Ellen Ullman interview and some thoughts on object-oriented fiction

There’s a really nice, extensive Salon interview with Ellen Ullman about The Bug and her life as an English major-turned-computer programmer in the mid-80s. Apparently, the novel started out as nonfiction, a novella-length essay about her own experience with a persistent, elusive bug, not unlike the titular bug that Roberta and Ethan encounter in the novel.

The interview is full of interesting insights about Ullman’s writing process, including this thought-provoking comment about her choice to give the novel a historical setting:

…trying to write about new computer things, if you’re going to spend years on it, like you do on a novel, it’s pretty hopeless. By the time you’re done with it, it won’t be new anymore. It’s not journalism. This book took me five years. If you tried to write it about breaking developments, it’s going to look old no matter what. You can’t keep updating; it’s too integral a story. You can’t just flip pieces in and out of it — it’s not object-oriented.

What would a novel look like if it were “object-oriented”? What if there was a piece of fiction out there somewhere being continually updated and retooled to reflect changing conditions in the scenario it describes? Of course, it would be impossible to write a story that perfectly kept pace with current events: it’s the old Tristram Shandy problem. A writer can never “catch up” to the present moment. But I’m interested in the idea of a story that a reader can see growing and adapting in more-or-less real time, something that none of the hypercybertextufictions (what are we supposed to call them again?) we’ve studied thus far are actually capable of doing. Many of the examples we’ve studied do contain elements of randomness that generate many programmed permutations, but none to my knowledge are being actively rewritten or updated by their authors. What if the process of writing electronic literature was more like developing software? What if Michael Joyce were still writing Afternoon and released an updated version every few months? Would that be totally insane, or an exciting new paradigm for fiction? Isn’t that kind of modularity and seriality more or less what a blog does? And if so, whither the fiction-bloggers?

They exist! According to Wikipedia, “blog fiction” is a thing. It’s a tricky literary category, however, partly because of the strong associations we have between blogging and non-fiction (journalistic or diary-style blogs), and partly because even ostensibly non-fiction blogs contain fictionalized elements. Fascinating stuff!

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