Form Invents Content Form Creates Content Form Composes Content
Everyone today seems to be talking about nonfiction writing, and the growing number of readers re-discovering its many pleasures.
Recent articles from sources as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, The Times and the U.K. publishing magazine, The Bookseller, have noted a swing of the public’s taste in favour of nonfiction. But this shift in preference must be seen as more than mere sales tracking or market place trend spotting. This is part of a shift that has been in the works for well a decade, involving writers whose world views, writing and storytelling skills have been pushing back the traditional borders of nonfiction.
Clearly, with several of the nonfiction bestsellers from the past several years – such as Angela’s Ashes, A Year in Provence, and Tuesdays with Morrie – there has been a refreshing and potent mix of genres coupled with strong, literate storytelling. At another level, even the content range of nonfiction has been expanding in exciting new directions with books like Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance; the digital culture musings of Neil Postman’s Technopoly; the curious Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit; and the brilliant London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd.
But the future of nonfiction that I wish to suggest to you is a kind and method and form of writing that is on the verge of being even more radically re-invented, with new and imaginative streams of subject matter, structures, styles, and diction.
The new future of nonfiction, and its receptive reader, are developing in tandem out of the same sources of daily reading, researching and writing experiences.
Our everyday uses of the personal computer, and our growing access to a widening web of information through the ongoing Internet revolution are shaping both what and how we are reading, and this is having a profound and far-reaching effect on the form, content and function of nonfiction writing and reading. At the heart of this interesting development are two key factors:
(1) the evolution of search engines and information reach of the Internet;
(2) the design and metaphoric learning experience of websites
The Shape of Nonfiction
First, there is no shape.
While the computer certainly has come a long way in transforming our world, it has been our distinctly human touch that has transformed and shaped the output of this amazing machine.
For well over a decade now, writers and readers have been experiencing, through the evolution of search engines, a growing access to the wide-ranging data and information reach of the Internet. As both writers and readers, this is shaping not only how we read, process and interpret the information found, but it also is acclimatizing us to the kind of changes writers and their writing must go through when confronting this expanding array of information. Directly and indirectly, the same experience is shaping and informing our writing and reading.
As a recent article in The Bookseller trumpeted, “The Web is now an everyday source for millions, and there are books for all of them”
Access to this information has been quicker and broader in range than anything we’ve ever experienced. Like good architects, we still shape the information, but the volume of that information, the multiplicity of choices involved, demand new ways of responding to the creation and use of writing materials.
Early on, the growing surplus of data acted only as an overwhelming and annoying increase in volume. Without context, the data often had no direction or shape, thereby limiting its range of access to its natural extensions into meaning, knowledge and wisdom. Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman, first gave voice to this issue a decade ago, followed recently by Information Anxiety 2, which offers new insights into navigating this explosion of data.
But all the while that volume was growing exponentially, reaching into a worldwide range and depth unlike anything before in history. True, there’s a tremendous amount of pure junk out there – data static – and we’ve had to learn how to make wise choices. The downside of the proliferation of information can be a kind of paralysis of decision-making – what some have referred to as the tyranny of endless choice. One can be overwhelmed by a virtual tidal wave of data and sources, far too numerous and beyond all reasonable expectation for the writer to have the time or expertise to adequately review, check for accuracy, or set in context.
But along the way, tools like search engines and websites dedicated to individual subject areas continue to improve and develop the paths of access to the data, and to shape the data into more manageable information and knowledge.
Nevertheless, search engines and the results they offer up often act more like mazes, presenting an array of choices through which readers must puzzle their way in search of specific goals. There is a riddle to be solved, and often the solutions you discover one day are not the same you’ll find on another.
Who today has not used a search engine, only to find dozens of intriguing meanings, references, and related websites. Ask for a simple Google search relating to biology, and you can also get wonderful cross-references to physics, cooking, history or archeology. This blending of subjects is often serendipitous, but can produce unique and very modern juxtapositions that can challenge the writer to see a subject in an entirely different way. It pushes together for us seemingly disparate subject matter in the way metaphor calls together two things as if they were one. A great joy of the Internet remains its ability to confront us with the unexpected – the best things you find are what you weren’t looking for – and so, in turn, a continuous potential source of creative inspiration.
As Darren Wershler-Henry, co-author of CommonSpace, says, “Nonfiction is only just now beginning to have its modernism. The process I used to write Commonspace (and am using to write my next book, is heavily search-based — I have a number of
information-aggregation/portal sites I check daily:
“Anything interesting gets saved on Backflip (www.backflip.com), which is basically a bookmarking service. I do this for a few months, then sort my backflipped pages into groups to build an outline and table of contents. Returning to the links writes the book; voila!”
Also coming out of this at a more mainstream level has been the invention and interpretation of entirely new perspectives or sub-sections of genres. Business books on, about, reacting to, dealing with the effects of the Internet – in communications, marketing and new commercial channels – have been fundamental to this growth. Similarly, more and more books about the social, historical, intellectual or spiritual effects also are addressing the writer’s and the public’s need to better comprehend this revolution.
This “Digital Culture” is everywhere at our fingertips, coming into our communities and redefining language and traditions, meaning and relationships.
At its centre is the response of nonfiction. The pure pleasure of reading nonfiction is being re-invigorated with new kinds of imaginative and innovative approaches. Nonfiction is rife with the vigor of experimentation, as well as a willingness to take our thinking and imagination beyond the traditional nonfiction borders.
As the channels and access to information continue to extend beyond the privilege of a few, the experiential range of nonfiction subject matter increases, allowing not only for radically transformed readers, but also making possible writers challenged to think and write in radically different ways than they have in the past.
The Topology of Websites
Nonfiction is an art more premeditated than fiction.
Nonfiction’s history has always been about the dissidence between its grand illusion of narrative order and the reality it seeks to reveal, between the apparent logic, accuracy and connectivity of its reasoning and the information, knowledge and, ultimately, wisdom it wishes to impart.
Its future, now, is another matter entirely.
If search engines are like mazes, websites, on the other hand, seem to act more like labyrinths, having various paths to follow that lead us through the centres of their subject matter, and then back out again.
In tandem with the effects of search engines and access to the Internet’s scope, the ways in which we read, research, and write nonfiction also are being subtly changed and shaped through the design and metaphoric learning experience of websites.
Take a look at any website, and what do you see? Virtual “islands” of information – words, pictures, videos, sounds – floating on each page that we must somehow engage and piece together like a story in order to know or understand something. We don’t “read” these pages in a linear order, but rather find the links that make most sense.
The designs of these sites all are studies in persuasion, but with their constituent parts floating unconnected. They aim at enticing us to actively pull together the connections between these islands, and at leading us to make individual choices of direction and understanding as we work our way through them.
The experience of websites is both fluid and intuitive. At their best, their architecture and structures are dynamic and nonlinear, creating new cognitive models that can actually enhance, or change our understanding. Their effect is one of gradual accumulation, a rolling up of information: a story put together, in part, by the reader.
It is in nonfiction that these experiences and effects are first being realized.
Soon, on a purely design level, more books will experiment with shapes closer to a square, more page designs will begin to directly mimic aspects of websites. The experience of the page will ask us to participate more in making connections, rather than merely following a linear set of references. More “boxed” information or cut lines will engage the reader. Gloss commentaries will parallel and shadow the main text on the page as well. Writers and designers will conspire to find ways of “breaking up” the traditional page, making it over into a new shape of information and knowledge.
We see it today in truly experimental books like experience design by Nathan Shedroff. Business books have been transformed not only in content but also design, as seen in titles such as NetResults.2 on net marketing, Brand Storm on branding, and Funky Business on building companies.
We are brought to think and imagine and create in very different ways. We are being immersed in the very art and structural engines of metaphor. The expanding topology of the Internet, in search engines, on websites, now is moving so close to the very essence of creativity that we can envision a day when we will hardly be able to tell them apart.
But we will see it at its best and most engaging in the nonfiction writing responding to the expanding horizons, effects and experiences offered through the Internet. These are the writers hard at work transforming the more traditional content and limits of nonfiction, writers pushing against the boundaries of form and function.