What is a story? How do we experience stories in a world of increasing interconnectivity where traditional narrative lines are blurred, even nonexistent or redrawn according to a new set of rules that don’t yet make sense to us?
Stories have ancient roots. We’ve relied on this comforting fact. But if we look at the story’s transformation from Homer to Borges and Cortázar to Deena Larsen, Lev Manovich, and Peter Horvath we experience a monumental socio-cultural-technical shift that moves from the oral to the digital where we’re unsure what counts anymore.
We require new ways of making sense. “If we are entering a new world,” says David Weinberger in Small Pieces Loosely Joined, “then we are also becoming new people.”
New storytellers are engaged in remixing and translating, with great speed and compression, experiencing the story more as a gesture rather than a thick narrative with fully drawn characters navigating a linear plot line. New storytellers appropriate from one another—and from the past and from other forms: painting, music, film, traditional texts, Web sites; they’re challenging boundaries and disciplines.
New storytellers are drawn to the freshness, the inventiveness that comes with “entering a new world” comprised of multiple selves—the public and the private, the digital and the physical, the psychological, emotional, and spiritual. The new storyteller is the translator of our complex—and subtle—novelty, working to obliterate distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, and our sense of space.
In 2011, half of Japan’s top ten best-selling novels were originally cell phone novels, typically love stories written in short, text message format. Cell phone novels are the preferred medium of new age authors not out of preference, but out of necessity.
The new storyteller, like an apprentice, is always learning, morphing, adjusting to unstable conditions; this requires an extraordinary sense of audience, inviting the storyteller to sometimes incorporate the reader into the narrative—like receiving a short novel on your cell phone, a serial piece on Twitter, and a drama about how our brains work on RadioLab. All mediums count all the time, like instruments in a symphony orchestra.
In 2012, Margaret Atwood, who has written 13 novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale, went on Byliner, a web site that’s billed as a new platform for writers, and began a serial novel, Positron, where, for a few dollars, readers collaborated with her, commenting on scenes and episodes, and determining the direction of the narrative. Atwood compared her experience to improv comedy, to creating a story live before an audience.
In 1997, Janet Murray, in Hamlet on the Holodeck, predicted the coming of participatory television, the holodeck we, the audience, help create. I think we’ve arrived. Remember the science in Minority Report? Well, John Underkoffler is combining traditional tabular data with 3D and geospatial information manipulated through space, not via a keyboard. It’s here. Now.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, himself once a new storyteller, asks, “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?” New storytellers are responding to Emerson, carrying on his legacy. “The sun shines to-day also…There are new lands, new men, new thoughts,” he says. “Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
In 1974, the Specification of Internet Transmission Control Program, a different sort of story written by three different kinds of storytellers, Vinton Cerf, Yogen Dalal, and Carl Sunshine, used the term internet as shorthand for internetworking and our new storytellers were born. And here we are, moving, becoming something else by as early as tomorrow.
Hector Vila is an assistant professor of writing at Middlebury.