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The Google Novel Aura

September 5, 2007

An ardent fan of the novelist William Gibson has taken it upon him (or her) self to provide something approaching a "Cliff Notes"-style commentary on Gibson's latest creation, Spook Country. Visitors to the URL can use the fan's notes to help them navigate their way through Gibson's characteristically dense work. Here's an example:


Over breakfast with Odile and Alberto, Hollis (former “singer in an early-nineties cult band” The Curfew) learns of other locative art installations, “spatially tagged hypermedia.” “virtual shrines” to the past made possible by geohacking and “(v)isible to all” on special devices such as those designed by Alberto.

Hollis realizes that she has something to write about for Node, “though she was still a long way from knowing what it was.”

Gibson has said that he thinks of the act of reading as the creation of thousands of "hyperlinks" in the reader's head: "I now think that any contemporary novel today has a kind of Google novel aura around it, where somebody's going to google everything in the text," Gibson is quoted as saying in The Guardian. "There's this nebulous extended text. Everything is hyperlinked now."

The author of the article about this subject in The Guardian, John Sutherland, believes that the fan has created "a new kind of annotation." Says Sutherland: "What the unknown Node-maestro has done is poles apart, both from this, and from the usual website-based 'everybody pitch in' mess. He's channelled the raw material supplied by his volunteers into a sign-posted route through Spook Country. It opens the way, I believe, to a new kind of critical commentary on texts. One can see, easily enough, how it could be extended to Paradise Lost, or Hamlet."

I am skeptical about the novelty of Spook Country's annotation. In our Wikipedia age, this kind of activity seems natural and not extremely original. There are thousands of literary fansites out there offering readings on various books. I think Node's commentary provides a useful service to newcomers to Gibson's novels, but I'm not sure it necessarily translates, as The Guardian suggests it does, into a more controlled, and therefore trusted, form of online commentary.

It's also rather primitive. The "tag cloud" associated with the words in Gibson's novel only exists online. Readers have to open the book, find a word or phrase for which they would like further explanation, and then go to a computer to look it up. There's no difference in this process than looking up something from a hard-copy book in an online encyclopedia. If Gibson had published his book online and allowed this form of hyperlinked annotation to be embedded in the Web-based text, then the transfer of information from the paper page to the reader's head would have been much more seamless.

"A new science fiction novel is threatening to completely overhaul the way literary criticism is conducted" the headline for the article proclaims. That's way over the top. I just Googled the novel online. The fan's website doesn't even make it into the top three pages of links associated with the book's title. That's hardly promising for what's being heralded by a major newspaper as a revolutionary new approach to literary criticism.


  • Hmm. No, it's not that new. There's a quite useful annotated online edition of Pound's Cantos, fr'instance. And also quite a groovy Paradise Lost website (big on the graphics of Hell). Neither of which I can find, of course...

    By Blogger Alison Croggon, At September 5, 2007 at 2:50 PM  

  • We hear music because of the space between the notes. What most gratifies is often expressed beneath the lines. Our eyes belie our words. Something subterranean, beautiful and unknown, will always thrive under the deadly rocks of fact and belief.

    Leave it be. Live the question. Hands off. Out.

    Let me
    guess what
    you mean
    when you
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    mr. stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 6, 2007 at 10:01 PM  

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