Out is In, Off the Page/
Now Online - Cool
Martina E. Linnemann
One can envision novels printed on scrolls, on globes, on moebius strips, on billboards, or not printed at all but produced on electronic or video tape, or acted out on stage.
- Ronald Sukenick, "The New Tradition in Fiction"
Over twenty years ago, Ronald Sukenick pointed to the possibility of novels moving outside of their traditional print format as his novel, Out, has recently done, going on-line at altx. But back then, Sukenick regarded it as a move in the wrong direction. "To complain that a novel can't escape its binding," he argued, "is like complaining that the mind can't escape from its skull." What was needed, he proposed, was a rethinking of the novel form within its print medium, a reconsideration of the concrete, technological reality of the book and the use of its three-dimensional and visual nature to work together with the narrative embedded in it.
First published in 1973, Out exemplified Sukenick's theory in its use of typography to support textual meaning, but also to create visual meaning independent of the text. Specifically, the novel is divided into ten chapters, numbered in reverse order. Each chapter is itself made up of paragraphs containing the same number of lines as the chapter number. Thus the paragraphs shrink by one line with each new chapter. Chapter 1, the last chapter, contains nothing but paragraphs of a single line that drive toward the end, a "0," which is followed by pages of white space as if the text has moved completely out of the book.
Out is not the only example of what can be called the "typographical novel," of course. A brief list of others published about the same time in various parts of the world would include Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963) in Argentina, B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates (1969) and Christine Brooke-Rose's Thru (1975) and Alan Burns's Dreamerika! (1972) from Great Britain, and such American examples as Raymond Federman's Double or Nothing (1971), Take it or Leave It (1976), and The Voice in the Closet (1979) and Steve Katz's Exagggerations [sic] of Peter Prince the Novel (1968). Then there were Nouveau Romans like Michel Butor's Mobile (1962) and Maurice Roche's Compact (1966).
The number of novels published during the late '60s and early '70s which consciously explore the typographical space of the page might seem surprising. But the phenomenon can be attributed to a unique combination of circumstances that came together within a relatively short period:
The dominance of the visual. The 20th century has been predominantly visual (photography, film, TV, video) and one of the main concerns of 20th century literature has been its relation to the visual arts - an exploration of questions of simultaneity and spatiality in an inherently linear textual medium. While modernist novels explored these issues mainly on the level of narrative (Joyce and Woolf), the postmodern novel experiments on the level of presentation.
The dominance of mass-media. The influence of mass-media, especially the increasing dominance of television, threatened the cultural importance of literature, especially the novel. While its more-or-less linear and logical story lines and narrative developments were perfectly appropriate for the 19th century, the realistic novel appeared moribund in a world in which mass media highlighted the fact that life is chaotic and does not proceed in a logical order. This "crisis of the novel" resulted in a reconsideration not only of the novel form (apparent in the high degree of self-referentiality, meta-textuality and other familiar features of postmodern writing) but also of its traditional print format.
Out is, however, not a print hypertext (despite its fragmented narrative on both a textual and a visual level and the special emphasis on the spatial text arrangement). It depends fundamentally on a linear reading and the conventions of the printed text - it works within print and against print.
So, one might ask, how would a text seemingly inseparable from the medium it was conceived in benefit from a move into the electronic medium? Reading the "book" on-line offers a number of interesting insights. First of all, on-line publication makes the avant-garde novel with its typically small print run available to a wider audience. It also shifts the postmodern concept of "avant garde" away from its modernist conception (Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism, etc.). Ihab Hassan defines the distinction by saying that it is "cooler (in McLuhan's sense of actually inviting participation), less cliquish, and far less aversive to the pop, electronic society of which it is part." That is, print is not "pop" - it is relatively expensive to produce and distribute - it is not "cool"; it can encourage participation only metaphorically, which goes some way to explain the obvious dissatisfaction with print in many postmodern novels including Out. Texts on the WWW, on the other hand, support these elements: they are easy to produce, easy to distribute and easy to interact with. They render "avant-garde" in its traditionally exclusive sense as a meaningless concept and put in its place avant-pop, a movement which Sukenick himself had a hand in inventing and of which altx is one of the most important collective voices. (Although in two 1997 letters to The American Book Review Sukenick suggests that the term may have outlived its usefulness at the precise moment that commentators began taking it seriously as an academic category.) Out predates interactive books and avant-pop but it also anticipates them with its references to popular culture, its pastiche of styles and its self-conscious use of its own medium - all reasons it works well in its new format.
It is often argued that the distinction between print texts and electronic texts is the binding: the fixed order of reading dictated by print vs. the hypertextual, non-/multi-linear reading of e-texts. Out is an interesting example that at least partly contradicts this notion in both media. In print, the whole text is physically present so most readers discover and grasp the underlying typographical principle almost immediately: an important (non-linear!) but often overlooked reading strategy is to flick through the book in order to get an idea of its meta-structure and macro-structure. In the electronic version now available, chapters can be accessed in any order - but because they are still listed numerically from 10 down to 1, most readers will access them in what appears to be their "natural" hierarchical order. In consequence, the gaps in the text, the growing spaces between the paragraphs are discovered only gradually, bringing into the text an enhanced element of surprise.
The move to the web also pushes the actual narrative into the foreground. All typographical novels play with the signifier/signified distinction, making us look at the material text (the signifier) as well as through it at what it represents (the signified). Ideally they achieve a constant oscillation between the two: a degree of defamiliarization through formal experiment while at the same time an entry for readers into the text and its story. The danger is, of course, that the visual experiment becomes the overwhelmingly dominant element; critical readings of typographical novels, including those of Out, often focus exclusively on this side. In an electronic format, an environment still unfamiliar and also relatively conventionless, the typography (that in print is so immediately striking against the background of print conventions) loses much of its impact - but at the same time it gives readers the space to concentrate on Out's narrative, which after all, is a fascinating, dense and intense novel that now gets a new chance to be approached as just that. Click here to start!
Ronald Sukenick. "The New Tradition in Fiction." Surfiction: Fiction Now - and Tomorrow. Ed. Raymond Federman. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975. 35-45.
Ronald Sukenick. Out. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1973.
Ihab Hassan. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Theory and Culture. Ohio State University Press, 1987. 91.