Monday, February 8, 2010

The Future is Four Days Ago

The Future of Story conference took place at the Grant Macewan Arts Centre this past Friday and Saturday. I was there, largely because I was invited to speak on a panel Saturday afternoon. This was nice, because I'd have wanted to go anyway if I'd known it was happening prior to being invited, and now I got to go for free. I didn't even have to pay for parking or gas, because the arts centre is literally two and a half blocks from my front door.

No question, this was a sweet deal for yours truly, and I used all the skills I learned as an art student to take advantage of the opportunity, descending on the cheese platters like a living god of the locusts and mostly enjoying the "two dollars for everything" cash bar (I say mostly because the first night I paid two bucks for a can of Sprite Zero. EVERYTHING cost a toonie...)

Even without the free food and the cheap booze, it would've been a worthwhile experience. For me, anyway. Mileages seem to be varying, judging from the reactions I've encountered, largely at the twitter #futureofstory feed, which I blanket-bombed Saturday night with 20-some tweets after the conference, relating the most interesting, inflammatory, and/or bizarre statements I'd written down during the programming I attended.

I don't know that I've got much to say about the specifics of what I saw. Keynote speaker and BONES creator/showrunner Hart Hanson's talk on Friday night was easily the highlight of the weekend, and some thoughtful person has transcribed the whole thing online. Well worth reading for anyone looking to create stories for a mass audience; perhaps a little frustrating for those of a more, for lack of a better word, artistic bent.

In between cheese cubes, I got to talk one on one with Hanson for a couple minutes, during which he advised me to, basically, be really happy about Cowboys & Aliens being written by Kurtzman and Orci. "You should be happy," he said, or something close to it, "Happier than you seem to be." And this was after I'd had a couple beers; I thought I was acting pretty happy already. Perhaps I'm not as enigmatic and inscrutable a figure as I strive to portray.

In addition to Mr. Hanson's presentation Friday, I saw a panel called (I believe) "Creating the 21st Century Writer" entirely by accident. I'd thought I was going to the panel about new journalism, but had aimed myself at the room specified in the program, rather than the one in the revised schedule. I don't think I was the only one, either. By the time I figured out I wasn't where I was supposed to be, I was already ensconced in the back row of the room. Exit options were limited; I didn't think I'd feel comfortable lugging all the stuff I hadn't had a chance to get coatchecked out right in front of the panelists.

The only panel I saw on Saturday (note: I didn't see mine--I went into my public appearance fugue state at the beginning and was pretty much lost to reality for the next hour and a bit...) that I think went anywhere near the implied topic of the conference followed, this one dealing with reality television. Some juicy quotes there, most of which I failed to record because my pen died an ignominious death and when it comes to portable technology I'm one step removed from carving stuff on stone tablets.

There then came the alt-narrative panel which I was on and which was, to my surprise, actually attended. Three other panels were happening simultaneously, one of which featured Hart Hanson; I was semi-convinced nobody was going to come to ours, but as it turned out the room was not entirely devoid of non-panelist human life.

With one exception, I have no idea what I actually said during the panel. I'm still foggy on what a couple of the other panelists actually do (I write comics, Mike Laidlaw writes videogames, Kim Clegg and Ava Karvonen are involved with all sorts of multimedia platform development but I'm not clear what that involvement entails and probably don't even have the vocabulary to grasp it fully.)

One thing I do recall is suggesting that I could think of two ways to determine when the alternative becomes the mainstream, and one of those ways was when it started making money. Beyond that, it's all a haze of me being nervous and computers failing to work properly (for a minute, Mr. Hard Copy here was looking PRET-ty good with his old-fashioned comic books to hand around, I think...) ("Hardcopy" would be a great name for a hard-boiled detective, wouldn't it? Needs a sidekick, though. "This week, on HARDCOPY & McCOOL: When they investigate the death of the Archibishop of Canterbury, a mysterious figure from Hardcopy's past appears, threatening his friendship with McCool!")

After that, there was just the Crotchety Old Peop--er, A Word from the Wise panel. A distinguished panel of authors, all winners of the Governor-General's Award, but perhaps an odd note on which to close something called The Future of Story.

It was only after that last panel that I was able to put my finger on the second of two tensions that seem to me to have underpinned much of the overall conference. The first of these, introduced by Hart Hanson during his opening address, and one that's of perpetual interest to me, was the tension between the artist and the entertainer. Hanson, refreshingly, made no bones about his role as an entertainer (though I might dispute his characterization of art, even as it relates to narrative.) It was nice to see someone unconcerned with the pretense that they were creating something "more" important than entertainment, who nevertheless obviously takes the creation of entertainment very seriously. Well, it was obvious to me; Hanson's lecture was full of humour and self-deprecation, which I suppose could be interpreted by some as his being less than fully invested creatively in what he does (even if he point-blank said otherwise.)

This attitude stood out in stark contrast to many, if not all, of the 21st Century Writer and Word from the Wise panelists, who seemed to go to great pains to portray what they do as Important. Also important to them and, I gather, folks like bookseller Laurie Greenwood: the format in which what they do is received. Which brings me to the second tension: the schism between new and old, especially as it relates to media.

This divide between old and new wasn't immediately obvious to me during the conference itself. It should have been, with comments floating around like Sophie Lees' "Blogging is the antithesis of craft"--a notion so ridiculous I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and interpret it as a deliberately provocative statement designed to inspire discussion. Even her fellow panelists pointed out that not all blog posts are unedited, ill-thought out ramblings (which is in no way meant to imply this one isn't exactly that), and I believe one even said they stopped their blogging activity because it was taking too much effort to polish their posts.

But it wasn't obvious to me, not until I got back Saturday night and read the twitters under the #futureofstory hashtag. It seemed at the time that a good portion of them were arguing a position that the tweeters didn't feel was sufficiently represented on the panels they were watching, that of the early adopter of technology.

(As an aside, I've never wanted to have reliable mobile internet access in my life so much as I did this weekend--two or three people were livetweeting the event and it would have been fascinating to follow the online conversation in realtime with the panels and speakers being discussed. It's almost enough for me to wish I had a cellphone.)

At least one of the livetweeters seemed somewhat offended by a conference named The Future of Story focusing to the degree it did on the past, at least when it came to narrative delivery platforms. And honestly, judging from statements attributed to some of the panelists by the (admittedly likely to be at least somewhat biased) twitterers, I can understand why.

Now, I like books, and, for what it's worth, I think of a books as printed objects substantively different from an electronic document containing the same information. Someone tweeted something to the effect that a book isn't a format, the implication (quite possibly made explicit, I can't remember) being that an e-book is also a book. I'd go as far as to say a novel's not a format, but a book is and so is a digital document--but that's a semantic argument that probably isn't worth having.

An argument that maybe is worth having is whether the book as an object is going to be a viable delivery platform going forward, as opposed to digital documents conveyed via some form of monitor, be it a computer, cellphone, e-reader or whatever new shiny thing comes next. When someone with a vested interest in print media claims a kid can only be taught to read via text on paper--that's a questionable position and it's one that I'm not sure was as thoroughly questioned as it could have been (I wasn't at the panel in question, though, and am basing that on commentary tweets).

I don't think it's out of line for people who don't mind, or even prefer, to read books on monitors to take offense at someone implies or even outright states that their platform preference is somehow less... valid? Authentic? Just plain less?--than "real books" because kindles don't smell like fresh ink on old parchment. As I seem to recall saying in my panel, I'm leery of assigning a sweeping value judgment to something that isn't inherently good or bad, but simply is. Could I read an entire book on a kindle? I don't know, but, financial issues aside, I wouldn't mind finding out.

Even if I didn't, even if the only way I could read a book was if it had physical pages, it would be unbelievably arrogant to try and claim a position of authority on the matter of how books ought to be read based on nothing more than some combination of personal preference, ingrained habit, and wishful thinking. I can actually see the face my niece would make at me if I tried to tell her it's wrong to read something online if a print version's available. It's the face young people make at old people who've said something particularly stupid; she makes that face at me a lot.

I find it unfortunate that the conference didn't explore this friction between old and new in much depth, at least not on the programming I saw. Instead, each panel tended to be filled with people of like mind--in terms of diversity of activity and possibly opinion, the alt-narrative panel quite possibly contained the most variety of any of the programming. Which, depending on the intended goals of the conference, could actually have been part of the point. If an attendee or student wanted to find out about reality television, they would go to the reality TV panel, where reality TV people talked about reality TV. It was only during the question and answer session afterwards that a couple basic assumptions of a reality television producer faced any sort of challenge. One questioner, who assumed those wanting to appear on such a show were too naive to understand what they were setting themselves up for, clearly felt the whole thing was a moral cesspit; one exec's blase response to viewers suggesting she should have contacted childrens social services regarding a {I assume} parent's treatment of a child on one of their shows--basically, "our job is to document lives, not interfere with them (more than necessary to maximize the drama)"--left me feeling uneasy. Part of me wishes those were the kinds of subjects discussed during the panel proper, rather than the Q&A session afterwards.

All that said, there's a reasonable chance students and other interested parties walked out of the reality television panel with a better understanding of "unscripted programming", and a better chance still they wouldn't have walked out with the same sort of potentially useful information if the panel had instead featured a reality producer squaring off against someone who doesn't think a reality show involves actual writing. Such a set-up would be dramatically different, and perhaps more along the lines of what some expected/wanted. Certainly there seemed to be some frustration among the online contingent towards a perceived imbalance between those who insist print is inherently superior to digital content.

All of which amounts to what, exactly? Everyone I interacted with seemed to agree that the conference made little, if any, progress towards answering any substantive questions regarding the future of story. (In a conversation post-conference a student suggested that, inspired by things like Twitter/facebook/email/blogging, extreme brevity could become the next big thing when it comes to literary style. I found that an interesting idea, even if it actually happening would pretty much dump me in with the dinosaurs, no matter how much I accept and support new media platforms.)

But really, how could anyone, any gathering of people, hope to provide concrete answers about the future of a concept as ephemeral as "story"? While there probably could have been more detailed discussion about what the future (as opposed to the present and arguably the past) hold for narrative forms, things are moving way too fast for anyone to be able to speak confidently about what's coming down the pipe. As Gloria Sawai said, regarding the conference's subject, "Am I supposed to know that?"

For my part, I'm glad I got to take part. If I don't agree with all (or even most) of what I heard said this past weekend, it was still a positive joy to be among those who think about what story is now, and what it might become.


PS: The Macewan Arts Centre has the worst pop machines in the entire universe. I swear, the entire building was conspiring to prevent me from getting my hands on a Coke Zero, which every other machine claimed to have as part of its offerings. One machine was out of CZ, one was out of everything, another wouldn't accept my money, and yet another had a sign on it declaring that while it would technically give me a Coke Zero, the cooling mechanism on the machine was broken, so the pop would be hot (not just warm, but hot.)

PPS: Also, the mens bathroom nearest to the cafeteria? Ridiculously hard to get to. Only way I managed was by getting a student to show me where it was, and I honestly don't think I could find it again.

1 comment:

KHoyt said...

Hello, I attended that conference and, by sheer coincidence, attended the same things you did (I was in the fron row of Alt-Narrative taking pictures) I am also a student at that school and it took me half a term to fully understand the layout of the "Big Orange Block."