ANDREW GALLIX INTERVIEWS SUE THOMAS, DIRECTOR OF THE trAce ONLINE WRITING COMMUNITY WHICH IS ORGANISING AN INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON WRITING & THE INTERNET CALLED INCUBATION. HOW IS THE INTERNET AFFECTING LITERATURE? READ ON.
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The Incubation conference took place at the Nottingham Trent University (UK) July 10 through July 12 of this month.
Check out the trAce website: http://www.trace.ntu.ac.uk
3AM: Could you tell us about the trAce Online Writing Community, its history and purpose?
ST: trAce came out of my own interest, as a writer about technology, in the internet and what it offers for writers. It began in 1995 as a small research project at the Nottingham Trent University. I was teaching writing at the time, and, along with an MA Writing student Simon Mills, started a project called Cyberwriting which aimed to collect and review websites for writers. In 96 we renamed it to trAce and launched the website. In 1997 we received a 3-year grant from the Arts Council of England to establish an online community for writers, and that is when we really started to expand. Our original intention was simply to find and pass on information, but we have evolved into something much more complex. I think of trAce now as rather like an art centre - we still provide information, but we also provide training, studio space, exhibitions and all kinds of participatory creative activities.
3AM: How did the idea of an international conference on writing and the internet come about?
ST: We held a one-day conference in Nottingham in the autumn of 1998. The purpose of it was to introduce the UK literary scene to what writers were doing on the web. For that reason it had to be international, since most UK writers weren't doing very much! But the scene is changing all the time and more and more UK writers are getting online and discovering the web. In the UK the cost of access has put many people off using the web, and if they do get online they can't afford to stay on long enough to learn much. But that is changing too. Our main speakers at that conference were Dale Spender (Australia) and Mark Amerika (US)
3AM: Who are the most important speakers at this year's conference?
ST: We have three keynote speakers, each coming from a different area of practice. Gregory Ulmer (US), of the University of Florida, will speak about notions of literacy and electracy; Teri Hoskin (AUS), designer and co-editor of the Noon Quilt will talk on visual arts writing projects that merge on and offline environments, and novelist Geoff Ryman (UK & CA) will ask whether it is possible to balance the traditional generosity of the net with the need to commercialise?
We also have a Conference Address by performance artist Stelarc, who will examine the incubation of his own creative imaginings.
3AM: Who will attend the conference? How many people should attend?
ST: We have speakers from the UK, America, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Holland, & Slovenia. Delegates are also coming from several European countries and quite a few are travelling here from Australia and America. We're expecting a total of around 120 delegates of whom about a third are writers, a third academics, and a third arts administrators and researchers.
3AM: The first theme deals mainly with the discovery and invention of new literary forms through the internet. Could you give us a few instances of this?
ST: Obviously, hypertext has driven the way text is presented online, and indeed many of us think of all webtexts as 'hypertext.' A good example of a traditional hypertext is Geoff Ryman's 253, the story of a tube train disaster - http://www.ryman-novel.com . But producing a piece of writing with links inside it is only one way to write on the web. For example, Leonie Winson's Dark Lethe - http://www.innotts.co.uk/~leo/index.html - is described as "a collaborative story environment in which writers can create stories that interconnect, conflict, and conjoin in a new hyperlinked structure." Sites like this utilise hypertext for more than structure - they offer doorways into new interfaces between the characters, changes in tone, and changes in the actual writers themselves. trAce's own site Noon Quilt dispenses with hypertext altogether and simply presents a multiple work featuring short pieces by writers in 40 different countries who looked out of their windows at noon and wrote in 100 words what they could see - http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/quilt. Then there are poetry generators which use computer programs to generate new poems. Haikus, because of their rigid form, lend themselves especially well to this. Try searching the web for the latest versions. Lastly, the writing of text-based virtual worlds (MOOs) is always worth looking at. A mixture of programming and off-the-cuff writing, this material is challenging and exciting to try in an environment like LambdaMOO where words are all you are - telnet://lambda.moo.mud.org:8888.
3AM: Do you know if many hypertextual novels are on sale online, and if so, are any of them successful commercially?
ST: There are increasing numbers of online novels available commercially, but the ones I have seen have almost all been straightforward texts downloadable from the web. Eastgate have been producing hypertexts commercially on disk and CD-ROM for years but they are not downloadable - http://www.eastgate.com. I am not aware of any huge commercial successes in this field as yet.
3AM: Do you think these new literary forms are attracting "ordinary" readers or simply people who were already into "experimental" fiction?
ST: At trAce we are very interested in web literacy. I think that most people still find reading on the web quite hard-going, though having said that our recent survey of writers online showed that almost a third of respondents reported using the web for reading online. The survey is still open, by the way, at http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/question.htm. So the answer to your question is that yes, I do think that perhaps currently the majority of people who read these new forms are those who are interested in new developments anyway, but the scene is changing very fast. As web literacy develops, so will the number of people who are comfortable with reading online.
3AM: Is not hypertextual fiction limited in that it must be read online?
ST: Hypertext was in existence long before the world wide web, as can be seen from the Eastgate site. But it's true that the web has brought new dimensions to hypertext in that the links can now go anywhere outside the base text itself. I would suggest that it is only limited in the same way that TV is limited because it can only be watched on a television! Of course, there are problems of economics and access here, and the sooner they are dealt with the better. As we know, the net is still generally limited to those places which have phone lines, and as we also know, most people in the world have never made a phone call in their lives.
3AM: At the conference, will you consider some of the dangers of the internet? True talent could be swamped by mediocrity since anybody can be published or self-published (online literary reviews often tend to be less discerning than print journals because they cost next to nothing to produce).
In the same way (in the case of fiction in English), the internet is accelerating the Americanisation of the English language (some online literary zines systematically switch over to American spelling etc), and the bland globalisation of literature.
ST: This is the Gutenberg argument all over again. Make publishing easy and the market will be swamped. But it already is easy and the market already is swamped! Most printed material is already bland, facile and of poor quality. You only have to visit any remainder bookshop to count the number of unnecessary recipe books, how-to manuals, compendiums etc to see this. This will, of course, extend to the web. Plus there will also be huge amounts of poor quality writing self-published by people whose work has not been selected by print editors. BUT there is also a fascinating range of exciting work which is challenging in content, experimental in style, or too unusual for print editors to take a chance on. Plus of course the web-based work which cannot be created in print anyway. It's back to literacy again - people are learning what's valuable and what isn't. Re the Americanisation of language - this has been happening for years anyway. But on the web, language is actually becoming a hybrid of various Englishes plus emoticons and other styles which have developed in the online environment. But I have never believed in 'the bland globalisation of literature.' People who live in different cultures and places will always write about different experiences and points of view.
3AM: What do you hope this conference will achieve?
ST: We hope that Incubation will stimulate the exchange of creative thought and provide a meeting place for many diverse practitioners to connect and explore new ideas. There is an online discussion board which will continue for a while after the conference and everyone is very welcome to log on and get involved: http://hum-webboard.ntu.ac.uk/~incubation
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