Monday, 25 June 2007

Steven Hall and interactive reading

Steven Hall, author of The Raw Shark Texts, spoke at the Sydney Writers' Festival. Transcript from ABC Radio National available here. Hall comes from an arts background (an interview on ABC's Bookshow described him as a 'text based artist', meaning – I assume – he experimented with layout and typographic illustration) which he points out gives him a slightly different perspective than critics who are less 'broadminded' about his visual devices:
For example, centuries after Laurence Sterne included a marble page and a pure black page in Tristram Shandy, these storytelling techniques are still considered 'experimental' or even worse, 'gimmicky' in some book circles; whereas in art you can sit in a gallery with a dead lobster on your head for a week without fear of being accused of either.
Again, another recognition of the problem with the term 'gimmicky' ... reassures me that I'm on the right track asking the questions why is this phenomenon not merely gimmickry?, and why is this a unique mode of communication/what are the potentials for this to be a unique mode of communication?
Hall justifies his interest in visual devices, as long as they enhance the experience of reading:
I'm a huge advocate of unusual typesetting, visual elements, even altering the structure of a book itself, but these devices must always enhance the reading experience rather than obstruct it ... The idea of interactive books, though, is not without its pitfalls. After all, we read a book because we're interested in the writer's ideas and the way they tell a story; we don't necessarily want to have to start writing the ending ourselves. But this new interactivity is less about the reader having to create a story and more about offering the reader opportunities to find more of the story for themselves if they're interested in doing so. I guess there are parallels between this form of interaction with an extended text and the appeal of trying to work out a 'whodunnit' mystery as you get closer to the end. It's not about creating so much as the offer of a more active form of engagement.

Again, supporting my claim that these visual devices are not 'gimmickry' if they are integrated in/intrinsic to the text, though Hall supports the idea that the elements can be supplementary rather than necessarily 'intrinsic'. His notion of a 'more active form of engagement' returns to my initial idea of a 'third reading' that occurs when the visual and verbal collide. Perhaps this idea is worth revisiting.

Further, his (publisher's?) strategy of releasing slightly different editions in different countries is an interesting way of playing with the book form that is unusual in commercial publishing (though I own two copies of House of Leaves - one with colour, the other without). That Hall expected a fight with his publisher about including the visual devices (a series of blank pages, followed by the 'flip-book' emergence of a typographic shark...you have to see it to understand how well it works) but didn't actually meet resistance is interesting - another indication that this is becoming a more accepted phenomenon?

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