Novel Hacks: thinking about how we read now

Like everyone else, I’ve been obsessively thinking about the gradual migration of all kinds of texts and reading from print-based to screen-based media.  I think about this both as a reader and especially as a teacher of digital natives.

To engage this area, I recently decided to move into two areas simultaneously in which I’m no expert: a) the history and theory of the novel genre (I’m a modernist whose first book was on documentary photography); and b) recent developments in digital humanities pedagogy emphasizing what Mark Sample calls “making things and sharing them” rather than the traditional pedagogical genres of response papers, essays, exams, and the like.

So I developed a course, “Novel Hacks,” that had students think about the past, present, and future of the novel genre by means of nearly everything other than reading novels: we read through some high points in the history of the genre, from Ian Watt to the present; we read some work by historians of the material text like Roger Chartier and Joanne Drucker [1]; we read some work on the emergence of born-digital fiction and its implications for the genre.  Throughout the course, as I’ll explain further in a moment, I wanted to break through students’ assumptions about the radical newness of our moment, especially regarding what they think of as a prestigious, old, and somewhat dusty genre.  We really chewed a lot on the work of William Warner’s early history of the novel, which emphasizes the notion of the novel as a media platform and makes us aware of continuities between early anxieties about novels and novel reading and more recent anxieties about, for example, movies in the 20s, comic books in the 50s, and video games today [2].

A central aim of the course was to have student think about novels as malleable objects, and hence to think of themselves as potential producers or co-producers of novels rather than simply as readers or critics of texts conceptualized as monumental and given.  So I divided students into three groups of 6-8: the first produced an audiobook; the second an annotated novel; and the third, a set of Moretti-style maps/graphs/trees pertaining to a novel.  In the interests of attention span, I’ll describe the first two in a bit more detail.

I urged students to choose a novel in the public domain so they could potentially publish it on the web, and they chose Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  I had them read Matthew Rubery’s work on Victorian literature and the audiobook [3] that emphasizes links between traditions of salon-based collective readings as well as public performances by celebrity authors and the consumption of audiobooks today.  I also had them examine some audiobooks hosted at and produced by far-flung networks of amateurs collaborating on the web.

The results were fascinating, as the students produced a fabulous recording using the College’s radio station’s equipment and open-source editing software.  In their responses to the project, the students discussed a wide range of issues that seem to me quite fresh and urgent for the study of the genre: what happens when the ostensibly neutral voice of the narrator changes every couple of chapters; what happens when a given reader confronts radically different voices marked by age, gender, ethnicity, regional dialect, etc.; what happens when a given reader confronts unfamiliar vocabulary or concepts and thus confronts the limits of his or her cultural capital vis a vis the text; and so on.  Perhaps the most interesting comment came from a student who claimed that the experience had changed her standard silent, solitary mode of reading, since she was newly aware of the pleasures of voicing novels in dramatic and affect-laden ways.

The second project was similar in that students were required to produce an edition of a novel in the public domain (they chose Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass).  I had them annotate it using, one of several themes or plug-ins for the WordPress blogging platform that allows readers of a post (i.e., any “primary” text posted by the site editor) to contribute marginalia that appear to the side of the text rather than beneath it.  It also allows comments to be pegged to paragraphs rather than posts as a whole, which opens up possibilities for closer engagement between primary texts and secondary marginal scribbles.  I had the students look at the NYPLs marvelous CANDIDE 2.0 for reference, a project in which both professors and lay readers were invited to annotate the entirety of Voltaire’s novel in 2009 during a physical exhibition on Voltaire’s life and work.

Here, I think the relevant critical reference point is Roland Barthes’s work on the “writerly” text, which I had students read [4].  Writing in the 1970s, Barthes promotes the idea that the death of the author opens up possibilities for a more porous, two-way relationship between the reading and writing, or between creative and critical prose, if you will.  Having students annotate texts in this way fleshes out Barthes’s rather ethereal vision and makes us think about the contingency of the literary text prior to being produced and materialized and consumed in a particular way.  The most interesting part of Barthes’s essay comes when he likens the “writerly” text to the relationship that pertained among consumers of music before the era of recorded music.  He hopes, I think, that being “writerly” will open up for us some of the pleasure and direct engagement that arose from the need to play a text at the old upright piano and thus mark it up with one’s own idiosyncratic emphases, limitations, and imperfections.  My students’ Looking Glass 2.0 had imperfections aplenty, but I also think it partakes of this spirit of Barthean play in ways that reflect back on past moments in the novel’s development and, perhaps, forward towards its future.

[1] See Roger Chartier, “Languages, Books, and Reading from the Printed Word to the Digital Text.” Critical Inquiry 31.1 (2004): 133–152 and Joanna Drucker, “The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-space.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Ed. Raymond George Siemens & Susan Schreibman. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2007. 216–32.

[2] William Warner, Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684-1750. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

[3] Rubery, Matthew. “Play It Again, Sam Weller: New Digital Audiobooks and Old Ways of Reading.” Journal of Victorian Culture 13.1 (2008): 58–79.

[4] Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” Image, Music, Text. Ed. & trans. by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 155–64. 




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