interactive literature

Taras Tymoshenko, interactive literature advocate

I decided to become a writer early on. While I was practicing for that calling I found many opportunities for downtime, which probably wasn’t a good start. Around the mid-2000s, as I thought about what I could contribute to the long, proud literary tradition, I noticed that there were people making comics and putting them online. It was a rich vein of free entertainment for a kid who didn’t know the first thing about piracy, so I got hooked.

My favorite webcomics told long, complex stories that spanned years, both in the lives of the characters and their creators. That most of them were roughly drawn and haphazardly plotted didn’t matter, because these people had never been allowed to tell these stories this way before. They could create something with the complexity of a novel, all by themselves, and lay it out for the world to see. That these people could grab the attention of so many, with so few apparent complications and expenses, seemed magical. Even the worst, most primitive comics had the virtue of communicating that anybody could do this if they wanted.

Other webcomics fascinated me because they were doing things I had never seen before, that hadn’t been possible before the Internet set the medium loose. Ideas were coming from everywhere. Webcomics, webtoons, and even flash games all seemed like an expression of the same newfound artistic and technical freedoms. In some cases it was hard to put these creations into one category or another—I talk about webcomics here only because I can’t find one word that would constitute all of these new forms.

Inspired, I scribbled out some comics right away. Being a webcomic fan in those days, you could hardly keep from becoming a webcomic creator. I remember developing a callus from drawing with my laptop’s nipple mouse, laboriously faking brushstrokes with MS Paint’s pencil tool. Needless to say my own contributions didn’t register as even a blip in the webcomic multiverse, but that was fine, it was all for fun. I didn’t treat webcomics as a lesser pursuit than my writing, but I had no doubt with which of the two my eventual destiny lay.

My first major writing project was a collection of interconnected short stories (nine in all—I was a big Salinger fan) which I titled Carefree Arizona. Having no other outlet at the time, and being pretty used to the webcomic model by then, I published it online. I didn’t expect a huge surge of attention, but, having finished the work, I actually couldn’t even imagine it. There was no way, regardless of quality, regardless of promotion, that the Internet would pay the same level of attention to some short stories that they did to webcomics.

Then, later, I saw the contradictions inherent in the work itself. In retrospect it seemed like I wanted to make a comic all along, or at least something visual. The stories were concerned with imagery more than anything else, and often my clumsy attempts to describe what I could have more easily drawn served to muddle everything even more than my inexperience. The images in your head when you read are prompted by the writer’s descriptions, but belong to nobody else but the reader. I could never give up that control, so I struggled with prose in an unnatural step toward the definite and exact. The things I thought I valued in literature turned out to be the reader’s images, not the writer’s.

I remember my struggle to invent a new way of describing the world of my story in prose. A “radial description” wherein the reader’s viewpoint is positioned in a tree, looking down at the vast landscape that surrounds it, seeing the story play out on that 360 degree stage. A way of making the reader feel that they could turn and look around within my story escaped me. There was also my attempt at conveying an infinite regression, like so: “And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other …” And so on. The units that made up the regression never flowed into each other smoothly enough, and the linearity of the medium prevented me from escaping the reality of the finite and installing the illusion of the infinite. These things turned out to be easy—they just required materials other than words.

Eventually I did leave writing behind, and turned my attention fully to webcomics. I ran very far from writing, believing that the fewer words they contained, the purer comics were. The more closely wedded to their visual nature, the better. I should have learned a lesson from the early days of webcomics about borders and purity. They’re imaginary, arbitrary, and in a truly creative setting they cease to matter. The only thing that matters is a good idea—or even a bad one, if it’s interesting.

A History of Interactive Literature

Interactive literature

“The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges

Literature itself has long been grasping at something beyond its borders, and with more success than my “radial descriptions.” Trashy works like Choose Your Own Adventure, but also respected junk like Pale Fire and “The Garden of Forking Paths” are fine examples. Some works play with formatting and structure, while other literary masterpieces boast generously illustrated first editions, usually stripped down to the text after they’ve distinguished themselves.

People are reading more than ever—they’re just not reading the same things or in the same ways. Interactive literature of various types has been around since the 1970’s, and is currently enjoying a healthy surge of popularity. On the more conventionally-structured end, there’s slash fiction, which, whatever you think of its general quality, is subversive in its appropriation of intellectual property and its treatment of it. And it couldn’t exist in such a visible way without the freedom that technology grants. More significantly, writing is threaded through everything we do online. We don’t experience it continuously anymore; it’s more discrete, and it’s mixed in with many other elements. This is all just for a start, though.

Computers and the Internet have exposed all media as artificial constructions. There are areas where certain media find the most success, such as the video game’s ability to create worlds, and the novel’s strength at peering into the human mind, but purity is an illusion caused by physical restrictions. People often mistake a concept’s recent history for its entire history—paper is just one stage on the journey of an idea.

There is a persistent belief that linear, printed, non-visual narratives are the literary ideal. In fact a lot of what we now think of as gospel, as the way a novel must be, actually stems from the technical limitations of printing. Words were much easier to reproduce than pictures, linear stories were easier to bind and organize, and options for narrative interactivity through a medium of ink and dead wood were severely limited. The format of the modern novel developed out of these and other physical limitations, and along the way became codified and deified by writers who did incredible things working with very primitive technology. I’m a believer in limitations encouraging creativity, but I’m also a believer in picking your own limitations, whenever you can. It’s the difference between walking into a room and being thrown into a cage.

Interactive Literature and the Oral Tradition

In many ways more hybridized, non-linear, visually-aided storytelling is a return to the earliest oral traditions. The same basic stories would be transformed by different storytellers, who would use costumes, props, and their environments to enrich their tales, while the audience could react, ask questions, and encourage the storyteller to alter their telling in various ways. It all added up to an interactive multimedia extravaganza in the ancient world—or so I imagine. I wasn’t there, but the tradition of oral storytelling of course continues to this day, and it was in fact the technology of writing and printing that separated it from literature. It’s not a new observation that things tend to go in cycles: when photography arrived on the scene, realism in art hit a peak and the art world looked back at primitive art to find another way forward. It’s entirely possible that literature, triggered by the invention of the computer, is itself at the start of a new cycle.

It’s now any writer’s job to find the things they most value in literature, which is harder than trying to adhere to the things that have been historically valued, but more rewarding, both in a personal and public sense. Maybe once you find the elements you value your work will end up having little resemblance to literature as it’s generally understood. That’s okay. There’s more than one way to define literature, and more than a couple of ways to tell a story.

Taras Tymoshenko is a cartoonist who is working on bringing comics into the third dimension. Before he was doing that he made various comics for SBBoard.com, mainly a long-form comic about a cult titled Floatillion. Most prestigiously, sometimes he posts comics on Twitter.

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