Writers' blocs lose the old plot

June 14, 1996

New forms of narrative that use interactive technology are being researched in Nottingham.

A research project at Nottingham Trent University is exploring and utilising cyberspace as a home for new writing.

The trAce (sic) project's aim is to bring together the various ways modern computer technology affects the creation and dispersal of texts, from online publishing through to experimental writing and virtual worlds.

It will be putting a suite of pages on the World Wide Web for the benefit of writers and readers worldwide. A conference is planned for September 1997.

The project is led by cyber- novelist Sue Thomas, who is currently finishing her third novel The Net of Desire and is course leader of the university's innovative MA in writing.

Research began last year with a summer project which sifted through the hundreds of sites present on the Web to produce a key list of those worth attention.

The first major item on the Web is the Cyberwriting links page. The page points to new means of networking and workshopping using email and the text-based virtual realities called MUDs (multi user domain) or MOOs (MUD, object oriented).

These virtual worlds, accessible via the Internet's Telnet facility, enable people to meet in real time within textually described virtual environments and to converse using the keyboard.

The majority of these virtual worlds are physically situated in the United States. They are predominantly used for game-playing or other social purposes, although there are a few which are specifically academic and of interest for writers.

The University of Texas OWL (Online Writing Laboratory), for example, expanded its creative writing curriculum, some of it taught online, to include digitised media with sessions on Web fiction, MUD building, computer game design and cyber-poetry.

At the University of Missouri they use their virtual world, ZOOMOO, for online tutorial and seminar work.

Post Modern Culture Moo (PMC-MOO) is probably the most popular academic virtual world currently online. It is a theme MOO in that it deals specifically with ideas surrounding postmodernism.

Attractions include virtual seminars and "poetry slams" which are held in conjunction with the Nujorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan. PENNMOO, situated at the University of Pennsylvania, has also hosted virtual poetry slams.

If you either read the proceedings of these slams or actually participate in a MUD, you will see that the written nature of dialogue in cyberspace has the effect that "speech" there has evolved its own idiosyncratic style. In a real-life poetry slam it is rare that the audience openly discusses the work being performed whereas in the virtual slam the response is necessarily through the written word and thus more critically responsive.

Language itself becomes more sensual and intimate in such environments. The time it takes to type a response in a discussion allows a reflective moment.

There is more time for creativity in the art of such conversations. Responses can also be prepared offline, allowing for even richer dialogues. Another area of interest is the possibility that novelistic form itself might be changed by the mediation of technology, perhaps inducing the next development in fiction, comparable to the novel's own emergence from the diary and letter.

The most likely development is through hypertextuality. There has already arisen a spurious genealogy for the evolution of hyperfiction, which includes writers such as Borges, Cortazar and Marquez, but it is only with the arrival of truly hypertextual media such as the Web and CD-Rom that hyperfiction can really develop beyond the confines of the physical page. With the technology of interactivity the traditional linear plot (dead tree) seems a restriction. The goal of interactive novels such as the multi-authored No Dead Trees, Reactive Writing (created by a NTU student) or The Doomsday Brunette is to move in any direction at any time.

Whether this is truly possible or even desirable is still being debated. And whether hyperfiction will become popular remains to be seen; at the moment it seems to be used mostly in writing games and in the work of critical theorists. Straying yet further from denouement The E-ville Dialogues considers itself a ". . . multi-metalayered, fully illustrated book" whose style seems dependent on the hypertextual nature of the Web. Hypertext is not the only way that writing is transformed by technology.

At sites such as Computer Generated Writing there is plenty of evidence that experimentation with computers and language is mirroring the techniques employed by the Dadaists and William Burroughs, creating texts which seem to be made by "alien modes of intelligence, vaguely familiar yet profoundly puzzling". The electronic magazine Stream of Consciousness merges computer-generated imagery with poetry to produce a magazine of a style rarely found offline.

As well as being a place for the creation of new writing, the Internet is also a growing publishing area. Project Gutenberg, for example, is an ever expanding site where it is hoped that every classic book ever written will be made freely available online.

But of just as much interest is the growing presence of small magazines on the Web.

The low-circulation small magazine has traditionally been a home for the developing writer and many successful authors were initially published in this way.

However, the sharp increase in paper prices means that the cost of producing such magazines is put beyond the reach of most enthusiasts, whereas it is possible to produce a high quality online journal which can be seen by thousands relatively cheaply.

A brief look at just a few of these journals should convince most people of the importance of these online publications. Alternative-X is a top quality e-zine with plenty of fiction and interviews with such notables as Martin Amis, Allen Ginsberg, Amira Baraka and Kathy Acker. Grist also contains fiction and poetry including pieces by Michael McLure, William Burroughs and Jerome Rothenburg.

Of a more theoretical nature, Mute is a London-based publication which operates in the region of art and technology, although its editors are not so narrow minded as to draw tight definitions about what art actually is.

This avant-garde attitude perhaps reaches its summit with CTheory which includes essays and reviews by the likes of Jean Baudrillard, Hakim Bey and Arthur and Marilouise Kroker.

Considering that most universities subscribe to offline literary journals it seems sensible that they should make use of the publications freely available through their Internet connection.

The Web pages published by the project at NTU will act as a kind of discerning catalogue having hyperlinks to the best Net publications relevant to writers, and hopefully will facilitate and encourage the growth of writing online.

* Links to most of the resources mentioned can be found at: http://human.ntu.ac.uk/foh/ems/ trace/trace.html

Simon Mills is a research assistant in the department of English and media studies, Nottingham Trent University.

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