There has been a lot of craziness in my current adventures in Canada for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, which I hope to write about in the future once enough time has elapsed for me to get some decent hindsight. The most pressing matter right now is that in 30+ hours from now I need to do a 15 minute presentation on something which I know but in all honesty should be a hell of a lot more defined in the scholarly sense by now. First I’m going to put the abstract from there on out it’s gonna be freewriting trying to piece something together. In my head I am envisioning this as a pastiche of many previous papers, presentations, and blog posts on the subject. I don’t know if this is wrong because I’m not adding more to the academic conversation or right because I have written so much on this from a variety of different perspectives and examples. Let’s see.
Authorial Accessibility: How Digital Connectivity Is Redefining the Relationship between Authors and Readers
Abstract: The notion of authorship is one that has evolved throughout the history of literature. For centuries, the main perception of the author of a particular work was almost deity-like, as per the term “word of god”. Critical theorists analyzed various aspects of the author in depth and in the process took down the reverence towards authorial figures, especially with Roland Barthes declaring the “death of the author”. The rise of digital media greatly shortens the distance between authors and readers allowing for more personal relationships to develop.
Throughout my research as both a scholar and fan of various contemporary authors, especially with those that publish serial works, I have found that there is a search for balance between a private and a public digital presence. I explore how authors of digital works, specifically with webcomic cartoonists, use email, forums, and social media among other tools to establish communication with their readerships. This level of accessibility comes with an ease for immediate interaction at the personal and public scale which can affect narrative production. Readers are now elevated to minor editors as they can inform of typos or art mistakes within seconds of a new installment’s publication so that these can be fixed quickly. Besides the influence on literary output, the level of connectivity between authors and readers can reach beyond one of consumerism, as with the case of webcomic cartoonist Tarol Hunt of Goblins fame that calls his readers his “e-maginary friends” and has even offered his house to any readers to come stay at for a few days if they are in the area. This raises further questions as to the new expectations of the author-reader relationship through digital communication that I wish analyze further in my presentation.
Actual paper so far:
Last week, my cousin Mayra sent a Facebook message to YouTube star Jenna Marbles congratulating her on another excellent video. Jenna actually answered her by saying “Thanks XOXO” and what followed can only be described as “fangirling”. In that brief moment of recognition, we are able to witness the potential of digital connectivity. Regardless of celebrity level or social media platform, getting personal acknowledgment from someone whose work you admire is a pretty big deal that distinguishes you from the rest of the nameless collective readership and fandom. Back in ye olden times, one had to be lucky enough to be geographically close by to get any kind of one on one communication with one’s favorite author or be in the very close circle with which he/she had personal correspondence with. The desire to communicate with and even stalk a particular author/celebrity was picked up by journalists and paparazzi that let their readership make this kind of contact vicariously through them. Somewhere down the line of wanting to be closer, more walls were being erected between authors and readers.
Digital media bypasses these barriers. Authors no longer need to go through a lengthy and complex publication process or need to have a press conference of some sort to reach their readerships. Social media like Facebook, Twitter, and so many other platforms, have become these portals by which one can produce additional content (George Takei doing extra jokes), sneak peaks at the creative process (Kevin Smith showing rough draft of Clerks 3 script), or just Wil Wheaton shouting at the LA Kings with a horse mask on. Then again, you also have the case of accounts that are run by assistants and PR firms but there is no real way of making that distinction.
A lot of my own research for my dissertation is focused on webcomic cartoonists. While other forms have editors, supervisors, publishing houses, assistants, and many other kinds of people above and below certain echelons, webcomics are normally a one person operation. Because the relationship between readership and author is more direct, there is a certain level of accessibility that is unique to this digital landscape. Authors are no longer distant entities or amalgamations of personnel but a real person. Beyond the narrative output of an ongoing story, readers obtain additional information from the author, mostly on a personal level. The rapport now becomes one akin to friendship. Consider the case of Rich Burlew, author of Order of the Stick who recently got his thumb injured in an accident and could not produce a new installment of his webcomic for months. Readers were rightfully frustrated that their serial narrative was now at an unexpected halt but were more genuinely concerned over Burlew’s well-being and focused on wishing him a proper recovery, rather than a speedy one. This type of outreach is not just emotional but financial as well. Webcomic cartoonist Tarol Hunt of Goblins established a donation drive solely so that he could buy his house and readers responded with monetary support. Because of this generosity, Hunt has extended an invitation to any and all readers in the area to come and stay at his home for a few days. FYI, he currently has a Kickstarter going on for the board game version of the webcomic.
Speaking of Kickstarter, I can’t really express the extension of the author-reader relationship without tackling the crowdfunding phenomenon. The minor begging for people to donate via PayPal, has become a thing of the past as people can now pledge money and obtain some sort of actual reward for doing so at some point in the promised future. One interesting example of such a pledge can be found in Rob Balder’s and Xin Ye’s Erfworldwebcomic where Balder placed that for the price of $5,000 (five backers maximum for this reward, none were taken through the campaign) with the title of “Dance For Me, Author-Boy!” In it, Balder would personally fly to your hometown, hang out with you for a day and deliver merchandise and other surprises. This type of promise shows that webcomic authors have a personal rapport with their readership but also that they are available to make that connection with the reader even at a one-on-one basis. Of course, one can also argue that this kind of work can easily turn into authors taking advantage of a select few fans or even that they are prostituting their celebrity identity, but I leave that to other researchers to explore further.
Besides financial and personal gains, the actual work is one that can benefit greatly from this digital connectivity. Narratively speaking, a vocal readership can actively persuade the author to shift the focus of the story as more and more installments are published. This effect can also be done passively by the author combing through the forums and seeing the conversations that take place there. On a far more instantaneous level, readers serve as an immediate form or editors. They are quick to react and notify of a typo or an art mistake. They can even help with larger issues of maintaining narrative continuity throughout story arcs. We saw some of this with Marvel and Stan Lee’s implementation of the famous “No Prize” that led to several retcons being established but now this is occurring at a speed where a significant percentage of the readership might not even see the problem exist in the first place.
One of the more interesting capacities about publishing on the Web is that newer versions of installments can overturn the previous ones and making them obsolete in their deletion. However, many webcomic cartoonists prefer to not update their older work, even if the art style and quality has changed dramatically. The reasoning behind this is that the actual finished and polished versions of the webcomic will only appear in the print compilations, thus providing an incentive to make such a purchase. From a textual criticism perspective we see that the print version takes priority as the finalized text and the online becomes something still malleable even in its publication. I posit that the webcomic itself is a circulating draft, a term used by John Bryant in his book The Fluid Text to describe a phase where “writers may copy their work for others to read and help edit.” Thus, the relationship between author and reader is one that is elevated to one of editor and even quality control personnel. However, there is a very limited window of time in which voicing one’s opinions can actually have ramifications to the work. For minor edits, this is usually a few minutes form the moment of an installment’s publication but bigger things have a few days tops before you basically end up doing thread necromancy on the forums. This immediacy (both in velocity and medium) is something fairly unique to digital interactions and an important factor of the serial reading experience of a particular work.