#MondayBlogs B S Johnson and the art of digital gobbledygook


You are not radineg tihs wnorg. All wlil be eplxaneid ltear. And pselae be paniett. I do ellevntuay get on to B.S Jhnsoon

The theme of this year’s Being Human Festival is creativity and as part of this I gave a talk on digital storytelling. The aim was to explain the nuts and bolts of putting together a large multi-collaborative multi-platform literary project.

There are many explanations as to why writers bother putting pen to paper but I think we can probably boil it down to two: therapy and control. Is this why more people are writing now than at any other point in history? Are we more fucked up (and can’t afford an hour on the proverbial couch) or are we all feeling a lack of control as our lives become increasingly mediated through the virtual? Answers, please, on an ecard.

It’s certainly easier to get published now (we’re all one click away from a bestseller on Kindle) and so this may have raised confidence and accessibility. As well as delusion. Or perhaps the Selfie generation has taught us our opinions matter and we have 900 followers on Twitter to prove it (or 9,000 if you’ve decided to buy some). But less sceptically, I think more people are writing because it’s a cheap and easy way to make sense of our lives in an increasingly noisy world. The irony, of course, is one of the things that is making the world so noisy is the endless digital platforms encouraging us to speak up.

Issue 12 of Dawn of the Unread explored some of these issues.

Issue 12 of Dawn of the Unread explored some of these issues.

Writing enables a weighing down of the self. We create characters and situations and through this explore all of those important issues about the human condition: how does it affect me. If writing is about control then I must be a serious control freak because instead of mastering one world I am attempting to master entire universes and solar systems. Digital storytelling projects such as Dawn of the Unread are not just about thinking yourself into the mind of a character but into how that character exists across mediums and digital platforms, all of which come with their own grammar.

One argument levelled at the Selfie generation is that we are no longer able to focus on one text. Consequently, our attention spans are diminishing. There may be more people writing books, but, equally, there are less people reading. Hmm. In the worst case scenario this is seen as a dumbing down of culture. A more pragmatic view is that our brains are adapting and instead we are able to consume multiple forms of bytesized chunks of information at once. Hence, the physical book can’t compete with the latest HBO series that can be binge watched in one sitting while texting, emailing and arranging the latest date on Tinder.

Another argument levelled against digital is that it is lowering literacy levels. As culture becomes more visual language is lost as a result. With it goes rationality and logic, the grammar of this medium. Texting is seen as the epitome of this malaise. Not only have words been replaced with emoticons but the few words we do use are reduced to abbreviations and informal language. Do U C what I mean? But our brains are incredible complex machines that are constantly seeking out patterns so that order can be restored out of any gobbledygook.

As lnog as the fsrit and lsat ltteer of erevy wrod are in the cocerrt oderr our bnairs wlil mkae snsee of a stnenece.

All of which brings me onto B.S Johnson (5 February 1933 – 13 November 1973), one of the greatest digital writers of all time. Even though he died way before Google, Facebook and the smartphone were invented.

B.S Johnson’s best known novel, at least in these parts, is The Unfortunates (1969). This was published roughly around the same time as the US Department of Defence had developed packet network systems, such as Arpanet, that connected up computers so that everybody could communicate underground if there was a nuclear war. This was the beginning of the internet as we know it today. The Unfortunates takes on many of its characteristics.

The novel was originally published in a box with no binding so that readers could assemble 25 of the 27 chapters in any order. The only rule was the first and the last chapter had to be read in order. The chapters vary in length from a single paragraph to 12 pages. Johnson’s other books include one which has a hole in it so that readers can see what is coming next and another comprised entirely of case-notes. I guess my point is that writers have been attempting to escape the confines and conventions of the page for decades. Digital has simply made this process more explicit.

The Unfortunates tells the story of a sportswriter sent to a city on an assignment. But instead of reporting on the match he is confronted by ghosts from his past and the tragic passing of a good friend. Although the city and match are unnamed, it is quite obviously based on Nottingham.

To capture the spirit of the book, playwright Andy Barret has created an event called I Know This City where there will be readings of individual chapters at various locations. Andy said, “The venues will be cafes, benches, pubs, the corners of shops, theatres and hotel foyers. They will be near enough to each other so that people do not find themselves following a similar route”. It all sounds very digital –the non linear way he is encouraging us to navigate the city, the way we will make sense of random locations, and how a physical book will become a living breathing experience rather than an ordered page of words.

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.



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