Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Implied authors and collaborative fiction

This week I have been working on revising the conference paper I gave on collaborative fiction.  Here's a few paragraphs where I reflect on the relationship between implied and historical authors and fiction:

The distinction between actual and implied authors is complicated by the online environment of the collaborative projects I'm examining. In narrative theory, the implied author is understood as a reading effect rather than a core role in narrative transmission (Toolan 2001:66), an anthropomorphised figure who may be quite distinct the historical author. The notional nature of the implied author has generated considerable controversy in narrative theory (summarised in Nunning 2005), but as Toolan goes on to point out, “the pictures we have of authors are always constructions, so that all authors are, if you like, ‘inferred authors’” (ibid). Indeed, the vagaries of online representation might tempt us to abandon the project of recovering historical authors for collaborative projects at all.

Both A Million Penguins and Protagonize offer the contributors the opportunity to represent themselves in a profile page. In Protagonize, the profiles follow a standard template where contributors supply an image, user name and information about themselves (which might include where they live, how long they have been writing and so on). Individual contributors vary in the degree of self-disclosure they employ, for example in whether to use a mimetic photograph (or not), a pseudonym or real name. How far a reader might build a biographical picture of the historical author from these paratexts can vary in precision, and the offline accuracy of any such picture cannot be determined from the online materials at all. The blurring of online and fictional identities is all the more exacerbated in the case of Free Your Mind. Contributors were invited to write their Protagonize identities into the story, which is constructed as a metafictional role playing adventure where the Protagonizers are a literary society that functions as a resistance movement. The characters in the storyworld bear the same names as the story contributors and some of the attributes derived from the user profiles, attributes that could be later carried over into playful discussions in the commentary.

In contrast, the user profiles for A Million Penguins were more or less devoid of mimetic information about the contributor’s offline identities. Like all the wiki pages, user pages could be edited by anyone, not just the writer themselves. Profiles of the story contributors were sometimes reconstructed (sometimes maliciously) by other writers. A case in point is the contributor named Pabruce. On 3 February 2007, Pabruce wrote a brief self description for his profile which linked to a myspace page for Paul Allen Bruce:

pabruce, aka "bruce the fierce", aka uncle paul singer songwriter, construction worker, marble collector see examples:

But this description was soon deleted and replaced by another contributor, Kate Fyne, who wrote an alternative profile for pabruce:

May or may not own a piano. Well known as being a pretty cool guy. Suspected Communist.

Before Pabruce finally deleted Kate Fynn’s alternative a week later, he inserted dialogic commentary around her text, indicating willing acceptance for multiple versions of his authorial persona to be constructed. But while Pabruce might have tolerated, if not played along with other people authoring his persona at this level, he deeply objected to his persona being treated as a fictional entity within the narrative pages of the wiki, or as Mason and Bruce put it “just another wiki character” (2008:5). When another contributor wrote a version of Pabruce into the wikinovel, Pabruce responded by leaving the project, stating that “Going to my myspace page and entering a thinly veiled version of my name INTO the novel is too wierd.” While the complex relationship between offline, online and fictional representation mean that implied authors remain a useful heuristic, we should not forget that beyond the narrative discourse, historic authors continue to exist and may feel strongly about their authorial identity.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Well, after a long, long time of not being a blogger, I have resurrected my Digital Narratives blog.

Reasons for the long, long time of not posting anything? Put that down to the crazily busy life I had as Programme Director for the BA English programmes at Birmingham City University. There were some great projects that I got involved in between February of last year and the present time - such as the Digital Spaces module we taught all our new first year undergraduates, and which I talked about at a recent English Subject Centre event on Digital Writing. But posting about how many emails I managed to get answered (or not) and how much research I was only slowly getting done (or not) just kept falling off the bottom of my 'to do' list.

Reasons for the resurrection? Well, I have a new job at the University of Leicester. I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to my many good friends at BCU, but after 13 years in post it was time to move on. And I am genuinely excited about the opportunities my new job holds, not least because of the time I now have to get on with some of the slowly languishing research. And I might even get time to blog about some of it.

So, some of the things I have been up to since finishing at BCU:
Revising my essay on small stories and status updates in Facebook - it will be coming out in Text and Talk very soon. I gave a version of this at the University of Sussex last month.
Presenting my work on collaborative storytelling (Protagonize and A Million Penguins) at the ISSN conference.
Writing an essay on Girl with a One Track Mind for the Journal of Literary Theory, which will form the basis of the keynote I'll be giving in Genoa later in the summer. Still working on getting over the flush factor in discussing the grammatical patterns of "shag" and "fuck" compared with "having sex". Writing this on the train on my way to and from Leicester has been interesting - especially when I nearly forgot to get off the train as I was so engrossed!

What I'm up to next is a wider analysis of the stories that get told in social media of various kinds. It's going to have to be Twitter next. And I am not sure I really 'get' Twitter yet. I have an account there too, so the resurrection will have to spread further, methinks! But if you have any tips for harvesting data from Twitter, or even just making sense of the tweets, let me know!