Late last year I attended a lecture with David Shields, author of Reality Hunger and ardent and vociferous proclaimer of the death of the novel. In Shields’ view, authors wishing to create new and relevant work work need to turn away from what he sees as the outmoded and irrelevant nineteenth century approach to the novel, and instead look at breaking through traditional narrative barriers and working with new forms.
With its media-enhanced approach to storytelling, allowing authors to build a narrative incorporating audio tracks, images, links and more, the Creatavist platform certainly allows for this. I was given the heads-up about the platform by Sydney-based author Daniel Dalton, who recently used it to publish an enhanced version of his short story Perfect.
I was intrigued by the way that the Creatavist version of Perfect incorporated newspaper articles, Wikipedia entries and a narrative track into what was originally a traditionally told story, and decided to catch up with Dan for a chat about the affordances of the platform—and what it might mean for, or indicate about, modern-day approaches to storytelling.
The first question I wanted to put to Dan was the notion of the “enhanced” story, and what exactly this very loaded term means. After all, a recent critique of the non-fiction piece “Snow Fall” seems to indicate that there’s some ambivalence about the value of multimedia story-telling platforms and whether they truly enhance the storytelling experience…or are merely the narrative equivalent of 3D.
“At the beginning it’s very much going to be about novelty, about playing around,” admits Dan. “But someone is going to come along and do something magical with it. Someone will come along with some real multimedia skills and tell a story that involves video and media in a way that’s inherent to the story, rather than as a sideline. Those bits of media will be really essential to the story. I don’t think that platforms like Creatavist are in any way replacing anything—Creatavist is just a new tool to do what we’ve already been doing. Telling stories.”
Dan’s perspective in a way echoes mine: that Creatavist, despite its techno-geek trappings, is actually harking back to an older form of story-telling where the author and narrator exist as a buffer between the reader and the narrative, something that has become increasingly rare in modern-day fiction. The inclusion of footnotes, images and so forth result in the foregrounding of storyteller—and simultaneously demonstrate an awareness of the existence of the reader.
“I’ve been re-reading The Great Gatsby, and Nick Carraway is very present as the narrator,” says Dan. “He’s telling the story, and he knows that he’s telling it to you, the reader. Something I try to do when I write first person narratives is think that, yes, this person is telling a story, but who are they telling it to, and why?”
Dan notes that in contemporary fiction much of this author-audience engagement has disappeared, with first person narration often tending towards the narrator “talking into space”, with the plot being foregrounded instead. Working with Creatavist allowed Dan to have his narrator engage directly with the audience.
“I enjoyed being able to insert those little moments where the character makes you step back [and gives you information], rather than leaving you to google something after you’ve read the story. The narrator is a personal trainer, and he’s a centre of knowledge of those things. The multimedia devices in the story give him a chance to explain what he’s talking about. It’s sort of an older style, but I think that that’s what first person narration was, and really should be. The narrator should own the story.”
In an era where director’s cuts and commentary abound, and where readers seem to want to engage with the author beyond their work, a platform like Creatavist also opens up another entirely different possibility: bringing the author to the forefront. Does Creatavist provide a way for authors to add layers of extra-narrative commentary to their work?
“I hadn’t necessarily thought about using it for that, for adding your intentions into a text,” says Dan, adding that he subscribes to the Roland Barthes theory about the death of the author.
“What I’ve created has absolutely nothing to do with me, but lives with the reader. While I’m happy to give the narrator of my story complete power, I’m less happy to give myself that complete power and prescribe my intentions for the text. It sounds a bit pretentious, but I don’t want you as a reader feel like you have to interpret it in a certain way. Obviously when I wrote Perfect I had intentions in mind, but you can read it in many different ways. As sort of quite shallow torture porn, or as a look at the male psyche, or the culture of body image and things like that. It’s really up to the reader. As long as people get all the way through it, and it makes them have an opinion, then my work is done.”
Interestingly, today’s readers are increasingly able to express their opinions about a text, and similarly to respond to them. Given how easy it is for audiences to create textual responses on their own, the original text can very easily become part of a narrative web rather than standing alone as a canonical piece of work. Not only is the role of the text changing, but so too is that of the reader: they’re no longer passive consumers of content, but rather become creators themselves, whether via short, pithy responses such as tweets or memes, or via considered, longer form responses.
“One of the great things about social media and blogging and culture and Twitter is that dialogue,” says Dan. “I think being able to discuss a work openly, and to have people respond, is an important thing to have as storytellers. You can look at something like fan-fiction, where people are so inspired and in love with what you’ve created that they want to use that as a platform for their own creation. I’m not endorsing or vilifying fan fiction in any way, but the fact that it exists shows exactly where we are; that the author doesn’t own their work. Once an author has written something they give up ownership.”
When F Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, he would never have conceived of a possible sub-genre of erotic fan-fiction involving Gatsby and Nick.
“There’s some good and some bad, but overall, having readers taking ownership of that text is a great thing. If you log on to Tumblr you’ll see a million fan-fiction style posts about Dr Who, Supernatural and Sherlock. Fans will take screen-grabs; they’ll create GIFs; they’ll write fan-fiction in weird sexual ways. It’s happening in literature. It’s happening in any sort of storytelling, any kind of narrative at the moment. It’s exciting for creators, because you can put something out there that people can respond to.”
I suggest that perhaps this is the twenty-first century version of carrying on the oral storytelling traditions of old.
“People certainly seem to not only want to create their own stories, but play with already created ones.”
The idea of playing, however, suggests something ephemeral and fleeting, and I can’t help but ponder whether platforms like Creatavist are less about encouraging deep engagement with storytelling than they are about feeding our insatiable desire to multitask. Does augmenting a story with multimedia elements encourage distraction, and if so, what does this mean for the way that we consume literature?
“I think you’re satisfying the reader’s curiosity and keeping them within your story, actually. I’m notorious for putting a book down and googling something because I want to know more, and obviously that pulls me out of the story. With something like this, you can kind of pre-empt what people might want to know more about that by embedding that information in the story, and have it as something that the narrator is telling you. I don’t necessarily think that distraction is a bad thing. It just plays to our natural curiosity, and the fact that we have all this information at our fingertips. This never used to be an issue in the past, which is why narrators would often break the fourth wall and talk directly to the reader and explain something. In a way, these sorts of multimedia texts are harking back to that.”
But although in many ways multimedia platforms can be seen as, somewhat contradictorily, a modern iteration of nostalgia, I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a distinctly contemporary element that’s at play here: the notion of “show don’t tell”, which I personally find very problematic, triumphing to an extreme. As platforms such as Creatavist become more prevalent, and more sophisticated, will we begin to see a shift away from story-telling that uses words—an approach that requires some degree of linearity—in favour of one that emphasises visual formats?
Dan emphatically disagrees.
“We were discussing David Shields and the death of the novel earlier, but it’s something that I don’t particularly agree with. The novel will always exist in some form. To me the idea of an ebook is ridiculous. It’s a book. It’s in electronic form, but it’s a book. You don’t say e-song, do you? In that sense the novel format will always be there.”
What Creativist does, he says, is give an opportunity to tell stories in different ways.
“My personal take on the platform is that it’s a great opportunity for telling stories, but that it doesn’t change anything, because the stories still have to be good. The written bits always have to be written well. Yes, there’s multimedia and music, but without the writing it all falls apart. I don’t think that the craft of writing is going anywhere. We’ll always write. In truth, people probably write more than they ever have—tweets, blogs and so on—although they probably don’t think of it as writing. And although perhaps as a consumer you might see fewer words and have to do less reading, it’s not that any less writing went into creating that story.”
Dan adds that despite our preciousness over the concept of “the novel”, the novel itself is a relatively new concept, having been born from the serial.
“Dickens, for example, would write a whole heap of serials that were then collected in a volume. Now we sit down to write a novel. That’s evolved over time. There’s no one way to tell a story. What Creatavist does is to give you these tools to tell a story however you want. The next story I tell might be twenty thousand words with no video at all, or I might choose to use more video. Storytelling formats are going to evolve.”
Given the apparent tug of war between visual and written forms of storytelling, and my propensity to play devil’s advocate, I’m curious to hear Dan’s take on which is at the heart of storytelling: the word, or the image.
“I’d probably expand the ‘word’ to the text. The story is a projection in the mind of the reader or the consumer. Without the text to stimulate that, it wouldn’t exist. I’m a minimalist. I subscribe to the idea of the Hemingway iceberg theory. Showing the least amount possible and letting the reader imagine the rest. It’s not a cop-out in any way: I’m not saying that I can’t be bothered to write the whole thing. It’s an approach that lets each reader bring their own thoughts and ideas to the story. In that sense it’s a collaborative effort. Without the text the story wouldn’t exist.”