Gutenberg 3D

Not the title of a Hollywood blockbuster about the life and times of Johannes Gutenberg, chock full of CGI special effects that bring to lurid life his system of moveable type, but rather a reference to Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, that will come with a limited edition 3D-printed cover.

On Such a Full Sea

So is this perhaps the first signs of a revival of interest in the printed book as an object to be desired and cherished? Or is it merely the autonomic twitches of a dying form? In the jargon of stock market analysts – did we just watch a dead cat bounce?

This particular piece is certainly well executed, with the interplay of the title on the book and its continuation into 3D text suggesting motion and a dynamic quality to the words. Limited edition status aside, the suggested current price of $90 alone indicates that this is a niche product.

But let’s look ahead slightly to the days, surely not long in coming, when 3D printing and 3D printers in the home, have become, if not ubiquitous, then at least commonplace. This kind of slipcase could be produced much more cheaply and even printed by the end-user by downloading the requisite CAD files from the publisher’s website.

That said, it’s my hunch that the electronic versions of books available for download on Project Gutenberg became a lot more popular with the arrival of e-readers. Even though printers were a feature in most homes and offices, it was never that appealing or convenient to print out novels at home. This idea could fall prey to the same inertia.

On the plus side, even if it doesn’t see widespread adoption, in this long-tail age of the internet it doesn’t need to become a mass-market idea to be successful and enduring. And these 3D slipcases are just the beginning.  Surely there is room for all manner of innovation in the combination of 3D printing and the printed (by whatever means) word.

Player Piano, Player Reader?

Every time Conlon punched a hole, the world got more interesting.

So said Robert Willey of the 20th-century composer Conlon Nancarrow, and what a beautiful thing that is to say of an artist. Would that someone might say the same of us and our work.

Nancarrow, an American composer, spent much of his life in self-imposed exile in Mexico due to his far-left political beliefs, and gained renown – in the world of classical music at least – for his innovative use of player pianos. These are the pianos that “play themselves”, with the music fed in on rolls of paper that’s pock-marked with encoded musical notation. For a surprisingly funky example that provides context for the rest of the article, I highly recommend that you listen to the following one of his compositions:

As you will have just heard, Nancarrow exploits the possibilities afforded by the player piano to produce fiendishly complex rhythms and staggering polyphony, to an extent which would lead to broken digits and mental breakdown if attempted by a living pianist.

But that’s just the beginning, what I’m really interested in is the following question: is there an analogue, or something close to it, in literature for the music and compositional technique of Conlon Nancarrow?

To begin to answer that, it’s necessary to understand what it is that his approach to composition and performance allows, and it seems to me that, aside from highly music specific aspects, there are two main effects.

  1. It removes the possibility of interpretation by the performer; the composer’s word is now final.
  2. It allows the music to possess a complexity of sound that would otherwise be difficult, or impossible, to obtain through normal means.

These things taken together, along with his rhythmic innovations, give us a new kind of music. How might we do something similar for literature?

For music, the performer and listener are separate roles, but for literature, the reader is working overtime in two jobs. When they bring the text to life beyond what’s stated on the page they are both performing and listening, more or less simultaneously.

Therefore, tackling point one, one possible analogue is to have it such that every single thing in the sentence, every symbol, reference and allusion is explained as fully as possible, in an attempt (futile, but still) to remove the possibility of any incorrect interpretation on the part of the reader.

Another is to remove any emotion and interpretation by producing a speech-synthesised recording of the text. But this kind of electronic reproduction allows for further innovation and refers to point two – in a similar way to Nancarrow, we could use this synthesised speech to overlay multiple strands of speech and narration, which no longer necessarily obey the rules of etiquette, and now refuse to wait for one to finish before entering with their own contribution. Cacophony it could be, also confusing, nauseating or breathtaking. Finally, we could deploy a combination of these two effects: complex multi-layered speech and narration, accompanied by the exhaustive authorial exposition.

It’s likely, almost certain in fact, that some of these suggestions will sound horrific or merely redundant, but then to an ear accustomed to more traditional modes of music, Nancarrow’s can feel claustrophobic and bewildering at first, but there’s no doubting its place in the canon. Equally there is surely space for these other methods of writing and storytelling.

In this post, I’ve only begun to suggest and hint at possibilities, but the judgement of their success can only be made by recourse to some concrete examples. To that end, in the next couple of weeks I’ll be uploading a few of my attempts to capture something of Nancarrow’s music in the “written” form. I welcome your feedback and hope that we can have a fascinating debate on the topic.

The Final Word

FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! Now that I have grabbed your attention in a most indecorous manner, I would actually like to offer you some free fiction.  Mine, as it happens. Some time ago I wrote about a piece of innovative fiction that I submitted to a competition run by Diagram Magazine. Now that the competition has run its course, I’m making my story available here for everyone to download via the link just below.

The Final Word by Andrew Cookson

The story is called The Final Word and could be described as an intellectual, satirical detective story, presented through non-standard narrative means. I would love to hear your feedback, either as a comment below or via email here. To give you a taste, here is the first page.


You know what advice I’d give to people, if I could, one piece of advice so that they’d never be convicted of a crime? Don’t do anything out of the ordinary. And that’s it. If you have a daily routine, stick to it. Religiously. That way there’s nothing to explain. That’s my advice – never, ever leave yourself with something to explain.

J. Smith, on his release from prison, after spending 40 years inside for a crime he did not commit.

You know what makes an epistolary novel unbelievable? When none of the letters go missing. I wish I lived in a world like that. And why do we only see the relevant letters? If you want to show a person’s life through their letters, why don’t we see them all? The utility bills, the flyers for delivery pizza firms, letters addressed to previous tenants and the rest. Just imagine now, doing the same with the modern day equivalent – a novel told through an exchange of emails. A festival of badly-written notes, carelessly devoid of grammar, baffling and patchy capitalisation, unspellchecked spelling, all bookended by an awkard and often incongruous approach to personal formality. Not to mention the deluge of spam from online casinos and drug vendors. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea after all.

C. Johnson, prominent literary critic and neophyte blogger.

Anyone for some “innovative fiction”?

So far, I’ve posted essays, reviews and poems on my blog. Now it’s time for some fiction! There is one catch. First of all, it’s not quite finished. And secondly – two catches then – I’ll be entering it into a competition, and so I won’t be uploading it here for a few months. However, I will gladly email the story to anyone who wishes to read it. If you would like to take a look, just “like” this post (if you have contact information in your Gravatar profile) or send me an email here, and I’ll send you the pdf just as soon as I finish it (31st March at the very latest).

However, if you wish to know more before deciding, and who could blame you, then read on… The competition in question is run by the American literary magazine Diagram, and this particular brief is for “Innovative Fiction“. Apart from a limit of 10,000 words, that is the only instruction. Hardly much of a constraint. My response has been to write a somewhat intellectual, detective story, containing multiple levels of narration, each of which raises philosophical questions about the effectiveness of those narratives and the limits of language itself.

In an earlier draft of the story I had also included an element which questioned the very possibility of writing innovative fiction (since removed to accommodate other plot developments). The question this previous version raised was this: what is innovation in fiction? More specifically, if one introduced an innovative form in a story, could its reuse ever be considered innovative? Or is the fact that it has been used once before enough to rob it of all claims to innovation, even if it were very far from the literary norms.

In one sense, any good book is innovative, if by that we mean, it contains original characters, plot, ideas etc. Trashy genre fiction aside, all books can be considered to be prototypes that break some sort of new ground. And to what extent is this merely a question of fashion or timing? One very innovative novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, was published from 1759 onwards, but for a long while after this the form of novels became more conservative. At some point in the past, a return to Sterne’s form and style would have been considered a break with the norm, even innovative, except for the fact that it had already been done. Therefore, for how long does an idea need to remain dormant before its reactivation is considered novel?

Perhaps it’s a fools errand to worry excessively about this. Given the vast quantity of literature – too much for even an army of men to read, and in many languages at that, so too much even for a multi-national peacekeeping force – it might be impossible to make any definitive pronouncements. One culture’s innovation could be another’s standard, if not, cliched form.

An inherent problem with attempting to create these kind of groundbreaking artworks is that they are more difficult to write, principally due to a lack of training data. Conversely, they are also harder to judge for quality. An even greater quantity of good fortune then is required to meet with a positive reception.

And so back to my own innovative fiction; who knows if it is actually, truly innovative. I think many aspects of it are certainly creative and original, but whether overall it is innovative, I’m not sure. Maybe you can tell me? Then again, probably it doesn’t matter; if it’s interesting to read, then maybe that’s enough. Innovation be damned.

So, what do you think makes a book innovative? Have you read any that seemed particularly innovative to you, and did you feel that this helped or hindered the story-telling? And, once again, do let me know if you are interested in reading my story. Thanks!