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‘On the digital essay’, a panel discussion at the LRB

A panel at the London Review of Books bookshop last week saw literary thinkers tackling the problems thrown up by an experimental online essay. Kat Sommers asks what’s really being disrupted, here.

Nicholas Spice, publisher of the London Review of Books and chairman of a panel discussion last Thursday on digital media and the literary essay, doesn’t pull any punches. In the middle of the discussion, and after a few defences of the concept of a ‘digital essay’, he asked: “Does visualising words weaken how they work on our brain?”

Also on the panel were Will Self, the novelist and writer of Kafka’s Wound, a recent experiment in the form, Helen Jeffrey, an Associate Publisher at the LRB, and Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Random House. And squeezed into rows of seats in the London Review Bookshop on Bury Place, surrounded by towering shelves of books was an audience of readers and subscribers to the paper, a “large percentage” of whom, ventured Self, “are digital migrants, rather than digital natives”.

The question of visualising the written word is also at the heart of the essay Self has written, the LRB’s addition to cultural and arts website, The Space. Reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory alongside a short story by Kafka prompted Self to embark on a line of thought that included visits to Prague, public discussions and research, and something even more unfamiliar to a writer used to isolation and introspection: working collaboratively. This project took in over 70 people, from editors and academic colleagues at Brunel University to video producers and web and games developers.

The result is impressive. Scattered among the linear text of a traditional literary essay are videos, graphic visualisations and essays nested within essays. It certainly gains attention, but can it keep it? Call this approach what you like – interactive, branching, connective – it is essentially disruptive to any single line of thought.

And that, as many commentators have pointed out, might not be a good habit to get into. Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’, argued that inserting ‘content’ into all the ‘quiet spaces’ opened up by deep reading would lead inevitably to a decline in our ability to think:

“The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds.”

If ‘intellectual vibrations’ have long been a part of the reader’s experience, then digital literary experiments such as Kafka’s Wound explore what happens when those vibrations are embedded in the text itself – when the writer, rather than hone and shape all their thoughts into carefully crafted sentences, allows some of them space on the page.

As I described in an earlier post, this project is not just an experiment in form, but attention. And the question of attention, as Nicholas Spice pointed out, is “absolutely central” to the LRB. Its continued existence as a fortnightly paper might demonstrate that a commercial model still exists for essay-length, beautifully written journalism, but it is also acutely aware of the continuing shift of our attention onto screens and flashy graphics.

Helen Jeffrey, the Associate Publisher responsible for producing Kafka’s Wound, was at pains to show how visuals can enhance, rather than detract from, the written word. “This is more than an illustrated essay,” she said.

Freed from the confines of word length and physical page size, the editors still set careful limits: content was commissioned as Self’s thesis developed, and none of the many things to click on link out of the essay into the wider web. It is its own entity, self-contained. The aim, Jeffrey explained, was that the reader should never lose sight of the last sentence they read, or drop Self’s line of thought.

A lack of time and resources, Self admitted, meant the rigour he applied to the written text could not be applied to every aspect of this sprawling essay. And sprawl it does: some of the videos appear unedited, too long not to lose one’s place, and the relevance of extra content to the particular line it illustrates is sometimes not clear.

It is a bold experiment nevertheless. We are at an early stage in the development of digital media. As Dan Franklin, lone voice of the digital natives, pointed out, we have yet to get to grips with the potential of the web as a platform. Perhaps the ambivalence of this project’s author and editors towards visual and interactive content – in particular its demand on our attentiveness – is an overdue intervention.

It is certainly a testament to the power of words. If the pictures are better on radio than on TV, then they are surely even better when read. For all its visual diversions, Self’s essay demonstrates how words can themselves create images. It features a passage from Kafka’s story A Country Doctor describing a raw and fleshy wound. The words conjure vivid images with no graphics at all: a rose, a memory of an earlier wound, a war fought in trenches, a black hole.

We may be stumbling on through trial and error, but these experiments are a reminder that reading and writing can always been personal and never need to be passive. There is nothing more intimate than the meeting of writer and reader on the page – or screen, of course.

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