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Crossing Genres In Digital Writing

by Kendall Dunkelberg 19th November 2019

Kendall Dunkelberg explores writing in the modern age and the rise of digital literature covering diverse genres.

Writing today is becoming less genre-bound and more fluid. Witness the lyric essay in creative nonfiction or the many ways that fiction borrows from memoir and essay forms. Innovations in one genre come from studying and even writing in the forms of another. This isn’t exactly new, after all, but it seems that the pace is accelerating and the lines between genres have become more blurred in recent years, and I suspect this may be influenced by digital culture that like any other technological innovation has caused changes in art.

In 1936, Walter Benjamin published “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in which he considers how the means of production of the work of art changes in the modern world due to our ability to mechanically reproduce it. One such change came with the advent of photography, which allowed for portraits and artistic photographs that could be inexpensively reproduced. Benjamin also considers the mass media of his day: newspapers and illustrated magazines. But the new medium that intrigues him most is cinema, since movies bring art to the common people in the movie houses.

For Benjamin, the mechanical reproduction of the work of art changes the relationship of the artist to the work of art and to the public. These changes in the mode of production of art and other forms of communication change more than the forms that art takes on; they change our way of looking at and understanding the world. Because film creates the illusion of motion by rapidly displaying a series of still images, he defines this new mode of perception as "reception in a state of destruction," and argues that it is "symptomatic of profound changes in apperception." Imagine what Benjamin would have thought about the work of art in the digital age.
As technology continues to make it easier to create and to distribute digital literature, our relationship to text will also change, even as it did with new technologies of the printing press, radio, or cinema.

In my MFA program, I teach a class on Writing for New Media, where we look at the effects of technology on writing. I like to start by thinking about how the printing press changed not only who could write and read, but also what could be written. We look at emblems, poems accompanied by and commenting on engravings, which became popular around that time. We also talk about how photography, cinematography, radio, and television affected the way we think about time and story structure in the modern age. Some forms of narration such as alternating third person limited points of view were likely easier to accept because readers could imagine a camera following the characters and “telling” the story.

We look at how concrete poetry theorized a visual poetry that could be set in motion before that was literally possible. Later poets using digital technologies created kinetic poems that not only move on the screen, but can be interactive, reacting to the reader’s click of the mouse. In fiction, writers theorized nonlinear narratives, and experimental writers such as Julio Cortazar in the novel Hopscotch broke the linearity of narrative by the use of footnotes, giving the reader the choice to read straight through a much shorter narrative or to follow a more convoluted and much longer path through time and space to reach an alternate ending and a very different understanding of events.
Photo by Unknown. Avaliable on Pxhere by CC0
By using hypertext, digital writers were able to create truly multi-faceted narratives, though orchestrating and controlling all these strands so they don’t result in utter chaos can be challenging. Writers can also tell linked stories using social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram, linking from one tweet, post, or even platform to another. We also tell stories using online maps or write text-based or animated video games. A Twitter story is much more lyrical due to the restriction on the number of characters per tweet, and a series of poems written as locations on a map often takes on its own kind of narrative. A video game establishes an environment and allows the player to create a new story each time it is played. On any of these platforms writers can embed images and video along with the written text.

My students work in both lyric and narrative forms, and because they bring in the performative aspects of drama or find visual ways to represent the story or poem, their writing naturally crosses genre. They don’t think in terms of story or poetry forms that are familiar, but instead naturally bend the form to work with the platform. This opens up creative ways to think of form that I hope will infuse their other writing.

As technology continues to make it easier to create and to distribute digital literature, our relationship to text will also change, even as it did with new technologies of the printing press, radio, or cinema. Many of my students are digital natives: they have been reading on digital platforms all their lives. Though the centuries-old traditions of narrative and lyric forms aren’t likely to disappear, as young writers have more innate experience with navigating links and combining image, video, and text, they will also find new forms or new ways of combining traditional forms.
Featured image credit: Photo by Karolina Grabowska. Avaliable via Pixabay.