I’m intrigued by what Phillip Pullman calls the ‘phase space’* – the area around what we call a finished story. In this space lie all the ideas that the author didn’t include in the tale, all the possible and details that he or she might think of once the story has been ‘finished’ and all the ‘what ifs’ readers might conjure once they’ve read the story. It’s an area opened wide by digitisation.
Fan fiction has played in that space for a long time, but this was never really acknowledged by a mainstream governed by notions of professionalism, copyright law and a (fiscal) necessity for version control. Works created in this space are often messy, unfinished or unbounded, and are sometimes in conflict with the message of the authorised work. Plus, they distract readers/fans from buying the original; they’re a publisher’s nightmare.
News providers, however, have found a way of turning that nightmare into a dream situation. By incorporating hyperlinks into their text and by welcoming reader contributions to their stories, through the employment of comment facilities, these media have accessed the phase space surrounding their stories, and in so doing have opened them up to longer lives and new directions. In fact, hyperlinking and reader contributions have become a normalized and accepted part of online news; Fairfax has recently released an app that makes it even easier for readers to send content their way.
This hasn’t been an easy process. Working out how to monetize and moderate comments has been difficult for news providers, yet they have done (are doing) it. What was once taboo is now the norm – news now lives in the phase space.
The same cannot be said for the book publishing industry. Works there are much sturdier than ephemeral news stories. Comments and contributions made to them might last the lifetime of the work. Novels in particular are silent contemplative affairs – reader communing directly with the author’s text – not via the opinions of Disgruntled Dave from Warrandyte. Plus, it’s been pretty hard, in the past, for those working in the phase space around novels to create and to distribute their works. Digital technologies have changed all that; Fifty Shades of Grey and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and others of that ilk) are examples of what might be called phase space novels made possible by digitisation. Of course there were phase space novels before this, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs comes to mind, but it is now much easier to for them both to be written and, as importantly, discovered.
But these are a limited kind of phase space novel. They spring from the space surrounding other works, yet they present as traditional ‘legacy’ novels and do nothing to open up or take advantage of the phase space they themselves create. Nor do they open themselves up to outside contributions as news stories do.
Max Barry’s Machine Man does. In the writing of that work Barry posted a page of writing a day on his blog, inviting readers to respond and or criticize. Whether he incorporated readers’ ideas into the final version or not is Barry’s secret. What is important is the fact that here was a writing process opened up, through digitisation, to a form of collaboration not possible with print.
So I’m intrigued by phase space and what it might offer authors and readers. This interest was piqued by Pullman and also by something cyber guru and novelist William Gibson said way back in 2007 in response to the question, ‘How has technology changed writing?’
He responded: ‘I have this sense when I write now that the text doesn’t stop at the end of the page and I suppose I could create web pages somewhere and lead people to them through the text which is an interesting concept.’
Gibson was referring to the plethora of fan fiction websites and blogs that had sprang up in the phase space that surrounded his novel Spook Country. These online locales created and expanded on the world created by Gibson in the novel. In effect they are a kind of reader-generated comment facility. But far from distracting the reader from Gibson’s work, they have added layers of interest and complexity to it, ensuring that not only did the story move beyond the page, it moved beyond the author too.
That’s really exciting bit.
We’ve all read novels that blew our minds, novels that stayed with us long after we’d left them, novels that we wished wouldn’t end, novels that contained relationships we’d have developed differently, novels that… the list could go on for a long time. The point is that it’s now possible for us to act on those wishes if we want to.
That’s not to say that we have to do so. That we have to leap into the phase space. The end-of-print hysteria that sprang up post the introduction of the Kindle has abated somewhat in recent times. We’re no longer so convinced that the e versus p debate is an either or situation. Maybe we can have both, for an extended period at least. We can still enjoy traditional ‘legacy’ novels (the demand for plain-text e-books has shown that, in the main, readers still prefer author led narratives to more collaborative storytelling situations) but we can also play with the phase space.
That notion of ‘play’ is important. Mainstream publishing is a very serious business – everyone has been going broke for as long as many of us can remember. They’re not able to take risks; they can’t step outside of their very slender profit margins.
But we can. We being the huge mass of people that Trendwatching.com calls Gen C. The generation willing and able to manipulate content online. The phase space is ours to do with what we will.
(John Weldon’s recently published novel Spincycle is an attempt at creating a narrative that engages directly with the phase space surrounding it.)
- Pullman discussed this concept in the 1997 Patrick Hardy lecture. His lecture was titled ‘Let’s Write it in Red’. I can’t for the life of me find a link to it online.