Writers On Writing / Digital writing: what’s it all about?

Connor O’Brien is the director of the Digital Writers’ Festival held online and in Melbourne next year from 11 – 22 February 2015. He spoke to Amelia Cox about digital literature, the possibilities available to us now for creative projects and whether we should compare what happens in the digital sphere to traditional literary practices […]

Connor O’Brien is the director of the Digital Writers’ Festival held online and in Melbourne next year from 11 – 22 February 2015. He spoke to Amelia Cox about digital literature, the possibilities available to us now for creative projects and whether we should compare what happens in the digital sphere to traditional literary practices (hint: we shouldn’t).

O’Brien ran a workshop at the NSW Writers’ Centre as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Sydney Roadshow. The workshop gave attendees a fascinating insight into what digital writing is all about and some of the theories surrounding it.


Where do you see the future of digital literature heading?

To dodge playing the role of Nostradamus, I’ll say this: I think it’s important to always look for the least flashy ways people are using digital writing technologies at any point in time, because it’s almost always the non-flashy stuff that in hindsight ends up being identified as the most important.

When it comes to digital literature, we still tend to be overwhelmingly drawn to flashing lights and bright colours (Multimedia! Interactive ebooks! Enhanced book apps!), which causes us to misidentify how new technologies should actually enhance the reading and writing process: by making writing more accessible, and by linking new kinds of readers to new kinds of writers. It is technologically possible, now, for almost everybody to communicate instantaneously with almost everybody else, but there are still those that remain voiceless, disenfranchised, or without an audience. In the near term, the future of digital literature will, hopefully, involve establishing new kinds of systems that enable previously disempowered groups to share their stories with receptive readers… and to encourage readers to move beyond their ‘filter bubbles’ to explore work that doesn’t necessarily fit neatly with what they’re used to. If you look backwards, every real innovation in the digital writing space over the past few decades has involved this widening of authorship and readership (from the rise of desktop publishing to the web to the blog to Twitter to the self-published ebook to Twine), but there’s still a good deal of work to do.

How can we measure the long-term success of a digital metastory, or collaborative work, as compared to traditional linear literature?

I often think it’s a mistake to try to judge works that are created online according to the standards of traditional linear works of literature. Unfortunately, this seems to keep happening: recently, for example, Twitter commissioned Alexander McCall Smith to write four ‘Twitter stories’, which really involved him writing four traditional short stories, then breaking them into 140-character fragments which were published on his Twitter feed. That kind of grafting an old medium onto a new one seems reflective of our continued anxiety that digital-native storytelling (which often involves a very high degree of collaborative and anonymity, as stories emerge from a kind of online ‘hive mind’ in the form of memes) is somehow less worthy than traditional storytelling. It’s almost as though there’s a perception in some quarters (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Franzen) that Twitter is a platform for triviality, and can only be redeemed if it is capable of being used to disseminate, albeit clunkily,

a traditional linear work of literature. That’s really weird, because there’s amazing prose and poetry being produced on Twitter… it just doesn’t map as easily onto what we might regularly understand as ‘good’ prose or poetry, because it works organically within the constraints of a new kind of platform

The first step seems to involve a recognition that digital-native storytelling – or, at least, modes of online storytelling in which writers are continuously shaping their work by releasing it online in tiny chunks that are picked up by others, and then engaging in a fast-paced collaborative iteration – isn’t comparable at all to more traditional modes of writing and consuming literary work. These modes can coexist – the ebook allows traditional linear literature to exist in the digital space, for example – but they’re very different, and it seems a mistake to not recognise those differences.

How does digital writing work?  Are there more opportunities for collaboration or can it be a solitary form?

Because digital writing almost necessitates playing around with form, it involves writers also taking on the role of ‘media inventors’. This can make things tricky (imagine how difficult it would be to not only write a novel, but invent the very form of the novel at the same time!), but it also means writers can shape the container their work will fit within according to their own preferences. Writers that are interested in producing small bursts of work rapidly, and playing off the work of others, might be drawn to ‘Weird Twitter’ or Alt-Lit or other Twitter or Tumblr communities that have low barriers to entry and which enable the production of collaborative bodies of work, but those that are interested in working in a more sustained, solitary mode can focus on Twine works, or coding literary bots, or more sophisticated text-adventure games, and so on. Of course, there’s also the ability to work across these different forms, oscillating between producing ‘stock’ (‘serious’ literary work that might require a good deal of alone time) and ‘flow’ (ephemeral work that could be a bit less serious, and more playful and collaborative).

Are there effective and not so effective ways of subverting digital platforms for non-traditional storytelling?

Every digital platform, even the most apparently constricted or boring or rigid, can be subverted for non-traditional storytelling. Some of the most interesting digital writing projects over the past few years have taken place entirely over email! For example, Miranda July’s We Think Alone project involved her forwarding on the ‘private’ correspondence of collaborators like Lena Dunham and Kirsten Dunst, turning an email mailing list into a rare glimpse into the (real?) lives of well-known actors and artists. In another case, Robin Sloan used a format very similar to a Powerpoint presentation (he called it a ‘tap essay’) to present a thinkpiece called ‘Fish’, about the fleeting nature of our attention in the online space. Subverting any medium really just involves making a concerted effort to figure out how to work against the grain, using the affordances of the medium to make it do something entirely different. Inside every digital medium contains the seeds of its own undoing!

Amelia Cox has a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from UTS and a voracious need to experience everything life has to offer. She is a writer, editor and recipient of the 2015 Artstart grant. You can follow her on Twitter, here


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