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The book: multigraph not monograph

Nigel Krauth: Creative Writing courses for the future

Novelist, reviewer and essayist Nigel Krauth is Head of the Writing program at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia.

Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse App Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse App
With the migration of readership from paper to the e-page, there’s a tide of change in publishing and writing outcomes. But university Creative Writing departments seem reluctant to deal with it. They’re not yet thinking seriously about the fiction and nonfiction of the future. Not even the near future. They’re not yet designing infrastructures for it. When paper publishing is a thing of the past, there’s a danger they’ll still be teaching writing for the past.

Learning the skills of writing for the future already involves the novel as app. An example of the form is this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair prize-winning version of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. This interactive book produced for the iPad is published jointly by children’s publisher Egmont and Touch Press. The blurb says:

“At the heart of the app is the complete text of the novel, together with an unabridged audiobook reading by the author. Alongside the text sits a Timeline which tells the real story of the First World War through documents, maps, photographs and film. As in the novel, the war is seen from both Allied and German perspectives, with professionally narrated first-hand quotes and over 200 original photographs to bring you closer to the soldiers’ experience.

“The Insights section presents 34 video interviews with historians, experts and the author, which shed light on the inspiration for the book and its historical setting… There is also an exclusive, 80-minute live filmed Performance of War Horse which completes this rich digital experience…The performance includes synchronised transcript and song lyrics. The Performance and Insights can also be streamed full screen to AppleTV.”

So, it’s a fictional, non-fictional, performance, musical and historical work, and it’s exegetical. It’s richly illustrated with photography, graphics and digital cleverness. It boasts various performers, including the author, and has a number of music soundtracks. All it costs is $6.99.

Children are growing up reading books like this. There are many picture storybook and young reader examples. Experimental novelists too have embraced the app. It has been said that the older, conservative generations are grieving over the passing of the paper book, and are still in the first stage of that process—denial. What they also deny is the brilliant future of the book. The War Horse app novel, and others like it, indicate exciting opportunities for reading, for multidisciplinary teaching and for creative writing.

But Creative Writing courses have not caught up. Creative Writing courses have been so excited about actually getting accreditation (and high enrolment numbers) in almost 40 universities in Australia, they have forgotten to think about how radically writing is changing. Ironically, the rise of Creative Writing in Australian universities in the 1990s and 2000s coincided with the rise of the computer and the internet, and especially, the concept of interactivity. Hypertext showed readers that the reading process did not have to be passive. Of course, it never had been actually so—reading was always about interacting—reacting with one’s intellect, imagination and emotions. But hypertext extended the possibilities beyond the limits of the bound-at-the-spine, ink-marks-on-paper, MONOgraph book as we knew it.

Hypertext expanded the book into realms which previously involved further and separate acts of production—the incorporation of visuals, the adaptation to performance, the addition of commentary and glossing mechanisms. All of which required processes of their own—that is: creativity, research and production classified as other than the book. With hypertext, however, illustration, the play or film based on the book, the talking book, the index or concordance and exegetical/critical discussions of the book can be part of the book itself.

Clearly now, the digital book can contain what was previously called research for, adaptation of and extension to the text. This is the new definition of the book—a multi-modal, multi-disciplinary, multi-artform entity. A multigraph, not a monograph.

Strangely, though, I haven’t yet found my students turning up in first year wanting to write the digital book. They actually say they want to be published on paper—they see it as somehow prestigious or authentic—and they don’t say they want paper publication because of the JK Rowling or Suzanne Collins multi-millionaire factor.

For the app-savvy, it seems, paper publishing retains a status that relates to university as a place to learn to write very much better, as opposed to just doing it yourself. I tell my students how excited I am about who will write the first Young Adult novel to go to the top of the charts: it will be done by one of their generation—an app novel about an emerging boy/girl/both band that has soundtrack and clips included. I wish I’d had such a possibility in my future when I set out as a young writer. They look at me askance, maybe just a glimmer of the future in their eyes, when I say things like, “Why don’t you write a multi-modal novel on your tablet? It’s got a keyboard, a camera and a microphone pick-up.”

The future of writing, reading and teaching new books—including how to write them—will be multidisciplinary, multi-arts and cross-arts. The best department for a Creative Writing program will be a Creative Arts department where performance, visual arts, digital and new media arts and music are also taught. Maybe English should be housed there too: the unreconstructed English Department persisting now may otherwise need to be split with History and Philosophy. While donning my bullet-proof vest, I’m also inclined to say that the English PhD is dead, and that from now on it must get multi-arts oriented. Perhaps every doctoral submission in English should include a creative product—a work which shows that knowledge about reading has been fully learnt and extended.

Creative writing courses of the future need to teach many more processes than they do today in order to prepare students for the brave new world of 21st-century fiction and nonfiction.

Novelist, reviewer and essayist Nigel Krauth is Head of the Writing program at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 16

© Nigel Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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