Sunday, April 3, 2011

Week 12: Guest Lecture

This week I have the great pleasure of introducing Kate Pullinger.

Here is Professor Sue Thomas (left), Kate Pullinger (next to Sue) and moi. We were being very transliterate with our Nintendo DS game playing.

A bit about Kate:

Kate Pullinger’s most recent book, The Mistress of Nothing, won the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, and was long-listed for the Giller Prize. Her digital fiction project Inanimate Alice has also won numerous prizes, reaching online audiences around the world. She is Reader in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University where she co-founded TRG, the Transliteracy Research Group, and she also offers private 1-1 mentoring for emerging writers in both print and new media.
Kate Pullinger is currently working on a new novel that builds on themes developed in her collaborative digital fiction project, Flight Paths: A Networked Novel. You can also read Kate on My Secret Blog.

Read more on Kate's site:

Kate's Guest Lecture:

‘Inanimate Alice’ and Her Other Lives: a mini-case study

Kate Pullinger

I came across this a couple of weeks ago and was amazed by it: it's a fictional

podcast in the style of a radio interview
. In it, Alice, the character we created for our online episodic multimedia digital novel (gasp) 'Inanimate Alice',

is interviewed by the host of a show called 'The Daily Dose' about a 'giga pet' she's created, 'the Brad Bud'.

It's just over three minutes long but I'm amazed by it on many levels, but mainly on the level of 'wow'. These students have taken the Alice stories far beyond what exists online, developed Alice's character into young adulthood, created a business for Alice that includes a piece of tech kit that Alice has designed herself, the ‘Brad bud’. Then they've gone one step further and created a talk show for Alice to appear in, with its own host, and they've recorded the talk show interview, and broadcast it, along with the transcript, online.

There's very little information on the podcast webpage itself, but I can see from the url that it comes out of '' which is the University of Pittsburgh in the US. A few tweets later, I'd figured out that these students are working with Jamie Skye Bianco, who is Professor of Digital Media at Pittsburgh (also known online as @spikenlilli). Jamie teaches both 'Inanimate Alice' and 'Flight Paths' to students on her 'Narrative & Technology' class; her students wrote a series of interesting blogposts about Alice and FP earlier this year.

It's been nearly two years since new episodes of Inanimate Alice, created by readers, first started appearing online, and these new episodes continue to proliferate. The pedagogical community around the project continues to grow; if you are interested in having a look at it, a good place to start is the Facebook Inanimate Alice group page. Recent developments include a Scottish teacher, Hilery Williams, who has written a series of wonderful blog posts about using 'Inanimate Alice' with dyslexic teenaged readers; the post linked to here is number four in a series on Alice.

As well as that, another Scottish teacher, Kenny Pieper, has been using Alice in his secondary school classroom and, again, blogging about it in a way that I've found both useful and inspiring. Both groups of students are working on their own episodes of Alice, and Mr Pieper’s class has started posting these online at the class ‘Inanimate Alice’ blog -

For writers who work in the genre of science fiction, this kind of reader-story interaction is fairly commonplace via 'fanfic', or fan fiction. But for a writer like me, working in both the genre of literary fiction, and with new forms of digital fiction, having readers talk back to my story in this way is an extraordinary experience. Every time I see a new episode, or a new blog post from people working with 'Inanimate Alice' I feel absolutely amazed. To me it seems a very meaningful form of interactivity and I'm thrilled that these stories are being used by students and teachers around the world to find new ways of talking and thinking about storytelling in the 21st Century.

I was interviewed recently for an article called 'Are Midlist Authors An Endangered Species?' that appeared in the Globe & Mail newspaper yesterday - somehow I've become one of the go-to-girls for journalists who want to talk about the future of the book and the future of stories. My conversation with the journalist was, of course, vastly reduced in the context of the article, and I ended up being quoted in the final paragraph, given this as a not-very-bright-sounding last word: “Writers will make a living in a lot of different ways, only some of which are writing,” Uh-huh. I was described in the article as a writer who "publishes both conventionally and online, where she posts fiction for free." While, strictly speaking, when it comes to 'Inanimate Alice' and 'Flight Paths', this is true - these works are available online for free - to see the vast interactive community project that Alice in particular has become reduced to 'fiction for free' is infuriating. This is not to fault the journalist; my point here is that at the moment the argument about the future of publishing seems to be focussing on self-publishers vs real publishers, on 'free' versus 'paid' content. To me this feels like I'm watching a couple of mice argue over a tiny piece of cheese while around the corner a big fat cat (representing the vast potential for multimedia, interactivity, mobile delivery, etc etc etc that digital platforms offer to writers) sits calmly licking her paw.

I’d be interested to hear from you all about what you think about this kind of thing. What are your thoughts about how writing and publishing are changing? Have any of you been in touch with writers you admire via social media? Would you feel able or inclined to contact a writer you like through their website, or their twitter feed or facebook page, for example?


  1. I've always been resistant to contacting artists I admire in any genre. This comes not only from feeling like I don't want to be a fan-girl just basking in reflected glory, as well as feeling like most performers in any genre don't need to hear yet another outside opinion on their work, educated or otherwise. What is bizarre is while I have this barrier for contacting others about their work, in my own work I'm highly interactive and collaborative for the most part.

  2. That's interesting Jenn, and to tell you the truth I'm the same myself. However, I do find that Twitter enables interaction in a way that is both friendly and non-invasive.

    However, it is also true that it is almost always enjoyable to hear from people who have enjoyed my work - whether that's via email or social media or at a reading or event. I say 'almost always' - the thing that is not enjoyable is when people try to persuade me to read their own work or, even worse, help them write their own work!

  3. I"m with Jenn - I"m uncomfortable contacting artists I admire but in today's new form of communication I think that is something I could change!Some of it is probably fear of looking foolish or starstruck or the recognition that I really don't know what I'm talking about! I think it's the fear of having a conversation with the expert rather than just being able to admire from afar. I do follow some interesting people on Twitter - it certainly has opened up new links for me. Interesting though that one well known individual that shall remain nameless) I removed from his Twitter appearing on my Blackberry because he was continually 'tweeting' and I ended up just deleting most of his tweets - information overload. So you do need to moderate who you follow as well.

  4. Kate, I'm glad you brought up the idea of the "fat cat". I agree that there is great potential for writers through the use of new media. I have, for the last couple of years, been banging my head against the world of "literary magazines" with 99.9% rejection rates. I have listened to some of the literary establishment types bemoan the "poor quality" of digital fiction and the "threat" of e-books. I think that any technology that allows for greater opportunities to put stories into people's hands to read is good. Readers, of course, will have to develop better filtering skills as more and more product becomes available. Writers will have to find new and innovative ways to make money in the world of free content, but I think there are far more possibilities in this new realm of publishing compared to the existing funnel of the literary establishment.

  5. Kate, I have a question about “letting go” of your stories. You describe the experience of seeing “Inanimate Alice” being used by students as meaningful and thrilling, but I wonder if there is a little angst at releasing artistic control of your story. An author moves characters through a series of events to tell a particular story and reveal some truth about human nature. When I write, although I don’t exactly become attached to my characters, I certainly become interested in their lives, and I have a certain vision about what should happen to them. When you watch other people interpret and expand on “Inanimate Alice”, do you sometimes feel that “no, that’s not right; that’s not what she would do”? Do you feel differently about your print fiction compared to your digital fiction? (i.e. is there a greater sense of “ownership” over print fiction?)

  6. Thanks for the comments, Carolyn and Moose.

    Moose, I don't feel any sense of people not getting things right when it comes to these new episodes of Alice - none at all. For me, this is completely embedded in and part of the overall process - it's a logical development. I have never had this kind of experience when it comes to my print work however, so I don't really know what that would be like. However, I think any kind of fanfic, or rewriting/remixing in an educational setting would be welcome. I guess the thing all writers would worry about would be if someone was to remix your work and then try to sell it as their own - that would be the test case for all of this.

  7. I think instead of interacting with the author, I would be more inclined to interact with the characters and story. I'm sure the authors are great people, but its the narrative of the story that has me drawn in.

    I've also wondered about the "letting go" aspect that Moose mentioned. It's interesting hearing Kate's viewpoint, but I wonder how other authors feel about that. I always thought it would be similar to how some music artists feel about their product being remixed and altered.

  8. It seems to me that publishing and writing are evolving. I think the printed book' will remain,but which books we choose to buy in a permanent form and 'display or keep as art will change.For example my grandfather wrote a number of fictional books in England years ago and while I have one copy of one of his books , I search for others. Reading for fiction may be on e-books, it's easy to download, cheaper, disposable,it's made very convenient for you - and you're really only then paying for content.
    I think the books themselves will morph according to the different customers - some with short attention spans may want short interactive books with many links that may take you to the places, spaces or recipes you're reading about.The customers are certainly going to drive the market and publishers are going to need to understand their customers and maybe make revenue out of the ads or by charging for content. This may make the internet a pretty closed space although what I have noticed is that when sites want you to pay for content they offer a significant amount of free information to keep you on the site.Customers are becoming used to only paying for exactly what we want- people will probably also make their own 'cookbooks' by only choosing the recipes they want to. The 'longtail' of the market will make as much money as the current 'best sellers- if marketed properly.

  9. I am not a writer but I can understand Kate's frustration with the "fiction for free writer" comment. I am guessing that "published writers" are being protective over their “territory”. I think the "fat cat" analogy is perfect for summing up this debate. Publishing is evolving to digital publishing and artists have to realize that the publishing industry is not the same.

    I agree with Carolyn that the printed book will always remain. Printed books have been around since the 15th century so if anything changes, the amount of books being printed will decrease.

  10. I agree that remixing of original work is okay in an educational setting. It is not okay if the person is remixing it in order to make a profit. I am sure that artists feel "flattered" that someone is interested in their work. On the flip-side wouldn't there be a lot of artists that would take offence to the remixing of their original piece? How can this be controlled especially in today's society where there are so many social media platforms to get the message out?

  11. It is interesting to note that most of us hesitate to contact the writers we admire. I might 'Google' to find out more about an author and works. It must be rewarding for writers to hear from someone who appreciate their work.

    The technology is to transform the world in strides. The things that might be obsolete in one part of the world might be relevant somewhere else. From a truly global perspective the print medium is still going to have its place. Book, in digital form is accessible to a minority of population. To be ubiquitous, the advancements of technology have to do a lot of ‘catch up’. For a work to reach its heights of ‘classical’ nature, apart from quality, it has to achieve a ‘global’ status. Here the use of new media might restrict an author’s potential.

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