Monday, April 2, 2012

Week 12: Guest Lecture from Kate Pullinger

Is Literature Evolving? Kate Pullinger

Publishing is changing rapidly, and writing, reading and bookselling are changing with it, as is the book itself: there is no escaping this fact. While writers are urged by their publishers to engage with social media in order to market their books, storytelling itself is evolving with the new technologies.

I’ve been writing books – novels and short stories – for more than twenty years now, and writing digital fiction for a decade. In 2001 I was asked to teach a creative writing course online which, in turn, led to a year-long AHRB research fellowship at NTU, looking at new forms of narrative online. I began to experiment with hybrid forms of literature during that year – writing stories that combine image, video, animation, sound, music, etc. with words on the screen – and since then I’ve continued to write both books and digital fiction.

Moving online had as profound an effect on me as a writer as publishing my first book did. Beginning to create works of digital fiction forced me to consider the future of publishing, indeed, the future of writing and reading itself, much more deeply than I could ever have anticipated.

A bound book is a technology for reading, created by a printing press, moved from warehouse to retailer to reader via a network of transport technology, conveying the writer’s words to you in a manner to which you are completely accustomed; a technology you were taught to use on your mother’s knee, most likely. But many people are deeply attached to books, myself included, for reasons much more complex than the simple statement ‘I like to read’ could ever convey. The book-lined room is a status symbol as potent as the most expensive hand-printed wallpaper; the desk surrounded by books is as significant an image of intellect as that photograph of Einstein with his hair standing on end. The positions of The Book and The Writer in our culture are laden with layers of meaning, and digitization disrupts and transforms both these things.

As a fiction writer, I’m not really interested in the technological platform itself, be that bound book, e-reader, or web browser. What I am interested in is writing. What I am interested in is language; words, crafted, precise and beautiful; and the way that the right words in the right order can create mental pictures as indelible as the greatest film or photograph or painting. I am interested in what happens when words are liberated from the book – what happens to language, what happens to reading? What does it mean to put text on a screen, to use text combined with other forms of media?

Pundits bemoan the fact that young people are reading fewer books - though actual research on the effect of the internet on reading is in its infancy - but for the under-twenties, the born-digital generation, the acts of reading and writing have been fundamentally altered by the digital age already. With this in mind, it could be argued that the novel, as defined as a single work by a single author aimed at the solitary reader published on paper using fixed print type – or an electronic replica of that - is a relic of a cultural moment, a moment that lasted more than two hundred and fifty years or so but – as all you scholars of the history of literature know - in the context of humanity’s immense shared history of story-telling, a moment nonetheless. The new technologies enable the integration of story and community, writer and reader, media and text; they provide a platform for interactivity and response that we’ve only just begun to explore. It’s the hybrid forms that are now emerging that interest me, as both a writer and a reader. Literature is evolving.

What do you think a Literature of The Future will look like?


  1. Kate - Thank you for your thoughts - I can really relate to the relationship with books and the comment about book-lined shelves. It's a difficult thing to explain but I can also see where the writing, publishing via printing press, distribution, one reader pathway could be very different in the future.

    This course gave me an opportunity to deliver an assignment using i-movie and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed combining my words with visuals to tell the story. It has spawned a whole new way of looking at how I might approach a personal project I am working on which is a memoir of my parents.

    But I also keep thinking that paper has a permanence that digital does not - if the Dead Sea Scrolls had used a technology of the day, would we be able to read them today? Maybe I should not be worried about this - but society can learn a lot from history. Whether my personal memoir outlives those people who actually knew and loved my parents isn't critical, but are we looking at a future where changing technology results in segments of history not being accessible in the future?

    You are correct that the writing and publishing we know now has only been a moment in time. It makes me very curious to know - in 200 years from now, how will society view the discussions and issues around publishing of today?

  2. Kate, you make me realize how significant this change in technology is, particularly in context of the 250 years of the printed/typed word.

    As for the future, I see a great deal of blurring of the lines between media. We will all need to be transliterate to fully engage in the breadth of media and the combinations of them. Some people will be left behind, or limited by their lack of transliteracy. I am very excited by it, however, because it takes us beyond individual, standalone media and gives us a greater palette to create stories and communication. Each medium has its strengths, and we can use them accordingly and switch back and forth between them in a single story.

    While this course is only an elective, I feel I have gained, because I have become aware of the new forms of narrative and digital fiction that are out there. In fact, I think this course would be an appropriate addition to the MACT core content since it was the first course to actually use new media (outside of e-class) to deliver the curriculum, and require the participation of the students in new media. I have become more transliterate.

  3. I like Barb's outlook on new media and her description of a greater palette for communicating. We now have at our fingertips an ability to express what words alone cannot and I think as a society we will all start using a mix of the tools to better communicate. The beginning can be seen on Facebook, where millions of people are adding photos and video and links to help express their thoughts.

    I would add my vote for making this course part of the required curriculum for MACT students. Perhaps it should be accompanied by an additional tutorial for all of us who walked in without the requisite literacies, rather like undergrads who have to take essay writing if they fail to meet the standard required to fully participate in academic life.

    I recall reading that there was a 200 year overlap in technologies between manuscripts and printed books. Someone once told me that internet years were like dog years, so we probably have about another decade before the ebook firmly takes hold. Think of how quickly society has transitioned from vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CD to downloading onto MP3 type players and how relatively pain free it was as a transition and the shortened time frame seems very realistic.

    The ebook as we know it today isn’t living up to its potential as a multi-media experience and isn't what I believe it ultimately will become. Last night I read a preview chapter online of Paris in Love by Eloisa James. It’s a memoir of a year she spent in Paris with her family, largely created by stringing together the postings she put on Facebook during that time. Yet it doesn’t include the photos or links that even Facebook allows and suffers from the lack of context that she might have given to the book if it had been a multi media product, rather than merely text on an e-reader. Nice that she could get it published, but I don’t think I’m going to bother paying for the rest of the book. It felt very flat, much like reading the script of a play without any staging information.

  4. Judith, I think your comment about Paris in Love highlights an important aspect of the transitional period publishing is in right now. In the 20th C., it was common to see book-to-movie adaptations and even (usually unfortunate) movie-to-book adaptations. Now, with the explosion of venues for self-publishing and communication in the last decade, we're seeing adaptations going in all sorts of directions. There are books based on blogs, movies based on video games, 12-month calendars based on cake decorating disasters, and even a book based on Boo, the "world's cutest dog" who rose to fame via his own Facebook page (

    As you've pointed out, some of these things can feel a little flat. The transition from one medium to another doesn't always make sense, or might require further thought before it really works. A post on Facebook usually feels less weighty and ephemeral than what we hope to read in print. And as for Boo - I wonder how the publisher has managed to add value to what's already instantly available on Facebook.

    It's hard to say whether the trend toward making print products out of online media material will die off as an unsuccessful fad, or will evolve sufficiently to provide a profitable niche for the publishing industry. Like the record album, books make a more meaningful gift than a gift card or link to a download would. Perhaps focusing on printed products that meet the gift criteria - beautiful to hold, beautiful to look at - will help to ensure the survival of the publishing industry.

  5. I too echo Barb's comments that NMN should become a core course in this program. As I have noted already, this has forced me to really consider my own transliteracy. (me make a video??) I am now taking opportunities that I think I would have passed otherwise. I just agreed to participate in the new a/v booth of our church and volunteer running the technology on Sundays... I would not have done that before this course. But I would ditto Judith's request for tutorials on the technology. A pre-requisite perhaps offered at the spring institute as learning new technology, I find, is easier when done in the lab with the teacher available.

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  7. I think the concept of transliteracy is by far my greatest take-away on the course. It explains the bigger picture thinking I believe is needed to avoid the "this is better that that" bias. Kim, I too like the permanency of books - I like the read and that it remains the same. I also hate when I work with the latest published version that has different numbering... Sure previous forms can lay claim to this stability (microfiche) but I just like the book - my bias comes through.

    In this last set of readings one thought particularly stood out as salient (

    Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have told George Plimpton during an interview that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied.
    “Why so many rewrites?” Plimpton asked.
    “Because,” Hemingway responded, “I wanted to get the words right.”

    The immediacy of Web 2.0 provides such instant access to publishing that it "may" (not does) reduce the practice of re-writes held by some of the greats.