Thursday, 29 October 2015

Transitions, story, emotion

At my last PhD supervision, a question asked by my director of studies, Ian Gadd, set me thinking. How, he wanted to know, was I going to manage the tonal transitions in William Hayley's story?

The forms Hayley "asks" readers to complete are playful – or, to use Hayley's term, "sportive". They work well with lighter content, but what about when things turn dark? How will a playful mechanism work in the face of the long, agonising decline and death of Thomas Alphonso, Hayley's only son? Or the emotional torments suffered by Hayley's adored friend, William Cowper, whose final poem, "The Castaway", compares his lot to a shipwrecked sailor, and concludes
No voice divine the storm allay'd,
         No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
         We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.
One friend of Hayley's by another: William Cowper by George Romney (NPG 1423)
 Hayley wasn't especially adept at managing the emotional transitions in his Memoirs – edited extracts of which form the backbone of my zoeography – or in the Memoirs of Thomas Alphonso Hayley, published in tandem with his own. His failure to match tone to content led his biographer Morchard Bishop (a pseudonym for the critic and novelist Oliver Stonor, originally named Frederick Field Stoner) to contend that 
"Hayley was a man much too facile in expression to feel very deeply, but he was capable, if the phrase may be pardoned, of feeling extensively…"
Blake’s Hayley: the life, works & friendships of William Hayley
, London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1951, p250)
I'm  inclined to pardon neither the phrase, nor the judgement. It's nauseatingly condescending and, frankly, spurious. Taken to its logical conclusion, it suggests that only people with a command of particular modes and manners of expression are capable of profound emotion: a statement that's both utterly of Bishop/Stonor/Stoner's time and class – and also clearly untrue.

However, the lack of emotional dynamics in the Memoirs presents me with an extra challenge in my attempt to engage readers with, and involve them in Hayley's story. So, I'll try two things as I go through each extract (at the moment, there are 447 of them) editing metadata and text, adding images and commentary.

Firstly, I'll see if slight textual tweaks act to increase emotional impact.

And secondly, I'll explore the possibility of rating each extract on three emotional scales (this will mean new metadata fields). At the moment I'm considering
  1. happy <––> sad
  2. calm <––> agitated
  3. a scale of intensity*. 
But, once the extracts are rated, then what? How could this information be used to improve the reader journey/experience? By varying the order in which story extracts are delivered? If so, how? And if not, what would be the point?

At present, we're working on the basis that the prototype will deliver extracts on the basis of

1. reader choice (pick three topics of conversation)
2. randomness (the software picks one of the three topics randomly)
3. order in which text appeared in Hayley's Memoirs (sorted by volume, then page number: this is essentially chronological)

with additional material inserted at predetermined points on the basis of other information Hayley "asks" the readers to provide.

But could it be more effective if stories with high emotional content were delivered via a different mechanism? Should, for instance, news of some of the many deaths – Hayley's Memoirs have a high body count – interrupt the flow of his story? If so, how could that be implemented without throwing everything else out of kilter?

In other words, it's not merely emotional transitions I need to work on here. It's how emotional transitions intersect with narrative transitions that's the real issue. Sometimes the change of emotion and narrative focus will need to be abrupt and shocking, the way it can be IRL. Other times will require transitions that are gentler, more subtle. 

Time, I think, for a conversation with the developers about the desirable and the possible…

For next week I'm going to explore and write about one of the 10 games Naomi Alderman picked as essential for any of us interested in "the future of literature" in her recent article on narrative innovation and gaming to explore and write about.

* which brings to mind Don Paterson's chilling poem The Scale of Intensity

Friday, 16 October 2015

Relationship mapping, power and influence

I've finally got round to starting to map William Hayley's relationships. I realised fairly quickly that I'd drive myself nuts if I tried to do them all at the same time, so I've gone for three categories: family, friendships and work. So far I've had a bash at family and friendships

Naturally the different types of relationship overlap, so some people – including Hayley's first wife Eliza, his son Thomas Alphonso, and Tom's mother, Mary Cockerell appear in both.

Two issues troubled me during the mapping process: time and power/influence.

 Time, power and influence

The only nod I've made to the former is by putting the descriptors of relationships with William Hayley's father and brother – both of whom died while he was very young – in the past tense and in pink. More on time in a bit…
I've signalled the different degrees of power and/or influence in the relationships by using
  • bi-directional straight arrows and reddish-brown text for relationships which seem/feel equal 
  • uni-directional straight arrows coming from the individual with greater power/influence in the relationship plus blue text
  • uni-directional curved arrows coming from the individual with lesser power/influence in the relationship, plus blue text.
I've only deviated from this is in the (family) relationship between Eliza Hayley and Mary Cockerell. Although Mary was Eliza's servant, it was William Hayley who, ultimately, had control over both women: control he exerted on at least one occasion, post-separation, when Eliza challenged his authority. There were also times when Eliza depended on Mary for care and companionship and, even – in once instance (also after the couple had separated) when both women were lodging together in Derby – for sourcing food.

The only other fact I want to highlight at this stage, is that there are, unsurprisingly, more asymmetric power/influence relationships amongs family than there are amongst friends, and that the distribution is – even less surprisingly – gendered.

But, as I've already indicated, the two masses of text and squiggles below don't show how relationships evolve, wax and wane over time.

A "Dislikes" arrow?

I need to do something more sophisticated and (almost certainly) animated to evoke these changes, to demonstrate the way marriages, deaths and fallings-out impact on friendships and family relationships: to highlight emnity as well as amity. I'm thinking here not only of William Blake's initial attraction to, and sympathy for Hayley crystallising into fury and frustration at the latter's attempts to direct his work, then, ultimately relaxing into gratitude at Hayley's successful efforts to ensure he was acquitted at his trial for sedition. I'm also wondering how to represent, say, the poet Anna Seward's disapproval and violent criticism of poet and novelist Charlotte Smith's work. Both women were close to Hayley at one time or another, with Hayley even negotiating on Smith's behalf with her publisher. Seward eventually, angered Hayley, by writing about Eliza in a way Hayley considered both unkind and – given her privileged knowledge of Eliza's mental health issues – a betrayal.

And I'm also thinking about how to represent the relationship between Hayley and Reverend John Johnson: Cowper's relation and carer. Although Hayley would have considered Johnson a "confidential" friend, a couple of comments in Johnson's letters to others, along with a few of his editorial markings on the manuscript

Finally, before I finish I'd like to critique the terms I've used to define the relationships. They are all possessive: hasWife; hasFriend; hasEmployer. I should have used isHusbandOf; isFriendOf; isEmployeeOf. But they are also too static for my liking. The next thing I need to understand is how to model flow.

Narrative flow, relationship flux and nuclear reactors

Think I need to ask my friend who used to design software for nuclear reactors… Meanwhile, here's where I've got to so far…

Friday, 9 October 2015

Interactive biography: players, actors, protagonists

A Fortunate Man?

Towards the end of John Berger and Jean Mohr's photo-essay A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, are a few paragraphs musing on the difficulties of writing biography – particularly of living subjects – compared with fiction or autobiography.

"In a certain sense", Berger writes, addressing what he feels to be the impossibility of concluding this essay, "fiction seems strangely simple now. In fiction one has only got to decide that a character is, on balance, admirable. Of course there remains the problem of making him so … But still –outcomes can be decided. Whereas now I can decide nothing."

Autobiographers, he reckons, have it even easier – or are, at least, "freer" – than novelists. The autobiographer
"is his own subject and his own chronicler. Nothing, nobody, not even a created character can reproach him. What he omits, what he distorts, what he invents – everything, at least by the logic of the genre, is legitimate." (p159)
(As an aside, Berger's text is, throughout, as sexist in a thoroughly-of-its-moment (1967) way as the above quotes suggest. Jean Mohr's accompanying portraits exhibit a much better gender balance.)

Berger makes one comment on biography that clarified what I'm trying to achieve with this project He's explaining the difference between writing a biography of a living, and a dead artist.

When work is no longer in progress

"The painting you saw last week when you assume the painter was alive is not the same painting (although it is the same canvas) you see this week when you know that he is dead." While an artist lives, every work is
"part of an unfinished process. … When the artist is dead, the painting becomes part of a definitive body of work. What we can think or say about it changes. It can no longer be addressed to the artist … we can now only think and speak for ourselves. Because he is dead, we become the protagonists." (p160-161, my italics)
There's a lot written about the relationship between the roles of author and "audience" in interactive narrative, much of centred around the relinquishing of authorial control and the correlative increase in audience agency. In "Player Agency in Interactive Narrative: Audience, Actor & Author", for instance, Sean Hammond, Helen Pain and Tim J Smith write
"A player in an interactive narrative can be a spectator in the sense that she is a witness to the dramatic spectacle. She can be an actor in the sense that she plays the role of one of the characters in the narrative. And she can be an author in the sense that she collaborates with the system (and perhaps with other players) to produce the resulting narrative experience. The player is not exclusively a spectator, nor an actor, nor an author, but in any given example of interactive narrative the role of player combines these three traditional roles to different degrees"
Emily Short in a 2011 blog post on An Alternative Taxonomy for Interactive Stories explores the different ways in which, and extents to which the "player" can become actor, character, protagonist and/or author, and offers useful examples of/links to games and fictions for each mode.

The framing of the audience (or reader) as player is, of course, a trope drawn – along with many of the techniques and technologies of interactive narrative – from gaming. But I don't think it's apposite for a zoeography, where, although the interactive element is playful (or "sportive", to employ the term Hayley would have used). I'm still not sure what the right word is, and may need to coin another neologism.

A protagonist in someone else's life story

In attempting to create the simulacrum of a relationship between the audience/reader and the biographical subject, while, at the same time, positioning my commentary on his life as marginalia, I don't feel I'm ceding any of my authorial control to the audience/reader. What I'm aiming to do is expand their role as protagonist, if not in Hayley's story, at least in the telling of it, while diminishing the role of the biographer-as-protagonist and/or narrator, and morphing it into something else. Commentator, perhaps?

What's different here from the other player-as-protagonist examples that Emily Short provides, is that it's the audience/readers' selves – or how they choose to identify/describe themselves and their circumstances: the app and I will have no knowledge of whether they're answering Hayley's questions honestly or not – that will influence the course of the narrative.