Photograph by Charles Hutchins shared via TwitterEver since I could finally track reader’s paths through my longer works of electronic fiction, I have been reflecting on ways to motivate readers through my stories, especially when there’s some plot-level pay-off I have written in. On the one hand, it’s a very typical web (and writerly) dilemma: How to keep the eyes on your page. On the other hand, it’s a question that’s unique to long-form electronic narrative, since traditionally that form requires sustained readerly attention, and the medium seems to promote anything but.

Those reader statistics showed me what pages people read, in what order, and how long they remained on each page, or at least kept each page open. Unfortunately, even those who had claimed to have read the entire work, rarely made it past 30 or 35 lexias.

I’ve brought this issue up several times, in public arenas, such as DAC ‘09 and ELO conferences, as well as more private exchanges, emails with Michael Joyce, Rob Wittig, and Juan Gutierrez. Reactions have ranged from blaming the story (just write a more compelling plot) to blaming the attention crisis (kids these days don’t read anything), but while these might be factors, those explanations offer little insight into how to use the medium better.

At one panel hosted by Rod Coover, at a moment where my crisis in faith in long form e-lit narratives was at it peak, I found myself recommending that authors create works that can accommodate partial attention, working as yet another open tab, clicked on and off, without concern, like less interactive media forms, such as TV or radio. Certainly, the works of netprov I’ve collaborated on follow that advice. But such a position is a rather unsatisfying acquiescence that is no doubt driven by a slavery to the vanity of hit stats. Also, can you imagine the folly of artists seeking only the path of least resistance to their reader’s minds? There would be no Ulysses, probably no Paradise Lost, no To the Lighthouse. Nothing but the page-turning thriller and the flashiest of flash fiction would remain. The fleeting attention of reader’s at the interface should not be cause for deforming one’s artistic practice.

Nonetheless, solving the problems of getting readers through and deeper into longer form electronic narratives acknowledges genre and media-specific challenges, the lived realities of our media moment, and the larger challenges of storytelling in any form

As I work on a new piece, I just wanted to take some time to share a few of the ideas that others have suggested.

1. Go Fractal: Every small piece of the story contains the entire story or can at least stand in for it. There’s a little of this strategy in the narratives and monologues of The LA Flood Project.

2. Eschew Plot: If long-form plot relies on a pre-empted or delayed revelation, create other kinds of stories where plot is de-emphasized, where the power comes not in reaching the revelation on page 934, but in savoring each page.

3. Use External Motivators: Use scoring mechanisms: Such a device would present readers with incentives (external to the narration) to encourage readers to continue. Badges, points scored, et cetera.

4. Create a Shallow Bowl Atop a Larger Cistern: I guess this technique is the most satisfying one. One e-lit author explained to me that his works can be read by the visitor who merely wants to sample through an initial pass that offers a highly condensed version of the story, opening up into more detail and depth as the reader peruses over a longer time. This technique can be achieved merely by using gate mechanisms, keeping certain story materials hidden until a flag has been reached. However, this narrative technique is also used in print stories. Consider Toni Morrison’s Jazz, which tells its full story in a nutshell and then expands. It is a kind of overture approach.

The advantage to this approach, is that the work can be at once offered for the reader who is merely passing by, or, like many e-lit readers, merely trying to get a sense of how the medium is being used, without sacrificing the larger goals of the project. Readers could achieve varying levels of knowledge of the story, like knowledge of an acquaintance versus that of a close personal friend.

Which isn’t to say that e-lit authors need to focus on shorter works or that any work should be judged solely on the number of people who feel compelled to complete it, but in as much as electronic literature is an exercise in the experimentation of emerging forms, the paths of readers is an important measure of impact. And if you are trying to tell a story in this form at some point you must contend with the measurable realities of reading practices online, which no doubt, are still (and will always be) very much in flux.

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