News arrives today of a ‘cloud-sourced’ novel. Fantasy author Silvia Hartmann has written a novel online, The Dragon Lords. As part of the writing process, she has allowed interested cybernauts to watch her writing live, as well as to contribute ideas to the story and the characters. Reportedly, some 13,000 people have been involved in this process.
Does this mark a new stage in the evolution of the novel? Is the traditional image of the lone author typing away in the attic in peril? I think not. In fact, I would say that this is a return to the traditional world of storytelling.
The concept of the writer as sole progenitor of a work has always run in parallel with a less celebrated oral tradition. In the days before copyright, these two modes of storytelling could happily feed off one another. No one can truly say that Homer was the sole author of the Iliad or the Odyssey, because he was drawing on much older traditions. Far back in prehistory, anonymous bards had created the characters of Poseidon, the cyclops, and all the other gods and monsters of the tale. Homer’s genius lay in reworking these fragments into his own version of the story.
It was a process that was in action right up to modern times, often through the efforts of philologists. In cataloguing the history of their languages, thse philologists ended up recording the traditional songs and stories of their people. Elias Lönnrot was one such investigator. He journeyed throughout Finland in the mid nineteenth century, collecting old tales from rural storytellers. Travelling to remote villages, he transcribed these ancient legends from people who were often illiterate, making him the first person to capture the stories in the web of paper and ink.
However, Lönnrot did not just collect his stories in books of Finnish legends, as the Brothers Grimm did with their Fairy Tales. Lönnrot decided to compile the stories into a single whole. Weaving disparate adventures of heroes and gods together, he created a national myth for Finland in the shape of the Kalevala. This work both preserves the old tales of Finland, as well as binding them into a single epic. In fact, Lönnrot freely adapted the source material that he had gathered in whatever way suited him best.
In modern terms, Lönnrot developed the Kalevala through a version of ‘cloud-sourcing’. All the great story cycles of antiquity were put together in the same way, from Greek myth to Icelandic Saga. Whatever name comes down to us as the author of the work, there are always ghosts from the past who lurk in the background, not yet willing to rest.
To this effect, The Dragon Lords is just part of a longer literary tradition, one that far pre-dates our modern cult of the author with its press interviews, book signings and all the other trappings of celebrity. Stories do not belong to a single author. They belong to everyone, because they all spring from our common imagination.