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New media writing and the mainstream

On Sunday the final round of the world’s only and the world’s first New Media Writing Prize, part of the Poole Literary Festival, came to its conclusion.  As one of five judges of the prize, it has been a fascinating journey into an unknown world, especially given that I have a background far from the heartlands of new media writing.

No one can be quite sure what it is. Online, interactive, making full use of the potential of the web and new technologies, yes, but in practice this is so vast an arena as to be almost useless. However as the judging process made clear there is still a distinct genre. One of the best introductions is the work of one my fellow judges, Andy Campbell, who has been a pioneer in the space and whose site Dreaming Methods demonstrates the lineaments of the form. Incidentally the other judges were digital writer Tim Wright, academic Jim Pope and games reviewer Tracey McGarrigan.  The emphasis is perhaps less on writing than storytelling in the broadest sense, with productions veering off into something like academic computer games or art installations or really something very new and incomparable to existing works, hence not describable in terms of them. Enhanced ebooks these are not.

New Media Writing is a genre and a form, but the boundaries of both are still unclear. It’s much like jazz – you know it right away even if you couldn’t necessarily describe what makes it so.

The judging panel were pleasantly surprised by the level of interest with 63 entrants to the main prize which ran in parallel to a student prize. Coming from around the world there was extraordinary variety, from apps to sound based sites, from location specific installation work to flash based websites coming up against typographic websites rubbing shoulders with deconstructions of the essay to cartoonish stories.  Quality varied widely but there were many, many exceptional works that didn’t make the shortlist. On it were:

Naomi Alderman – The Winter House

Katherine Norman – Yes Really

Christine Wilks – Underbelly

Alan Bigelow – My Summer Vacation

Jim Andrews – On Lionel Kearns

Ann Pitt –  The 02 Tales

Even within the shortlist the range is huge: Yes Really is a minimalist, intriguing and beautifully timed piece that cleverly uses email; On Lionel Kearns is a fascinating recreation of the essay in a digital format and an intelligent meditation on visual poetry and binary code; My Summer Vacation is haunting and painterly while The 02 Tales are charming non-linear takes on modern British life. To use the prize cliché there can only be one winner but it was a close run thing. We gave it to Christine Wilks’ exceptional Underbelly but gave a special commendation to The Winter House, a gripping Edwardian point and click adventure that harks back to early computer games, fireside board games like Cluedo, half remembered child hood novels, Sunday afternoon period dramas…it’s atmospheric, engaging, fun, and aesthetically coherent.

Underbelly is an intense, educational, visceral experience, that delves deep into new media territory and transforms our expectations of what could be called literature. Exploring the experience of women miners in the nineteenth century the look, sound and writing of the piece are all magnificently distinctive and skilfully designed. I learned a lot “reading” and it hung around for days. This is powerful stuff.

While the New Media Writing Prize to some extent puts the field in the spotlight there are several things holding it back from the mainstream.  Firstly the scene can be insular and difficult. Secondly with any highly emergent form acceptance and interest take a while to build, even as forms like computer games, film and marketing work that are aligned occupy most of the attention. Thirdly, and from a traditional publishers perspective critically, there is the absence of an obvious business model.  Apps are one solution but there is a degree of scepticism about how this would work, not least as there is a still a wild west feeling around the movement.

Early days it might be (although new media writing has been around since at least 1995 when the influential tr(A)ce centre was established) but publishing has some things to learn, particularly in terms of the application of technology to storytelling and the hands on approach to digital skillsets. Equally perhaps new media writing could learn something from the market or at least reader focused approach of commercial publishing.

As work on the prize made clear though, there is no shortage great ideas, done with panache, pushing boundaries and asking questions in digitally generated forms. Here is the internet as truly central rather than as a bolt on. The Prize is a step in the direction of wider recognition and integration; it will be interesting to see what happens next.

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