“Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship.” –Walter Benjamin, from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
We’ve heard it all before. It’s the latest Megatrend, or the latest Microtrend. Some day, somewhere, somehow, computers will upend everything, right down to the way we think, and the nature of what makes us human.
According to the conventional wisdom, the linearity of words on the printed page encouraged linear, rational thought. This set down on paper–literally–ideas of narrative flow and stylistic constraints that have been with us for centuries since.
We were led to believe, early on, that hypertext would upend this model; by rearranging the printed page (and the media experience), it could (theoretically) rearrange human thought. The argument went–as it had earlier for word processing, with its ease of cut-and-paste–that this would divorce thought and narrative from convergent, linear models, in favor of divergent and wide-ranging associations. Add sound and visual elements to the mix, and you have–in theory–the perfect recipe for a medium that would result not only in truly new works of art, but a radically different approach to their creation.
Whenever an artist dies, someone’s always tempted to raid their notebooks, letters, hard drives, and anything else they can find in order to put out still more product to add to the canon. The results are highly varied, since for every unfinished masterpiece and every piece that hints at the greatness that could’ve been, from sources as varied as Douglas Adams, Jeff Buckley, or Charles Dickens, there’s a slew of stuff that was probably best left to the cutting room floor, and that’s of interest only to completists (think, for instance, of the flood of Tupac Shakur marginalia that began just as the body was cooling, and that continues unabated to this day).
Kurt Vonnegut’s career–at least the most visible part of it–has been bookended by Dresden. After being captured during the Battle of the Bulge, the author spent time in a POW camp in that city, watching it transformed literally overnight from a lively and lovely European city to a smoldering wasteland, incinerated by American bombs. He would return to Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five, the novel that made him a household name, and its streets and ghosts would return periodically to haunt his writing.