Last Sunday, I finally called Dylan Kinnett. Well, I had called him once before, but only for a few minutes. We have been trying to connect since early November.
I knew that our conversation would be a long one, so I had been the one to suggest we talk. My post-RSI fingers aren't in for many long emails, and such communication is slow. Telephones can be much more productive.
Dylan is rather different than I. He has trained to be a creative writer. I have not. He has names for things that to me are feelings or anchors to excerpts from books. This is a good thing. It means that we can contribute much to each others' understandings.
Dylan and I talked about "To Win, Simply Play." Some of his readers disliked feeling disoriented. But for me, that was key to the novella. So we tried to think of ways that he could trick the reader into thinking less disoriented without actually being disoriented. Our thoughts drifted to Griffin & Sabine.
Written by Nick Bantock, this "novel" is incredibly disorienting. And yet, one is drawn forward through this highly unconventional story because the navigation metaphor is appropriate to the story. See, in Griffin & Sabine, the reader isn't reading a traditional text. Rather, the novel is made up of postcards. Instead of reading a normal, linear work, we read actual poscards, with postage and everything. If printed in a normal book, a progression of letters would seem odd. I might not read the whole thing.
But, opening the envolopes and reading the letters inside, it doesn't seem so odd. By immersing the reader in a conventional metaphor that we all understand, Bantock was able to create an enjoyable novel out of something that might have been inscrutable.
Dylan and I discussed how this might be done in a hypertext.
Of course, there's a problem.
Metaphors only take us so far. For example, the Desktop Metaphor in computers fails to give us anything nearly as useful as an actual desk, with actual paper. The computer innovation that is anything near useful is not the desktop metaphor, but rather the keyboard and mouse, which work perfectly fine in text-only interfaces.
So there seems to be a tension between acceptance and grok level, at least in software. One can do more interesting things the farther one gets away from traditional metaphors-- though one can do horrible things too. You have to work harder the farther away you get from what you know-- but one also finds that people are less likely to spend the time to understand it. The challenge in IA, interface design, and indeed, in hypertext literature, is that we're supposed to make these things powerful, intuitive, and very easy-to-understand. And all three are somehow supposed to convege.
To use a warfare metaphor -- we are much more willing to buy computer systems that are like pistols (simple -- just pull the trigger) than something elegant, like a Katana. We go for the least amount of effort on our part. This is why I like Tinderbox, which is a piece of software that takes discipline and training to master, but which is much better suited for precision information handling than Saturday Night Specials like word processors.
So Dylan has this problem -- who does he write for? Art is different than productivity software in a number of ways. It doesn't have to be useful (though lots of art is).
But this is a bit of an old problem. As a literature student, I enjoy books like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness very much. And yet, few aside from literary-minded people enjoy that work. His work is not particularly accessible, but I enjoyed it.
But perhaps it's a false dilemma. Bantock's postcard books can be accessible to nearly anyone who has ever received mail.
Here, in the 21st century, a time heavily influenced by television and other moving pictures, traditional writing is alive and well. But I think to be experimental, one has to really work with the visual to make an immersive experience. And in that, except for cases like Bantock, we must look to kid's books for inspiration.
This is not because there is something particularly right or natural about the form. It's just because the visual (I think with a bit of sadness) is the primary form of narrative people understand.
I am encouraged that Dylan wants to improve his work. On the phone, I could tell he felt a little embarrassed that he had not risen to new vistas of intellectual and creative activity. But editing is good. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. He took 9 years (or was it 7? 8? I forget) to write Heart of Darkness.