Friday, May 28, 2010

The Hydra, the Chorus, the Geist, the Book: Chronicle of evolution in action.

Last weekend I attended The Richard Hugo House's excellent event "Finding Your Readers in the 21st Century". Writers were encouraged to sign up for this two-day event filled with panels on a wide range of topics; blogging, self-marketing, social media, e-publishing, self-publishing, and more. The keynote speech on Friday night was inspiring. Matthew Stadler, of Publication Studio, interviewed 3 lecturers who presented on the publishing industry, past present and future. Barbara Sjoholm (past), Alan Rinzler (present), and Jeff Vandermeer (future) set a tone of empowerment and optimism that persisted throughout the weekend. I was there for a panel on self-publishing using the Espresso Book Machine, and also running a table in the Small Press Fair on the main floor of the house. It was there that I kept on having interesting conversations with aspiring (and published) authors on the nature of publishing. I feel the weekend was a success, and can't wait to participate next year. But all the while, in the back of my mind, an idea I'd mentioned 2 posts ago kept coming to the surface.

All this strife and consternation over e-book versus the physical book in newspapers and magazines and on blogs seems to me, to be chasing its tail. What needs to happen is a dramatic re-envisioning of the whole argument. 

If we treat the book as an evolutionary marker for the transmission of narratives, rather than a beginning, and treat the e-book as a divergence from this relatively young 'species', the book, we begin to see some remarkable possibilities in the way we tell stories.

We begin with the Book, which for 500 years or so, has defined the relationship between storyteller and audience. The book overtook the oral tradition, codified the structure of language, and allowed the storyteller (writer) to acutely control the reader's experience. But it was still a participatory event, the words drifted off the page into the mind of the reader, where it then underwent transformation from abstract to 'concrete' in the mind's eye. Neil Gaiman and others have likened this as a form of telepathy, transmitted by the author, who is not in the room (or even alive in some cases). Over time, literary movements and tastes merged, split, and further evolved. By the 19th century, traditional narratives began to sit on shelves alongside experimental, and structure-shirking works. During these phases, the very essence of the book never wavered.

The Geist (otherwise known as the e-book, which is really a ghost of the book) began a transform the book's essence. At risk was the linearity, and according to some, the concept of a 'page'. Publishers have taken lazy swipes at defining the shape of the Geist, but for now it's mostly a electronic facsimile of a bound book, with page numbering, chapters, and covers. The format of the Geist might allow for interesting changes in form and function, and the way narratives work. Take away the page numbering, and the human mind begins to fall deeper into a narrative; there's no 'clock ticking' till page xx reveals the final sentence. Untethered from this subtle cue, readers figuratively drown in words, in story. Paragraphing changes may change the way we interpret stories-- I often joke with co-workers that I could spot a Jose Saramago book a mile off, because his paragraphs often last for pages. This may seem daunting to a reader, and yet, Saramago sells, and has a devoted following. Writers may begin to ask themselves why they write their paragraphs the way they do. Do they create short ones, to keep the readers from drifting off? Are writers themselves intimidated by the sheer bulk of a page-long paragraph? I'm just spinning ideas out there, but the Geist has some evolutionary potential that needs to be explored.

The Chorus is what is currently being described as an 'enhanced e-book', which is incorrect, because the Chorus offers a larger growth potential than the Geist. The very nature of the Chorus is social; with the advent of e-readers and wi-fi, we can begin to see the social aspect of reading. Whereas the Book and the Geist are solitary affairs, the Chorus offers readers a new way to experience a book. Social network sites like Goodreads and Librarything already show that readers want to connect with each other over what they read. The Chorus would allow readers with the appropriate App to chronicle their journey through a novel by tagging comments and notes on their e-reader, and through wi-fi, share them with friends and strangers. A Chorus reader would have the option of switching off this ever-fluid marginalia, to experience the story like a Geist. After, they could come back through the narrative with the marginalia switch on, and see what opinions appeared. The possibility for the urge for fan-fiction to directly overlap with a narrative creates interesting ideas; this is not the same as a collaborative novel, as the Chorus would be geared for a structured narrative with social network elements. Writers who are savvy to the Chorus' format might conceive of new ways to tell stories; perhaps purposely fractured narratives, perhaps literary Easter eggs/treasure hunts. The most important potential of the Chorus would be to engage society in a continual dialog about literature, and perhaps bring more reluctant readers into the fold.

The Hydra, offers the most profound evolution of narrative, as it would draw from two less-likely sources and one familiar: Art (as in Photography and illustration), audio and cinema. Early cinema used narratives borrowed from literature, but within 20 years, cinema evolved its own narrative language, introducing parallel stories, chronological shifts with ever-increasing frequency, the ability to disorient the viewer to temporarily convey emotional states (fear, joy, confusion, etc), and ultimately, the power of a single image to elicit a multitude of thoughts from the viewer. Some of these techniques eventually worked their way into the toolkit of late-20th century novelists. I call this format the Hydra (otherwise known as the multi-media book) because if one considers the idea that narrative/storytelling is the core, then this format allows multiple 'heads' or modes to convey a story. A Hydra will engage the reader/viewer in a multi-sensory manner; as one reads, sound effects may well up, then, at a vital moment in the story it might shift into a video clip, which might be overlaid with music or, audio narration of the text. The trend of creating 'book trailers' hints at the Hydra's possibilities. But let's make one thing clear: the Hydra is NOT a book. At least it shouldn't be. If publishers attempt to simply create what would amount to a book with Ads and some noise, then everyone loses out on new ways to tell stories.

Why the funny names? Well in the occult theory of magickal systems, to name a thing, gives it shape; it also gives one power over it. The current language circulating is clunky and badly thought out, and as such, does not allow the mind to strive for elegant solutions. Each format should be explored without the stigma of 'the Book format'. Humans crave stories, regardless of what David Shields says, and I believe that if we allow these other forms to evolve freely, the reward may be a deeper evolution of the human mind.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts on ebooks. In my view, many writers are failing to understand how positive the Post-Gutenberg Revolution really is for THEM, as writers and poets. They just don't get it. I've been thinking and writing about all this for a long time on my blog:

    eReading. The experience of eReading.

    It's Time for publishing to change... Cut the Publishers. Here's how... Tell your friends...

    This is what ANY WRITER can now and should do:
    Earthrise Press® eBooks

    See also my thoughts on
    Publishing in the Post-Gutenberg Age

    The Mission of Earthrise Press

    Frederick Glaysher

  2. Fascinating piece, Vlad, full of ideas I have yet to see elsewhere, so thank you for this. I would only point out, gently, that your "Hydra" is, well... a monster of poisonous breath.

  3. Hey Brad, I'm not taking the literal hydra as template, just its multi-headed aspect. And if you want portentous names: Kindle; used to light fire, bonfires, bonfires piled high with books? Judging by Amazon's behavior towards the publishing industry of late, I think the meaning is apt.

  4. Vlad, I'm not questioning your choice, "Hydra" sounds perfectly apt to me. I just thinking of the potential consequences of a literature made by too many heads sounds an awful lot like... noise.

  5. That's exactly the point Brad, experiencing a Hydra narrative would be inherently different; so it's NOT a book, but it is a branching off from a similar tree (anything done badly is 'noise'; look at chic-lit, look at Stephanie Meyer).

    I'm not saying that everybody needs to embrace these modes of storytelling--this would go against what I despise in most tech circles (linearity of innovation, one item 'kills' the other, no such this as co-evolution of ideas). The shape of the internet has already fundamentally altered the way we interact with the world, but not all humans want to use it.

    Also, by allowing these forms to emerge, the intrinsic uniqueness of the Book will become starkly clearer.

  6. Great posting Vlad, keep up the good work.

  7. Vlad: Excellently written.

    Geists, Choruses and Hydra. Giving them names does give them power. Otherwise we'll just be speaking/writing/reading in abstractions whenever we discuss the future of publishing and books.

  8. I talk about this argument in a post titled: The evolution of the narrative. And asking a question at the end.