August 13, 2003

Blue My Mind

by Nick Montfort · , 1:50 am

I just whacked down a bit of the trAce Web site to my iBook’s hard disk in violation of the DMCA. Then Sid and I went down to the White Dog and read Scott Rettberg’s Kind of Blue, an email novel in the vein of, and following up on, Rob Wittig’s Blue Company. Damn.

If you read all the subject lines one after another they make this sort of INSANE FUCKING POEM that is like the chapter titles of If on a winter’s night a traveller assumed into heaven or something. (The word “fuck” occurs only 45 times in the 105 email messages that make up Kind of Blue, by the way.) Reading KOB in one sitting made the summer of ’02 rush back to me like a frozen margarita, slightly hurting the roof of my mouth. It’s all there: the fallout from 9/11, that season’s stage of the economic slump, the Enron scandal, Rettberg’s desperate struggle to avoid working on his dissertation, male fantasies of getting lesbians to “jump the fence.” It sounds too good to be true but YES even if you weren’t lucky enough to be one of the original recipients of this email novel, you can read it all, right now, or at least during your next three or four lunch breaks. It only takes about two hours. You can see how much is left because the links turn kind of purple as you go. If you use wget to download it you can even read it offline, in the tub. Or in a bar.

Kind of Blue is noticably better than the (formally similar) e-pistolary book Exegesis, which wasn’t that interesting of a literary effort but which I did find to be something of a page-turner. While that novel tried to wax philosophical about the nature of intelligence, KOB takes in the times and the twisting of our culture; it manages to be insanely timely, as if the messages are meant to seem dated when read more than a few hours after their composition.

Kind of Blue might work well as a book (and we’ll see if it does, since it’s coming in a codex edition that also includes Blue Company) but it’s clear that the Web presentation is a good one, although certainly different from the original direct-to-the-inbox method of distribution. You can think of the Web site as documenting the original email project, but it makes an enjoyable read as a work in its own right. It’s even more enjoyable in some ways, because you don’t have to worry about whether Scott is ever going to stop the Berto-like madness and conclude.

Formally, KOB doesn’t offer interesting interactivity of the sort that is easy (in some respects) to theorize about. But for critics and theorists, one point is certainly worth noting: it is a novel not just distributed and read on the network, but actually written on the network. There are other online and email performers, but few authors (Wittig being the only exception that comes to mind) have brought that idea together with that of the serial novel.

And this explains what exactly this whole thing is about in a somewhat more coherent way.

11 Responses to “Blue My Mind”


  1. Jill Says:

    How difficult would it be to build a platform for automatically distributing works like this? I’d love to be able to sign up for this, or Blue Company, at any time, and to receive the emails as emails and at the speed they’re designed to arrive at. There are several works like this now (I’ve compiled a partial list of email narratives at http://huminf.uib.no/~jill/txt/emailnarratives.html) – they once ran live, and now some of them have been archived but the reading experience is so much richer (or at least different) when emails arrive in your inbox than when you browse files on a webserver. Perhaps one platform could be fed many different such projects?

    Scott, if you’re reading, or Rob, did you consider a automated mailout system like this? Obviously publishing an email narrative as a complete archive is simpler, but was it also an aesthetic choice?

  2. Scott Says:

    Jill–

    Rob and I did/are still considering such a system. Actually I spent quite a bit of time looking into it, and more or less figured out I could kludge some sales-support email software to do this (though I wasn’t able to figure out how I would do it to the specific hour). About six months ago, however, I decided that even if I did that, this particular work might not gain more from that than it would from appearing as a kind of web-specific whole. Much of the surprise/recognition of its time-based(ness), at least in the original version, came from the fact that its characters were reacting to events in the news and world that occurred the same day as the messages were recieved. For this work, all that would be gained from the email time re-release would be the pacing of the novel/event. Which might be worth preserving. Ultimately, I decided that the webwork should be a different thing, somewhere inbetween email and book. As NIck notes, you can more or less sit down for a couple hours and read the whole thing in this version — the original readers had to devote small portions of time over the course of 6 or 7 weeks to see the whole thing. If there was an easy software solution that didn’t cost much and was able to deliver messages on an hourly rather than daily schedule, however, I would love set up KoB on such a platform. The Web is essentially a different media-version than the email version, and the book will be another as well. The different effects of the media on the reading experience of the work are interesting to me. Even though most of the words are the same, the media have significant effects on the message (okay I’m going back in my cave).

    Thanks, BTW, to Nick for the nice fucking writeup.

    S

  3. Mark Bernstein Says:

    Jill —

    I think it should be quite easy to whip together an automated (or semi-automated) mailing system for email fiction in Ruby. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the scultpural hypertext work; Card Shark by email might be fun.

    I’d be happy to correspond with interested writers.

  4. nick Says:

    Jill, looking at your (excellent) email narratives list, here are some updates:

    Blue Company: The second round (Blue Company 2002) did of course happen – Scott’s Kind of Blue was written just after that ended.

    TurnTale seems to be gone from the Web.

    Carl Steadman’s “Two Solitudes” was started on 24 September 1994, as one of Carl’s pages explains. The full text is currently online. It’s another case of Carl thinking of all the interesting things that you could do online, and then doing them, nine years ago.

  5. Jill Says:

    Scott, yes, I see about the now-ness of it – you could do the pacing of course, technologically, but… I must admit I did like being able to read the WHOLE of it at once. With a couple of the email narratives I’ve read where I’ve received individual emails instead of reading the archives, my attention levels have varied so from day to day that I’ve not really been able to follow it properly, and have ended up reading groups of emails collected over days instead of reading them as they arrive. That doesn’t happen when I can browse the whole archive at my own speed.

    Mark, sculptural email hypertext? Maybe I haven’t quite understood sculptural hypertext: it’s where you start with everything linked and then carve AWAY links, like a sculptor carves away stone, instead of adding links, right? How would you connect that with emails?

    Nick, thanks for the updates, I’ve updated my list which was appallingly outdated. But I wish there were more new email experiments to add to it.

    My favourite experience of this kind is probably Surrender Control, where subscribers received something like 75 SMSes to their mobile phones over the course of three days. It was amazing getting that many SMSes that intensely. They’re so short you just read them instantly, of course, and if your mobile phone’s always on and always with you it’s pretty immersive. I think the Online Caroline guys are using SMS in their new piece, Planetjemma.com, which I’ve not played through yet – but you can’t do the same kind of narrative as you do in KoB with short short SMSes of course.

  6. jill/txt Says:
    kind of blue
    [This post will probably be significantly changed when I've read the piece linked to] I eagerly read Rob Wittig’s Blue Company, an email narrative first run in 2001, but I only just realised that it had a sequel of sorts,…

  7. jill/txt Says:
    updated email narratives
    I updated my list of email narratives this morning, with some help from Nick (thanks!). All the commercial efforts at using stories told in email for marketing have given way to sexy webcams, and I don’t know of any new…

  8. Scott Rettberg Says:
    Kind of Blue
    **Assignations, Frustrations, Meditations, Lamentations, Revelations, Assassinations** Kind of Blue , the serial email novel I wrote during the Summer of 2002, has just been published by frAme, Journal of Art and Technology at the the trAce online writing

  9. clifford duffy Says:

    Just havin’ found yer blogsiteetc. will comeback. interesting.

  10. clifford duffy Says:

    ooops I dont think I left that url.

    FictionsofDeleuzeandGuattari

  11. clifford duffy Says:

    all to say I find this site interesting. my own fictions were born in the old d&g list and will become a book next year. Or rather they shall become a printed volume, in the usual sense. What I find interesting is that few poets, either in prose poetry or other forms , seem to have any real working knowledge of dg nor do they seem to be aware of its possibilites for meaning and application. I wont say more as I dont wish to be sort of snooty or critical, as really what I do for fun. Cheers.

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