trivial (alright, that second part is my claim).
The frontpage is dominated by a rotating set of testimonials from various users. The one that's up currently proclaims, "Meet Jim, a banker. He's written three cookbooks. This month." One might be inclined to scoff and say, "Well they weren't real books, were they?" but some poking around on the page reveals that the creators of this software offer a method to convert "books" made in that format into physical "bookstore quality" product. And they will tell you how to do this for the low low price of 14.95.
I experienced it almost exactly as I might a novel, and it sounded today as if at least part of you agreed. I'm not sure whether receiving it as emails would have made much difference. I'm willing to entertain the idea that it might have, but I'm suspicious.
It seems novelistic in several ways:
- Clear unilinear sequence
- Advancing plot that builds to crisis
- Defined sense of where one is in the story (just scroll down)
- Ease in rereading or flipping ahead
I'm not convinced that it engages readers differently than do novels. After all, novels have purported to be lost diaries or manuscripts, sets of letters, all sorts of things, really. One holds the book and knows that it is a book. One views Kind of Blue online and knows it's not an inbox.
I've been thinking a lot about Hayles's emphasis on the importance of the materiality of a piece of literature and McLuhan's insistance that "the medium is the message." I wonder how these ideas apply to a "conventional" novel. If materiality is so essential, then editors and illustrators are far more essential in the creation of a piece of literature than we give them credit for. Is it then the case that every piece of "conventional" literature is a collaboration? We could even extend this idea to a sort of collaboration with the reader. I, for one, love to mark up books and write in margins when I read them, particularly for class.
1. I was really pleased by this statement (from page 99 of Writing Machines): "Contrary to much hype about electronic hypertext, books like A Humument allow the reader considerably more freedom of movement and access than do many electronic fictions."
...yep. I don't really have anything to say about that, except that I agree completely and so I wanted to point it out. Even if in hypertexty novels (like House of Leaves, which I love) we aren't making "choices" the way we do in electronic literature, we are able to make actual informed choices--like choosing to read the last page--instead of just clicking things at random. Hayles points out that "logical ordering and linear sequencing" are just as important as association (75), and while not all books are chronological, there is at least some sense of order, of beginning and end. And of course we can bookmark, highlight, etc. to our heart's content, which we can't do in hypertexts.
The design of "Writing Machines" is clearly important--the designer is credited a lot more thoroughly than usual, and in the preface Hayles refers to the work as collaboration. Yet 50 pages in, the design hasn't enhanced my experience of reading the book. Its main purpose, as far as I can tell, is to lead me toward the meanings that Hayles wants me to make.
What I mean is--almost all the other texts I have read have left it up to me to underline, dog-ear, highlight--they've left a lot of that user-end meaning creation up to me.
Am I misinterpreting what she's doing with the enlarged text/underlined words? I feel like she's trying to direct my reading in a really unsubtle way--it's like buying a used book at Huntley and finding that the person before you highlighted a bunch of things that you don't necessarily think should be highlighted.
Both of my English courses this semester have a significant blog component. This has thrown me for a loop. Where before I would while away the hours I'd set aside for reading course texts by surfing the internet, now that my homework happens to be surfing said internet, I find myself raiding my roommate's bookshelves arbitrarily. It's probably not a bad thing for me to be reading Sartre or DeLillo, but doing so is not going to help my grades any. Which I know deep down in my procrastinator's soul is a good reason for pursuing anything.
What I think may be another upside of my gpa-destroying behavior is that it indicates -- along with the sentiment of a great many of our blog posts, and the fact that most of us read our very first hypertext only last week -- that the novel as we know it isn't going anywhere. And not because the future tried to make its changes and failed, but because the printed novel and the hypertext happen to be separate media. Some of our trepidation about the e-lit age seems to be located in the idea that it will elbow out or somehow force change upon the things we cherish in more established literature. Were I not worried I'd sound like a dirty optimist, I'd confidently assert that the emergence of widespread electronic self-publication and the hypertext format will only strengthen the novel we know and love, in that it will help us triangulate what we find essential about the medium. TV and film co-exist, painting and drawing and photography as well, and the dynamics of each are unique enough to warrant their continued relevance. I have to think it's the same with text media. And having more data with which to determine what's important about different uses of the written word can only be a good thing, right?
Alright. So, I am sheepishly outing myself, tail between legs. I read "afternoon" after class. While I'm not trying to defend myself, it was interesting going into the story already having a preconceived notion of what it was about-ish.
I read a very different story, it feels like, the crash and the possible dead wife and son only popped up...once? Maybe twice?
I really like it. The indecisiveness, the lack of linerality, the inability to decipher whether there was one or multiple narrators, never quite exactly sure how any one character fit in with another, the fascinating interpersonal relationships that developed as a result. I very much saw myself reading my life, my blueprint of interactions with people, onto the story. The lack of coherency, I think, allows the reader to really pick and choose what fits where, how it fits, if it fits, what to disregard.
As I read through Joyce's "Othermindedness" or rather the selection thereof, I'm intrigued by the connections that he makes between the filtration systems of the internet (Google, "metasites," etc.) and the filtrations that occur in the "print culture." He writes, "Almost invisibly in the past, for instance, most library patrons read much more of the online or card catalog entries, book spines, or tables of contents than they read from the volumes themselves. People have only so much time. They can't read everything and so they depend on others to link them to what they need or wish to read" (54). It seems then that according to Joyce, mediation has always been a factor in the way that we receive information, but this mediation has never been so overt as in the case of the internet.
While reading Ong's article on language as a technology and the way written language fundementally alters the mind's relationship with language and the way people think, I was constantly reminded of Neal Stephenson's novel, Snow Crash. I won't go into too much detail, because I don't want to ruin the book is you haven't read it (it's an interesting read, I'd recommend it if it sounds like your sort of thing), but it takes place in the near future in a highly cyberized and commercialized world with plots to take over the world through mindcontrol, based on the earliest forms of written language.
Apparently Huntley didn't order enough copies of We've Got Blog. If you've got a copy you'd be willing to lend a student in need, would you comment here? If you need a copy, leave a comment here as well.