A (S)Creed for Digital Fiction

9 March 2010 in Future of Publishing

Yesterday I sat up and took note when an e-mail from the Electronic Book Review (ebr) arrived in my inbox.  Listed in its brief summary of the articles in the most recent volume, was this:

A [S]creed for Digital Fiction” by Alice Bell, Astrid Ensslin, Dave Ciccoricco, Hans Rustad, Jess Laccetti, and Jessica Pressman.

I took myself over to the url in question, and read the screed. 

It’s an elegant piece of writing.  For me one of the most important aspects of this anti-manifesto comes in its title - ‘A (S)creed for Digital Fiction’.  Not that tricksy ‘(S)Creed’ (I’m tired of words broken up by brackets, though I can see the point they are making in the Introduction), but digital fiction.  Does this mean that, at last, we have agreed on a name for the kind of media-rich, screen-dependent, born-digital, works of fiction that folks have been creating and disseminating for the last fifteen years or so?  ‘Digital fiction’ is definitely my preferred term, and I’ve found myself using it freely of late, with less obligation to explain what that might mean.  So, hurray for the Digital Fiction International Network for this not-so-simple act of naming.

DFIN’s list of what the screed includes is generous and rich; while it ticks the theoretical buttons that, as a writer, I find less interesting, it also foregrounds ‘readers’, ‘reading’, and ‘re-reading’.  Its broad inclusiveness is inspiring, and I like this approach to defining a set of concepts, by listing what is ‘embraced’.  Over at TRG we are continuing to work on a definition of transliteracy and DFIN has provided us with a useful model here. 

The list of what the screed embraces is followed by a list of what the screed ‘deliberately neglects’ and this too is thought-provoking.  However, I think they have jumped the gun a bit by including ‘e-books’.  I know why they have included e-books on their list of exclusions - when I gave my talk at Banff In(ter)ventions (those pesky brackets again) one of my manifesto points was the bad-tempered ‘Stop Talking About E-books; e-books are boring’.  However, despite my own weariness with the subject, I think e-books are undergoing a rapid and soon-to-snowball set of changes and advancements and the ‘paper-under-glass texts’ analogy DFIN uses will soon no longer hold true.  ‘Enhanced editions’ and single-book apps where the author provides a wealth of extra digital material that is embedded in the text, from audio recordings of the author reading to music composed by the author, are already beginning to appear;  children’s books are undergoing a rapid revolution as the games industry giant EA collaborates with publishers to create works like ‘Artemis Fowl’ for Nintendo DS - fully interactive, with games, puzzles and a whole wealth of extra material for the reader to explore, embedded in the text.  Both these examples are still a considerable distance from what I consider to be ‘digital fiction’, as both are still pretty much a traditional print book with a bunch of e-extras added on.  However, e-books will doubtless continue to transform, especially as e-readers become more sophisticated and people really do want to get the most out of the potential for reading a story on a screen. 

Personally, my current anxiety around the form is that the kind of work I’m involved in, digital fictions like the latest iteration of ‘Flight Paths’, will be completely swept aside and obliterated by the Great Machine of Corporate Publishing as it discovers the huge potential for digital fiction, and that works of this type, with their hand-made and very personal aesthetic, will soon look like a movie I made on my mobile phone when everything else looks like ‘Avatar’.


David (Jhave) Johnston, 22 March 2010, 07:10 PM

I don’t normally leave comments, but I wanted to say Hello and let you know your current anxiety is shared, and made me chuckle. I am continually (sometimes painfully, other times ironically) aware that our most audacious experiments as independent digital fiction practitioners are child’s play technically in comparison to ads, kids shows (the 3D!), games, and other mainstream mass-produced big-budget culture. It is this irreprable gap that convinces me content and concept and sensibility are not (yet) irrelevant.

Kate, 23 March 2010, 09:49 AM

Thanks David Jhave - Hello to you too!  I don’t normally receive comments, so… welcome and thank you!  I guess it has always been true that there is room for hand-made culture in a world of mass-market culture… otherwise painting wouldn’t have survived as an art form.  But I still have the sensation that there is a steamroller around the corner revving up in order to flatten us.  xx Kate

David (Jhave) Johnston, 23 March 2010, 02:53 PM

Hi Kate,

Agreed: steamroller probability is very high. But as you also suggest, maybe the steamrollers have always been active, paintings persistence & poetry’s marginal status being symptoms of their presence. On the other hand, “Flight Paths” (somewhat tragic) plotline might make it non-amenable to ingestion by the machine, so it might be a survivor regardless of how techniques evolve.

p.s. my other peripheral intention with the comment was to say hello. Feel free to send me an email thru the address associated with this comment so we can stay in touch.


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