englisch Novel on the Internet, or: Turning Forty

Novel on the Internet, or: Turning FortyLecture, held at several universities in U.S., april 2000

Translator: Agnes C. Mueller
Original title: Marietta – die Idee, der Datensatz und der Strohhut (01/02/1999)published in:
– als Poetik-Vorlesung gehalten an der Universität Mainz, 2/2/99
in bearb. Fassung bei: Franz Steiner Verlag 8/00;
enth. in: Vom Verschwinden der Dinge in der Zukunft


On September 16th, 1996, I received a phone call from a certain Gerald Giesecke. Innocently, he asked whether I could see myself writing my next novel – as a so-called “Novel in Progress” — on the Homepage of the German public TV-Program he was working for.
“We’ll take care of the rest,” he promised.
I fell straight into the trap.
Of course, I was a long way away from any “next novel” in 1996. I was still in the midst of working on “Weiberroman” (in English perhaps “The Book of Women”), the life- and love story of Gregor Schattschneider, which was published in July of 97. Because of its three parts and the three women with whom unhappy Gregor as a teenager, twenty-, and thirty-something engages in rather difficult relationships, the press characterized the book as “Weiber-Tryptichon” with all its typical Westernized “mythical” connotations.
However, “Weiberroman”, “The Book of Women” was originally conceived in four parts: “Kristina,” “Tania,” “Katarina,” and “Marietta.” Throughout the years, I had already collected material for “Marietta,” Part Four. Collecting “material” in this case merely meant gathering individual sentences and individual scenes, since I already knew the story itself anyway – or so I thought. I had furthermore decided that this fourth part was to begin with Gregor’s fortieth anniversary – which I considered to be a “magic” date.
Whilst working on “Weiberroman,” it became obvious that this “fourth part” would by far exceed the concept and frame of the novel, which is why my publisher suggested that I make it into a separate, “next novel.” So when Gerald Giesecke first appeared at my home in Hamburg, roughly half a year after his initial phone call, and soon revealed himself as “Dschereld Dschisaiki”, I didn’t need to think long for a topic. But, to write a novel on the Internet at that time seemed to be about the farthest thing from my mind. Of course, no one expected an actual “Internet-Novel,” consisting mainly of Hyperlinks, nervously flashing buttons, click-here and click-there icons, moving images, and as little text as possible. Quite the opposite, I was supposed to write a tedious regular novel which had to be written as a tedious regular text. Since nobody wanted me to produce any kind of “Cyber-Avantgarde,” or, worse still, Internet-Literature, but rather Literature on the Internet, and since the project of the public TV program seemed to result in some kind of a mixture of reality-TV and literary archive, I didn’t see why I shouldn’t take a chance.
Three weeks later, Gerald Giesecke appeared again, this time accompanied by a network graphic consultant and a network technician who took possession of my mouse and would not let go of it, until I had finally realized that from now on, things would not only change drastically on the hard drive of my Computer, but also inside me.

A Traditional Writer Goes Modern

For someone who usually writes in green ink exclusively, the strain imposed by technology is considerable.
So, why did I do this?
Certainly not because I wanted to dispense with my ink. I always wrote and still write every word on paper first, because I believe that you can tell from most texts whether they are purely “hand-made” or not. You can tell from the tiny and tiniest of details, like from originally properly placed filling words, which can quickly turn into needless, missing, or bothersome links, after the text has been cut and pasted a few times. But you can equally tell from the flow and “breath” of sentences which, I believe, can only be created through an organic, wholesome writing process, and not by pressing individual buttons. When working on building sentences it is rather a bother to have automatic hyphenation and a fully flushed paragraph on screen.
And since we’re talking about language – which of course means, writing in my native language, here is the first result of my going online:
The first change, as though it was the famous drop in the famous bucket, was of a linguistic nature: I now hate every word in English.
Not every English word, of course, but every English word in German. I hate every English word which has become part of the German vocabulary, if – and this is important! – there is no adequate German equivalent. The emphasis here is on adequate, since sometimes there truly IS no German equivalent, in which case I fully support the use of Gerglish. Most people, however, use English vocabulary in German in order to profile themselves and their supposed cosmopolitan nature, which I find utterly repulsive.
By the way and contrary to expectation: My writing style or my relationship with language has not changed at all, even after many experiences with “Cyberslang.” Why should it have? When I bought my very first PC, it also didn’t affect my punctuation. Besides, the Internet is an aesthetic, NOT a linguistic drug. It changes the way we see, not the way we write, and its linguistic range is rather poor, consisting only of a minimum of emoticons, abbreviations, and other emergency tools. To try and represent this in my new novel does not mean a change of writing style per se, but rather an addition of another form of artistic representation.

It’s Nobody’s Fault!

While virtual adventures seem to be the last true adventures of our time, as a beginner, one can only survive them if one is willing to consistently engage in new beginnings, or “re-starts.” With me, this is what happened: Whenever things seemed to go really smoothly, for instance when my search engine systematically turned out long lists of possible search results, or when I found myself in the midst of downloading some really flashy new software, “the bomb” appeared: The black symbol of a bomb with the delightful subheading “System Error 11” – which meant to go back and “re-start” from scratch.
Nevertheless, and without the help of any kind of network consultant, I finally succeeded in installing “Netscape Communicator 4.5” on my hard drive, and ever since then, my life is almost back to normal.
And this is where the second change caused by the Internet comes in. It is neither of a linguistic nor of a conceptual, but rather of a sociological-slash-cultural nature: With my cultural and social conditioning, probably consisting of relentless indoctrination some 40 years ago, survival on the Internet was all but impossible. I am referring here to the notion of always looking for all fault in myself.
“Quite the opposite, it’s NEVER your fault,” is what a friend kept reassuring me, when the people from the TV station could never read with their PCs what I had tried to send to them with my Macintosh. “It’s never your fault, it’s always the software’s fault.”
This short sentence changes everything, every outlook on the world, the digital as well as the physical one. I would even go as far as to say that we are dealing with nothing less than a major paradigm shift: From self-defying appropriation of the world towards a cool & relaxed laissez faire philosophy, from at first trying to fight all obstacles towards a more and more carefree letting-go, adapting to any situation: Zen or the art of smiling at a computer crash. While we in the 20th century were still under the impression of “we can do anything,” we are now at the beginning of the 21st experiencing a first glimpse of “anything does,” a curious state, this “anything does,” which we can only defy with an increased play instinct.

Eleven Mariettas

Excuses to not even begin writing turned out to be plentiful. Gerald Giesecke had scheduled the casting of the female main character for October fourth ‘97, only two months after he had first appeared on my sofa. Eleven students from an acting school in Hamburg presented themselves. Up until that fourth of October, I had been fairly certain about “my” Marietta, about the way she looked (including the most delicate details), about her so-called character, about all her ticks and secrets, and of course about her charming personality, which she showed off so well when talking; in short, I was pretty certain about everything and thus put a brief description on the Website:

1. [first] She does not have a pierced nose
2. [second] A foot of hers is a foot – and not one of those sad, lifeless beings
3. [third] She chews coffee beans between her Whiskeys
4. [fourth] Her Tamagotchi’s name is “Percy”
5. [fifth] Kashmir could mean something to her
6. [sixth] On the phone, she sometimes sounds as though she were wearing glasses…

… and so on, up to point number 38, so that the readers of the “Novel in Progress” were already somewhat informed on her half Italian descent, her half-functioning marriage to a Professor of German, all the neurotic little habits of a thirty year old living a somewhat problematic life of luxury on the banks of Starnberger See just south of Munich, someone who is basically predestined for the non-conformist aspects of extra-marital affairs. After all this, the colorful Marietta-being was reduced by Giesecke into a snappy six-line slogan. “You are chatty? Bright and sunny? An intellectually playful work of art? Appear elegant – without giving in to aesthetic cliches? Then you are the woman we’re looking for!” Each of the eleven candidates had one film scene to translate this into – well, at least 38 points. What she did and how she did it was up to her; the TV station caught everything on camera, and then put eleven short video clips on the Website. Within a month, users could vote by Email for the one they wanted to be my main character.
And I? Abstained. I could have had eleven thousand Mariettas to choose from, but the one who came into being over the years, in front of my so-called “inner eye,” would not have been among them. Instead of this one fictitious Marietta that I was so certain of, I now knew eleven pseudo-Mariettas, who in the course of one single day of casting and filming had managed to shatter my original figure: So many new sentences, glances, head positions, that now the story could definitely no longer be told.
Has this ever happened? An author who actually meets his main character, and in eleven versions, before he has written one single line of the affiliated novel? I do not mean situations in which an author finds someone incredibly inspiring for one reason or another, and thus creates a novel around that person afterwards. No, in my case I already had the figure, and now – because of those eleven real-life versions – I had, and this is the third change, much more and much less than before: Everything was up for grabs again.

The Effects of One Straw Hat

Of course my writer’s block was not alleviated by the fact that the winner had been chosen by the end of the Leipzig book fair in ‘98: It was Maike Schiller, 23 years old, blond, and from Hamburg. However, as soon as we started shooting at the banks of Starnberger See, from May 21 to May 23, the crisis revealed its creative value. (By the way: The films were later put on the Website as Video Clips, and a short movie was shown by the TV station). Not only did Maike try everything in order to “become” all the 38 points of Marietta for those two days (for instance: she colored her hair so it would be closer to the north-Italian red blond of the description), she also contributed much of herself to the role, points 39 and following so to speak. Among those contributions was a pink straw hat, which she happened to have brought with her, and which instantly appealed to us. The next day, a bright, sunny, typical May day at the Starnberger See, she not only convinced us, she truly entranced us all: Gerald Giesecke, the camera man, the sound man, and … the author, who thus had no other choice: This pink straw hat would have to appear in the novel, would in fact have to take on a central role, perhaps even as a leitmotif. All this despite the fact that in all those years I had, and I swear, not even one single time thought of a pink straw hat.
And whoever may think that this fourth change of the original writer’s impetus is only marginal, does not fully understand what it means to write. Writing lives off such spontaneous, intuitive images, which is why this abundant supply of images from real-life was the best thing that could have happened to my writing process, even by way of an Internet project. But beware! here comes a trap for literary critics: I do not mean any kind of deeply embedded meaningful motive or structure, which may be very useful for an interpretation of the text as a whole. When I show myself to be this impressed with a pink straw hat, it is neither because it could be a symbol for, say, the innocence of the person wearing it, nor because I want to point to some hidden subtleties in the text. The reason is that it is a pink straw hat which has a pink silk band around it, whose pink ends reach into Marietta’s collar, and sometimes a light breeze coming from the lake playfully blows the two ends of the silk band, and then you can almost smell it, the summer – and this is the reason why.
Of course the pink straw hat was by no means the only thing that Maike added to her role and thus to my main character. Sometimes, we used to meet after shootings, and she would suddenly say or do something I had to write down. Of course, I was again not working on the novel, but at least the collection of material grew, plus there was something special in the fact that I, the author, could just go and meet my main character. Though, I have to admit that I could never forget my very own half-Italian Marietta-creation.

Parallel Forums

With Giesecke’s first visit, we also decided on establishing a so-called parallel forum, since projects on the Web are supposedly interactive, through User-Feedback, so why not also via the possibility of spontaneous co-authorship. Although the novel itself was not supposed to be changed into some unruly exercise in self-sacrifice, into some kind of literature on the Net where the original idea gets changed and split so often that in the end nobody knows any more what is going on and what is being told, let alone why anything is being told. No, this kind of democratic “everyone –competing–with everyone” was not what we had in mind. The actual “text” of the novel was – rather conservatively — supposed to remain the domain of the author alone, whereas the Users had their own space which in turn I was not able to interfere with or impose on. This was the “parallel forum,” in which anyone and everyone could follow along the narrative strands of the actual novel — or counter them, as often and as extensively as desired. Anything was possible: the only rules for both forums were a detailed outline of the actual events of the story, an explicit description of the two main characters – Gregor and Marietta. To my surprise, already by the time of the book fair of ’97 a good number of parallel-writers had come forth. It wasn’t long before they struck, violently, fast, and anonymous, coming from the depth of space and disappearing into the depth of space. Only on the Internet did I discover how paralyzing to one’s own creativity other people’s creations can truly be. Of course you also KNOW as an Offline-Writer that behind every third German apartment-door there is some typing going on, from morning ‘til night, our 80 000 new releases every year do have to come from somewhere, after all – but to actually SEE it with your own eyes – is quite another story.
Despite all of this, four main narrative strands from the parallel forum took serious shape. There were, first, the observations of Marietta’s maid, Ernestine, then, second, those of a private detective, whom Marietta’s jealous husband had spying on Gregor, as well as, third, comments of a future editor of the book, and, fourth, the major outrage: The diary of Gregor’s child born out of wedlock, who had started out on a journey to get to know her biological dad. What?! Gregor was supposed to have a daughter, to top it off, by the name of Laura? And this Laura would want to start working as a maid at Marietta’s of all people? This certainly could not be true!
But it became true, and it became more true every week. The creator of Laura’s diary seemed to have made it her special project to take vast strides with her text. Gerald Giesecke, in the meantime, did not miss an opportunity to enthusiastically inform the press of the “creative pressures” that the co-authorship from hyperspace supposedly had on me, and which was supposed to turn me, the author, into some kind of stage director rather than an author-authority. In reality, however, I was consumed by a rather non-creative vacuum, a kind of an “I’ll see-where-this-is-going-to-lead”- attitude, an “I-first-want-to-watch-this-from-a-distance” –kind of feeling. While my innate desire to procrastinate was thus reinforced, my waiting was not at all unproductive, since some of the details that my co-writers came up with were certainly inspiring. For example: “On the phone, she sometimes sounds as though she were wearing glasses” – this is how it appeared, and this is how it now stands in my 38 points describing Marietta. To top it all off, one day there was — and still is — in the parallel forum, sub forum “Laura’s Diary,” something about a letter that Marietta was supposed to have written to Gregor, and then there was Laura’s comment: “From the way she writes, I immediately thought that she must be wearing glasses.” And whoever may think that this is again just a minor detail, may be reminded that the entire novel after all consists of such minor details – pink straw ones and those with glasses. What else could be made of that superficial idea from back then? If one would take a quick look into Marietta’s handbag, or, from Gregor’s perspective, sniff into Marietta’s handbag, while she had to excuse herself for example, would it perhaps smell as though she was wearing glasses? And what about her wardrobe? And finally her skin: Would it taste as though… well, I hope not!

In the meantime, by the way, the four who in the end stuck to the parallel forum and I already have delivered some communal readings, and I am looking forward to the day when they will be presenting without me, where I will perhaps sit in an armchair at the edge of the stage, and they will demonstrate to the audience, how the thing “itself” grew with and out of the parallel forum, the actual novel!
But first, and despite all of those hopeful perspectives, change no. 5 remains: Writing on the Internet occasionally brings on co-writers who not only raise a painful awareness of one’s creative limitations, leading to insecurities, but also, as with the unexpected daughter of Gregor’s, arouse doubts in the conception of the whole. All this comes at a time when one’s own fantasies are still in a delicate state and even one’s spouse can only correct them gently and with utmost care. In short: Writing on the Web brings on the whole brutality of another mind’s fantasies – and thus a first measure for the staying power of one’s own.

Virtual Work, Virtual Author

And other than that? This literary exhibitionism, necessarily part of the “Novel in Progress” project, leads into “The Great Wide Open,” into a formerly unknown shaky feeling of in-between, change no. 6, which I never encountered when writing the traditional way. It hits immediately, though, as soon as the first draft section of text is being thrust into the open of a potentially worldwide audience. As soon as I received the first comments by Email, it got even worse: The feeling of publishing something which was not yet meant for publication – at the same time, the feeling of not “really” having published it, only virtually. After all, on my Mac at home I didn’t really notice the 5000 hits per week that the “Marietta” Homepage was receiving. Of course things got very serious once I suddenly discovered the name of my editor among the entries in the electronic guest-book, and the next day that of my former publisher. Things got even more serious when invitations to lecture were not based on the publication of my last novel, but rather I was invited to read from a novel of which not one single line actually “existed!”
Those absurdities reached a new high as the “Novel in Progress” went from the Internet into other media, such as German weeklies and dailies. There, it was reviewed and criticized as though it were a finished product. “This is how mainstream is made,” one critic claimed to know, and another daily even believed that the self-presentation of the eleven Mariettas on the Web was my own fault, and added: “He probably wouldn’t have dared to write this on paper!” Another critic from an extremely prestigious German weekly even thought, and – attention! two mistakes in one — I had created my own Website because I was addicted to the Internet.
Well, I am not quite there yet, as I have not even gotten used to my own virtual existence, but if things had continued this way, I would have had to ask myself whether writing books was actually still worth it. Perhaps for some readers, it might be more interesting to write about what one would write if one ever got to it…

Digital Scraps

Contrary to common assumption that the Internet makes our lives faster, more efficient, and more goal-oriented, for me, it lead to a rapid decrease of the writing process, to a long-lasting period of waiting, of not moving forward. Of course, it never came to a complete standstill. Oh no, even I wrote – although not in the forum “the novel,” which for a long time didn’t grow beyond the initial few pages.
Before I can ever get myself to an initial draft, I usually spend years collecting notes – after all, I somehow know what I would like to write in the big scheme, I just don’t know how to resolve all the details. Instead, the outside world knows: By delivering sentences, or even entire scenes, which sometimes, at the very moment when I witness them, are just perfect for this or that particular sequence of the planned novel. Sometimes they are actual sentences I overhear, often sentences and ideas are inspired by scenes I observe.
All this is noted, collected, and … finally adds up to a rather large pile of scrap pieces: the raw material of the novel to be. And then? Individual scraps will be arranged and sorted according to the overall outline of the novel. When I finally write my draft, it often turns out that not all the scrap pieces are being used at the exact place they were meant for, but used they usually will be — up to 90%.
The reader, in the end, of course does not notice anything of this scrapbook technique. However, with a Novel in Progress (while everything was already in progress except for the novel itself), I thought it should not be missing, since it does contain the smallest individual piece of creative fantasy. In a certain sense, these individual scraps really contain more of the novel than the novel as a whole could ever be, since the final text has to be concerned with length and coherence. Also, a writer has to know a lot more about his subjects, places, scenes, etc. than that which will in the end be documented in the book.
Thus, we encounter the seventh change of the former writing process, and this is a significant one: Normally, I would read an individual scrap piece, attach it to a certain point in the outline, and only come back to it once I reach that particular point in my writing. This time, however, I had to come back to my scraps right away, since they had to go on the Web, and for that reason I not only had to type them, but also make sure they could be understood. This forced me to change the tiniest splinters of my fantasy, which I had on paper, into not-so-tiny-splinters on the Internet. Which in turn altered the unwritten, unspoken, and diffuse parts of the original splinters, the creative aura, so to speak, into very precise ideas once they were formulated. For example:
“Has a drink, Whiskey,” it said on one of these scraps, “has a drink, Whiskey,” that was it. To whom was this referring? When in doubt it is usually Gregor, our main character. Did this still match his character, now that I already knew him much better than back then, God-knows-when-I-had-this-idea-about-having-Whiskey? Why not, although he had profiled himself in the meantime as a beer drinker. But, why not. So, when could he…? I decided on point 4 part b subsection 4 on the outline. After an uneventful evening at several bars Gregor comes home and – does NOT go to bed immediately, like he normally does, but instead decides to have a Whiskey. Which is something he would normally only do in the company of others, and therefore rather infrequently. So why does he pour himself one that particular night? Because – he has turned forty in the meantime! This is how the novel starts, this is what it is about, and this will also be its title: “Turning Forty.” So what could it mean for someone like Gregor to suddenly turn forty? For instance: To try something, that would never have occurred to him during the previous forty years. Or something that he would have rejected before? Or simply something he never did, no matter why. So Gregor comes home, sees the dusty Whiskey decanter, and says to himself: Great, now I am finally old enough to drink, even by myself, even when there is no occasion.
Perhaps you yourself can actually do something to nicely round off days like this one – instead of waiting continuously for something to happen – take matters into your own hands. We’ll see.
The fact that this will turn out not to have been his very best idea, is already another story, a bad-morning-story, including a little hangover, and belongs to point 4 part c point 1 of the outline.
And all of this I have to take down tediously as an Online-writer in order to portray approximately what it was that I wanted to remind myself of with “has a drink, Whiskey.” And by doing so and posting it on the Web, I suddenly find myself with a small, perhaps not too unimportant scene: A scene, in which Gregor understood something important about his development. Of course he only grasped it in his action, not on an abstract level, and not on a level beyond drinking Whiskey. And therefore, some other evenings, he could perhaps again … exactly. This could already be the next leitmotif.
This I could never have imagined, had I stayed with my usual habits of ordering the scenes, the way I used to. The pressure of documenting every step, which the Internet creates, forces the novel gradually to reveal its little secrets, and this at a time when it would never happen without the Internet.
And there, under http://novel.zdf.de it could be found a long time before its publication, in its small and smallest particles. In order to read it, you just had to make the links between the individual points of the outline in your mind, and put together the big picture. For those who know how to read like this (and who would want to!) the online-version is with all its 50 scrapbooks and in its 496 pages of total scrap pieces so totally filled with all kinds of thoughts and fantasy-splinters, some of which the published, shorter version “Turning Forty” could never contain.
This idea, however, the idea that the printed and bound version of the novel could never catch up with the promise of its digital pre-stage, this knowledge is so very disheartening for somebody who was in love with green ink for 30 years that, in keeping with Gregor’s character, one really cannot talk about it. Instead, one has to remain silent.
Let’s remain silent, then.