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A novel experiment

In February this year, I mailed out 120 cardboard tubes – each a metre long – to colleagues, friends and most importantly to complete strangers, and then I crossed my fingers. This was the start of a writing experiment that encompassed 60,000 words, fifteen minutes of video, four digital prints, three websites and too many post-it notes to remember. The outcome of two years of planning, this ‘book’ is a hundred and sixty-seven separate fragments of text and video, which can be put back together in almost any order.

Amongst other things, it was meant as a call to arms to publishers who, even as they have woken up to what Apps might offer for non-fiction subjects, have been slower to address the potential of digital media as a vehicle for new forms of fictions.

What became known as #tubemystery on Twitter, and ‘anovelexperiment’ by email, was the end of an very intentional process of experimentation into what the form of the book might be when it addressed digital content, what kind of narrative content was appropriate, and how that form could be distributed and read. The project was partly successful, insofar as it definitely got the attention I sought in the initial stages, and generated discussion during, in the run up, and after the un-launch event at the Wellcome Collection in May.

(I’m blogging my thoughts at and going into more detail than would be appropriate here)

One aspect of the project that didn’t unfold entirely as planned, though, concerned its relationship to established patterns of narrative: that is, how it’s structure conformed to expectations, or otherwise. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to adhere to anything like a branching structure. The authorial, magisterial voice was removed; instead, the audience would wholly determine the shape that the written and filmed elements assumed. There were threads within the project, strands of narrative to be forced together in a Burroughs-ian cut-up manner, provoking connections and challenging the idea that a story has a mandatory meaning.

And there were pieces that I hoped would slide together thematically, guiding a reader through parts of a larger story, the detail of which was mostly up to them. The tone of writing I adopted for anovelexperiment; deliberately detached, dreamlike, two first person narrators and three voices; was a conscious choice – I wanted to subsume the reader in resonant tones, asking them to search for their own branches, their individual connections to the text. Anchors, in the shape of recurrent events and places – labyrinths, a jetty, a pool and a death – offered a thread to cling to. Acting on that set of grammatical devices, the content demanded it be told in the form it was ultimately offered.

I don’t think I under-estimated the audience. I still believe that there’s a readership for challenging narrative structures – the games industry, while not pushing the narrative envelope as much as it might think it does, still moves immersive storytelling forward in leaps and bounds – but I think that anovelexperiment, in the form I presented it, may have demanded a familiarity with something that hasn’t been widely seen in publishing for some time, and rarely in digital publishing at all – real experimentation with form and content.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Tree of Codes’ demonstrated several things to me. It showed that appearance, and novelty is valuable. Also that a storytelling technique that demands something Espen Aarseth called ‘ergodic reading’ – storytelling that requires, ‘non-trivial effort’ to negotiate – is not off-putting to reader. And, above all, it proved the form of the thing can be integral to the storytelling technique.

Tree of Codes’, would not have been a sell-out book, I suspect, without its fine and exclusive material presentation. Yet, with this presentation – the cut-out book pages and the tactility of the object – the book sold out its first print run in a matter of days. BS Johnson’s ‘The Unfortunates’ has recently been brought back into print; Mark Z Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ is still selling, more than a decade after it’s first publication. Without a doubt, these are exceptional books, but more than that, they are a semaphore message to the digital industry. Readers will seek out challenging texts, and they will embrace texts that don’t treat them like children to be entertained by shiny baubles and easy rewards. Texts that are aware of the confines of the form they inhabit are quite capable of revising their relationship with their reader.

Johnson’s novel struggles to escape the binding of linear chapters, Danielewski’s knows full well that the internet exists, that we read contemporaneous streams of story digitally without a second thought, and reworks that reading experience back into its nightmare.

At the conclusion of a project, it is tempting to offer sweeping assessments of the success, or otherwise, of the endeavour. I’m going to resist that urge, and instead address a very direct question to publishers:

What is it that you envisage for digital publishing and writing?

Dan Franklin of Random House has been admirably forthright in his calls for rethinking the form of the book in the digital age, but we’re yet to see a publisher grapple with that question in real, quantifiable terms. Readers will find texts that challenge conventions of form and content and they’ll make the time to explore complex narrative paths. But only courageous publishing, including experiments that have the courage to fail, will help shape that new constituency of readers.

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