June 30, 2011

Personal essay: "Why I Signed 'Salt Creek Anthology' - An Apologia."

Salt Creek Anthology, by Jason Fisk

Apologia: A critical essay with an obvious, unhidden bias, usually written in an attempt to persuade people to believe in a particular opinion

Why I Signed "Salt Creek Anthology:" An Apologia

Back when I was a writer myself in the 1990s, I became a big fan of one of the emerging literary gimmicks of the time, so-called "hyperfiction" which can actually be traced back to the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books of the '80s and even beyond; it's essentially an experiment in presenting a narrative story in a non-linear order, by breaking that story into little parts and then providing a way to hop from part to part in a series of different, almost random ways. Although technically there have been artistic projects as old as Rashomon and even earlier that have contained elements of hyperfiction, it was the birth of the Web in the '90s and its resulting hyperlink-based navigation that really made the subject explode for the first time, especially among academes and cutting-edge artists, and that decade is marked with a whole plethora of fascinating HTML-based literary and photography projects, sometimes now dated and clunky and sometimes still refreshingly contemporary-feeling, many of which can still be explored at the great Electronic Literature Organization from those same years.

So ever since I opened CCLaP in 2007, I'd been hoping to publish a hyperfiction project here too, and figured that one day I could eventually convince some game local writer to take on what is admittedly sometimes a maddeningly confusing process; say for example Jason Fisk, an area poet I had become a fan of since his performance at CCLaP's summer 2010 Hyde Park reading. Ever since then, he and I have been talking about him doing a brand-new project specifically for the center, his first ever in fact to be written in full prose from the first draft; so when he mentioned that he had been toying around with the idea of a series of interrelated micro-stories about a group of kinda trashy neighbors who all live on the same cul-de-sac in a far western Chicago suburb, I thought that this might make for a great milieu in which to set a hyperfiction project, with Fisk graciously agreeing to try it out and see what kind of manuscript he might come up with.

Because before we talk about any more of the technical details, let's admit a simple truth that has always existed about this stuff; that for any truly experimental artistic project to work, the story at its heart must be absolutely rock-solid in its basics, which Fisk excels at here. Because the fact is that Jason brings with him exactly what you hope a poet would bring to his first full-length prose project, which is a poetic economy of style, what makes him particularly well-suited for a collection of micro-stories; he can get across in one paragraph what takes most novelists three or four pages, example after example of what the French call "le mot juste" and us the "perfect turn of phrase," giving us a surprisingly powerful, disturbing, and complex look at these twenty-odd characters all interacting on this quiet suburban street over the course of a typical Obamian-Age year.

But here is why hyperfiction is so interesting when you apply it to a situation and a manuscript like this; that knowing beforehand that it would be presented in such a style, Fisk was able to keep a whole list of varied running sub-themes and callbacks and minor references in mind while writing his first draft, resulting in a delicious stew of tiny relationships between one random story and the next; one couple's impish kids are always getting into one mess or another, a frazzled middle-aged woman is constantly taking half-smoked cigarette butts in and out of the pockets of her bathroom robe, an overbearing neighbor is constantly coming over to steal beer from our narrator. Because Fisk created a story that is so textually layered to begin with, and that practically drips with multiple meanings and understandings when viewed from various angles and facets, it then made it easy for me to technically hook together the stories at the end of this process into a surprisingly tangled web, by selecting three or four little phrases within each story and turning them into hyperlinks to other stories, the phrases themselves giving a little clue to the story coming next.

Because yes, as mentioned, there is an experimental hurdle to clear here before you can enjoy Salt Creek; although technically you can just sit and read it from cover to cover in a traditional, straightforward manner if you want, whether it's the EPUB, MOBI, PDF or paper version, in all these cases there are also these hyperlinks embedded within each story too, which I encourage you to use instead for navigating your way around the book in a much more intuitive, non-linear fashion. (And how is this done from version to version, you might be asking? Well, the EPUB and MOBI versions actually have clickable hyperlinks -- for those who don't know, both standards are essentially based on HTML, making it incredibly easy to add hyperlinks if you already know how to, say, program a webpage. The PDF and paper versions, then, have the hyperlinks simply printed in a different color, with a "turn to page XX" reference off to the side of the page; and of course, note that the paper version is actually spineless and comes in a handmade box, so that another way to read it is by simply shuffling the pages like a deck of cards and reading it in a completely random new order each time you pick it up.)

For what it's worth, I think long and hard all the time about the best way to add experimental elements to traditional creative things like literature, and in general think it should be at a minimum to be most effective; it's my sincere hope, and from early feedback seems to already be at least partially a success, that the links and hopping around don't distract you from what's at its heart a really great, really unsettling story, one that I believe is going to take a lot of people by surprise after knowing Fisk as only a writer of short, standalone poems. And along those lines, please also know that I tried to have a little fun with these 280 or so links found within the book, and the various ways that they relate to the pieces being hooked together; some go to stories that directly address what's being said in that link, while some ironically go to stories about the exact opposite, while yet others are unrelated save that a character might say the same exact same phrase in each. The connections are supposed to be a fun addition to Fisk's story, not a distraction, so I hope they come across in that spirit for all of you as well. If you still haven't downloaded or purchased a copy for yourself, I encourage you to do so as soon as possible.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:36 PM, June 30, 2011. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Design | Literature | Reviews |