Ongoing Narrative

This contribution to the theme of Publication comes from Julia Panko, whose research explores the intersections between literary forms and media formats. Julia is currently Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Literature at MIT.  —bM

Ongoing Narrative: Digital Media and Literary Publication

I am standing in a playground in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I have checked my iPad settings, tried different locations within the playground, and clicked the red icon on my screen repeatedly. I am trying to unlock a “Field Report,” a narrative set within the fictional world of The Silent History. A novel written for iOS devices, The Silent History was released as a series of short installments between October 2012 and April 2013. Field Reports are additional stories, submitted by readers and published via the same app. Field Reports are geo-tagged: each describes a specific real-world place and can only be accessed if the would-be reader visits that precise location.

Silent History 1 When, then, was The Silent History “published”? When its first installment became available on its servers? When it was first opened on an iPad? Was its publication complete once the entire novel had been released, or does it continue with the addition of each new Field Report? What if a reader cannot access the Field Reports—does this affect its publication? As these questions suggest, digital networks and reading platforms complicate our understanding of the temporal span of literary publication.

Consider the novel. The print book has been the novel’s dominant (although never exclusive) medium for centuries, and the genre emerged within the reading practices, attentional habits, and publishing models of print culture. Far from heralding the death of the genre, however, digital media may instead increase the lifespan of individual novels. Rather than being published all at once as a complete work, a novel may exist in a state of ongoing publication, growing incrementally over a long period of time.

Of course, novels have always had this potential to some degree. Serialized novels were extremely popular during the Victorian era. On a smaller scale, a novel may be re-released in any number of later editions. An author might publish a revised version to correct editing mistakes, for instance; an academic press might issue an annotated edition.

Novels published digitally share these possibilities. What changes with the use of digital networks is not only the ease and speed with which serial installments or new editions can be released, however, but also the ability to involve the public in a novel’s ongoing development. The changing temporality of literary publication, in other words, is tied to a shift from a single-author model to crowd-sourcing. Instead of being issued as a series of editions, each of which is considered self-contained and complete, a novel can be continuously updated, as a community of readers adds to it.

A case in point: in Mark Z. Danielewski’s online forums, devoted readers are essentially creating an expanding set of annotations to Danielewski’s novels. They excavate allusions, solve the books’ codes, and share interpretations. That such work is analogous to the production of an annotated edition is underscored by the fact that Danielewski has invited forumites to submit glosses for his novel Only Revolutions—glosses that will be included as annotations when the novel is published as an e-book.

We can easily cite the publication date of a given e-book edition, just as we can cite the publication date of an annotated print edition. This is not true, however, of the web forum, where users are constantly adding new information. The development of the resource is piecemeal and incremental. The online discussions of Only Revolutions presuppose both the ability of Danielewski or his publisher to maintain the website and enough interest from a fan base to sustain the discussions, but they have the potential to persist and grow for the foreseeable future.

Contrasting digital texts with print and manuscript texts, Roger Chartier wrote that “[t]he electronic text . . . is a moving, malleable, open text. The reader can intervene not only in its margins, but in its very content, by removing, reducing, adding, or reworking textual units.” Social and mobile media up the ante. In projects like Danielewski’s forums or The Silent History’s Field Reports, users intervene not only in the texts on the screens of their word processors, but in the creation of literary texts and interpretive resources.

The Silent History is itself a moving, malleable, open text, to the extent that its readers continue to contribute Field Reports. If these Field Reports are only an optional supplement, not “necessary for enjoying the central narrative,” they—and, thus, the readers—are the force that allows The Silent History’s narrative world to keep expanding. Just as The Silent History tells the story of an epidemic spreading across the planet, the Field Reports spread across the app’s map of the world.

Silent History 2

As the Web 2.0 ethos continues to thrive, supported by microblogging platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, we will almost certainly see increasing examples of literary narratives authored on an ongoing basis by multiple contributors. In October of 2011, for example, dozens of participants used the Twitter hashtag #laflood to construct a fictional narrative about the flooding of Los Angeles. This portion of the multi-modal LA Flood Project was limited to an eight-day timeline, but other Twitter narratives might continue indefinitely.

LA Flood

Literature published on digital platforms encompasses a wide range of temporalities. Kindles and iBooks mimic the printed page, recreating the immersive experience of reading from books. Online poetry generators produce ceaseless verse. Text-art screen installations host ephemeral displays, generated as passersby send SMS messages. Long-form narratives like The Silent History and the LA Flood Project unfold as a continuous process. Our models of what it means to publish literature must shift to account for such variety.

Publication remains an act of making public—of disseminating material. When readers are invited to become authors and editors as well as audiences, however, the public also participates in the making. While some have worried that immersion in digital culture destroys the capacity for deep attention, making people unable to consume long-form narratives, publication models like these offer an alternative form of literary production and consumption, allowing readers to stay invested in a literary work for days, months, or even years.

JuliaPankoJulia Panko is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Literature at MIT. She is currently working on her first book, which explores the impact of new information storage media on the print novel in the early twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She has published in Contemporary Literature and Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, and she is the co-author of a college textbook on data networking.

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