Critical Mass

Making webfiction explode

Monday, January 28, 2008Filed in Editorials, Sidebars

Priming the Pump

[Main article: No Uncertain Terms]

Unanswered Questions

My first article here, “No Uncertain Terms,” has taken me quite some time to write. Part of this has been due to the amount of work required to write a long discussion of anything, even something where the basic outline and content are already known. Part of this has been due to having to revise it to make sure that someone whose eyes glaze over when presented with abstract, technical language won’t stop reading two sentences into it. However, part of it has also been realizing that, despite what I initially assumed, neither the outline nor the content of the article was as well-known to me as I thought that it was.

It is very important to realize how little one knows. Had I not realized how many unsupported assumptions I was making in attempting to precisely define “webfiction,” my later critical thought would have been skewed at best. This, in turn, could have negatively affected and restricted my own webfiction, as how I thought about the nature of my writing could reasonably be expected to have some effect upon it . . . I think. (That expectation itself is an assumption, and whether or not it is a correct one is an as-yet unanswered question.) The benefit of coming to a realization about what one doesn’t know is one of the reasons to attempt to write out in clear, precise language what one thinks one knows; very often this process results in discovering that it is quite a lot less than initially expected.

Of course, there are benefits to finding that there are unanswered questions beyond the (not unimportant) benefit of personal enlightenment. Among these is giving everyone else something to write about, a very practical benefit when running a site that solicits guest content. (Not that I expect that no one will want to discuss what I have already claimed to know for certain, but it’s nice to have guest content that doesn’t consist entirely of people disagreeing with me.) Guest submissions on any of these unsettled topics are not only allowed but encouraged; if I could answer them myself, they wouldn’t be on this list.

This brings me to the assumptions and unanswered questions themselves. What follows is a brief list of items that I have come up with just from writing “No Uncertain Terms”:

  • When trying to label a work of fiction, are we actually attempting to categorize the work or the reader’s experience? Is there a difference? (If not, does that make serialized fiction a form of performance art?) If there is no difference or we are attempting to categorize reader experiences, does a work change categories depending on the circumstances (e.g., when it finishes serialization or goes from online to print)?
  • Serialization would seem to have an effect on a reader reading the work as it is serialized. Does this alter the reader’s interpretation of the work? Does serialization have an effect on the work itself (the author’s output)? What effect remains after the serialization is over? If the work does not retain the episode breaks once it has finished serialization and been collected, would any reader who first encountered it at that point be able to meaningfully differentiate it from a non-serial work even if they were aware that it had been serialized in some manner? Do the answers to these questions differ between webfiction and serialized fiction where the episode breaks do not match any important logical structures?
  • Does writing for an online medium and/or audience have any effect on the writer’s output? Is it useful to make a distinction between fiction written for online publication and that written for print publication? While media and physical structures, unlike logical structures, are not generally intended to convey meaning, they have the potential to create meaning by influencing a reader’s experience and interpretation of a work. Marshall McLuhan may have taken this concept a bit too far, but it remains valid enough, particularly when the works take advantage of physical structures or other opportunities only available in a specific medium. Is this potential for the creation of meaning actually fulfilled in any online fiction?
  • Are there works that take advantage of serialization or an online medium in such a manner that they would lose something when converted to print? (Are there works that don’t?) Can these losses be mitigated? How?
  • Is it ethical or even possible to alter a print work significantly enough to make it count as internet fiction (online fiction that takes advantage of or is otherwise significantly influenced by that medium) when it was not written for that purpose? (I’ll admit that this one is a crossover question from my professional interests in digital humanities and text digitization.)
  • Is the term “blook” restricted to works that are originally published in that way rather than digitized from a print publication and serialized?
  • If serialization has a definite effect on a reader’s interpretation of a work, does this mean that there are no fiction blooks that are not also webfictions? (Please note that this assumes that we are categorizing reader experiences and not works themselves or that the two are identical.)
  • Does the use of phrases like “webcomics without pictures” help webfiction by relating it to something familiar and comfortable or hurt webfiction by making it seem like a maimed, inadequite form of webcomics? (Note: The “webserial” entry on Wikipedia is part of WikiProject Comics!)
  • What do we do about problems with Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project? (Note: There is no legal category in the ODP for this site, as review and criticism sites only have a category under “Literature,” which is restricted to sites about printed works.)
  • How can the answers to the above questions be used to improve the state of the art?

These are just the questions that I’ve thought of; feel free to come up with (and answer) some of your own as well.

posted by CrazyDreamer  

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