Wright explores the digital manifestation of an orihon manuscript style for how it can expand how we think of the novel's form. He considers how digital versions of J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year and his own print novella make use of the concept of the fold as identified in the orihon style.
The book, or ‘book-bound reading object’, can be dated to 11 May 868 CE, with the production of a copy of the Diamond Sūtra in the Chinese language. This is the world’s earliest dated, printed book. Other books were printed earlier, but this is the earliest fully preserved book. From characters in the work itself, we learn: ‘On the 15th day of the 4th month of the 9th year of the Xiantong reign period, Wang Jie had this made for universal distribution on behalf of his two parents.’ Sometime later, around 1021, the Japanese noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu wrote 源氏物語, The Tale of Genji, which is often referred to as the world’s first novel. The original manuscript, however, was not presented as a typical book but as an orihon/折り本, a concertina-style manuscript (the word orihon comes from the Japanese verb oru, meaning fold, and hon, meaning book or source; the word oru is also used in the word origami, meaning folded paper). The earliest surviving edition of the orihon is housed in the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, Japan. Both the orihon and the book-bound reading object make use of the fold. A contemporary work that utilises digital folds is Australian digital poet Benjamin Laird’s Psychometric Researches (2019). This digital poem is written in response to Nature’s Secrets of Psychometric Researches (1863) by William and Elizabeth Denton. The poetic work is presented in various forms: as a plain text, where the poetry is arranged into six square lexias, and as a cube, constructed with six faces. The cube can be printed out as a net, cut, and constructed by the reader or explored as a digital 3D object. The digital form predominantly allows for ease of exploration. To expect the reader to undertake a small arts and crafts project, however, is not practical for the contemporary public. Such difficulties give a clear indication for the rise and sustaining of the book form: it is practical for both distribution and preservation.
From Murasaki’s folded scroll to Laird’s digitally folded box there is a(n) (un)continuity of a folded form. The move from scroll to book through folding was a dramatic shift that enabled the novel to flourish. In this paper, I propose that the folding possibilities afforded by digital technologies could further expand the shape of the novel. I will explore this in two ways. First, by reimagining J.M. Coetzee’s 2007 novel Diary of a Bad Year (hereafter DOABY) in a digital form. And second, through creative practice, by reimagining my print novella, The Perfect Democracy, in a three-dimensional, folded, digital form.
From reimagining Robinson Crusoe in Foe (1986), to his Nobel lecture He and His Man (2003), to his faux-post-death ‘autobiography’ Summertime (2009), J.M. Coetzee’s career has long been preoccupied with a self-awareness of his own voice and scrupulous attempts to separate and compartmentalise language and power. DOABY (2007) represents his most deliberate attempt to confront this issue. In Self-Aware Self-Censorship As Form, I explored ‘glut’ censorship in Coetzee’s novel and proposed that a digital version of DOABY could resolve the problems raised in the print text. I will summarise those problems here.
DOABY is an Australian print novel with a unique format in that each page is split into three. The top section contains a series of essays on various topics, titled ‘Strong Opinions’. The middle section contains the ‘author’ Señor C’s point of view on the typing of the essays. The bottom section contains Anya’s (Señor C’s typist and ultimate romantic interest) point of view on the same or similar events. By formatting and typesetting the novel in this fashion, DOABY expresses Señor C’s ‘strong opinions’ while also depicting their failure to have any impact. For example, Anya’s partner Alan supports John Howard’s pro-Bush government and dismisses Señor C’s essay On Political Life in Australia, which is critical of the use of torture. Media theorist Julian Murphet argues that in attempting to be both parrhesic (i.e. resembling late Tolstoy) and polyphonic (i.e. resembling Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novels) the novel struggles to be either:
[Coetzee] wants to … enact his Tolstoyan will to parrhesia, and yet partially retract it via the Dostoevskian compositional devices available to his elected form: dialogical decenterment and ironization. These blocks of prose, that we are virtually forced to take at first pass for the opinions of J.M. Coetzee, are dissociated almost imperceptibly from themselves, in order to attain to a barely recognizable second-order evaluation within the novelistic prose. (74)
Murphet argues that the narrative corrupts the reading of the essays, concluding that DOABY proposes a ‘post-novelistic horizon.’ (78) In response to this criticism, I propose a digital version of Coetzee’s novel that explores post-novelistic possibilities could resolve Murphet’s parrhesic/polyphonic predicament (permission to create a working prototype of DOABY for research purposes has been granted by David Higham Associates).
In Coetzee’s novel, the format and the book medium are strained. Creating a digital DOABY could resolve this strain, or at the very least transform how the work is constructed. It is important, however, to tread carefully when adapting and contrasting digital and print text formats. In her critique of the works of Borges and practice-led research into digressive digital literature, hypertext theorist J. Yellowlees Douglas (2000) criticizes ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ as a print story that ‘strains to escape from the confines of the medium.’(85) She continues to argue that ‘readers… appear uneasy with Borges’s singular and very limited ending to a narrative that concerns itself, nearly to its penultimate paragraph, with a universe of seemingly infinite possibilities (85-6). As I (2018) argue in my research on Italo Calvino, however, Borges’s style is not, as Douglas suggests, resisting the medium but is in fact utilising its limits: the hypothetical compositional form is the very essence of Borges’s artistry. Likewise, in developing a digital DOABY, the possibility that the print medium in fact exemplifies and enhances Coetzee’s vision must be allowed.
Additionally, media theorist Jessica Pressman (2009) writes that there is:
something different about this aesthetic [of bookishness] as it appears in works of twenty-first-century fiction. This focus on the book and the aesthetics it promotes is not merely another form of postmodern reflexivity…. There is a decisively different tone and ambition at work in the novels of our moment.
This ‘decisively different tone’, I argue, is a result of authoritative and aesthetic concerns that have arisen in novels, such as DOABY. These concerns, I propose, can be resolved, or at least better mitigated, in digital, folded novel formats. In her Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age (2020), Pressman proposes that, despite the digital possibilities afforded by digital technologies, the ‘book’ has become more ‘bookish’. DOABY is such an example. Coetzee, who despite having a background involving digital humanities, remains committed to the book form. While it is wise to exercise caution towards the adaptation of print forms to digital formats, it is equally important to note the potential cultural limitations imposed by authors, readers, and publishers through the insistence of book and novel forms.
Coetzee’s novel with its compartmentalisation, suggests a trend towards digital text objects. For a digital version of DOABY, I propose a triangular prism or Toblerone shape. Here, as a sample prototype, I have turned a single page of DOABY into a 3D reading object.
This triangular-shaped DOABY would transform the point of entry and the presumed authority that Señor C has and that Coetzee tries (and, that Murphet argues, Coetzee fails) to fully relinquish. Furthermore, the space occupied by Anya’s point of view could be expanded to occupy the same amount of space, promoting equality of voices. While this new format would further destabilise the power Coetzee’s form hopes to relinquish, none of these transformations would fully resolve the problem Murphet’s criticism raises. What this hypothetical form does do, however, is point towards post-novelistic forms.
In such a digital form, the prism could adopt additional faces and voices. This experiment with DOABY suggests a digital novel with multiple perspectives, represented on multiple planes on a digital-born virtual object. In conceiving the contemporary novel, however, just how many planes should be included? The notion of representing the entire culture’s full chaotic polyphony – which is, essentially, the tentacular ambition of the contemporary postmodern novel – becomes ‘too much’. In attempting to marry such notions, the multi-faced object as novel approaches infinite, and the parrhesic, no matter how powerful, becomes lost.
In attempting to further address this issue through creative writing, I have employed Italo Calvino’s values of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency. My print Australian novel (or novel-like work), The Perfect Democracy, takes as its subject the entire population of contemporary Australia. Such a vast subject is, of course, impossible to represent in a work of fiction. Yet through Calvino’s value of crystal exactitude, the unspoken can be informed by a consistently inconsistent form. Visible images of Australian currency have been used as a structural device to remove weight by representing the whole society from the richest to the poorest in the quickest way possible. A multitude of simultaneous writing formats (e.g. palimpsestic writing, columns, etc.) and voices (e.g. wills, business plans, legal transcripts, stream-of-consciousness, etc.) are used to precisely depict characterisation. These variations are consistently employed.
Beyond this print iteration, a digital object could disrupt the textual hierarchy by creating a frame like shape. The novel could take on an ‘O’ shape, with no set point of entry. Text could also be presented on different sides of the transparent object, forcing the reader to reorient themselves in relation to the work.
Such attempts to reinvent the shape of the novel should by no means be regarded as (or even striving towards) definitive or established forms. If anything, these experiments suggest the rejection of such forms. Just as each novel requires its own literary form, so too could it require its own literary shape. These experiments also suggest that attempts to represent contemporary Australian culture strain heavily against the form of the traditional 19th Century novel. As a result, the novel form has seen great change in the last few decades, but not much change has been applied to the shape of the book-bound reading object itself. What this literary and practice-led research shows is that if the novel, in attempting to accommodate its very broad aesthetic and representational ambitions, is going to change its form, then it should also consider changing its shape.
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