Originally published in SYSTEMS, Volume 13, Number 1-2, 2008.
Writer Warren Ellis coined the term burst culture to reflect a culture receiving its entertainment and information in bursts ; gaining as much information and experiencing as many narratives within as short a period of time as possible. In order to achieve this, burst culture is forced to make severe choices which jeopardize established business models (when the audience chooses to bypass commercial television in order to watch serials on the Internet or DVD), and specifically endanger print (when readers choose to listen to a book on an iPod, read a book on the computer screen, or watch a film adaptation). The success of the book in the 21st century will be not only dependent on exploring new possibilities in storytelling, but in the physicality of the book itself. Books are “going to have to play to their strengths and figure out what makes them really special and what makes them work . . . the physicality and the tactile quality is one of the thing” . And to counter the specific appetites of burst culture, writers need to be encouraged to have a more active role in the design of their books. This attitude is reflected in Zenon Fajfer’s liberature, a literary movement that takes the monopolizing focus away from the text and instead asks writers to consider the text along with the book’s physical shape and structure. This article will focus on Fajfer’s liberature, how it potentially borrows burst cultural concepts – such as the replayability and interface of video games – in order to validate print, and establish a criterion for a book to qualify as liberary work. The article will conclude with a recent mainstream example of a liberature and briefly examine how it potentially appeals to the burst culture.
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In his 1999 essay “Liberature (appendix to a dictionary of literary terms)” Polish writer and artist Zenon Fajfer responds to the possibility of literature exhausting itself, and writes that the “crisis of contemporary literature has its roots in its focus on the text (with the negligence of the physical shape and structure of the book), and within the text, the focus on its meaning and euphony” . Fajfer goes on to list several key questions writers need to ask themselves in order to overcome the “established dogmas that still paralyze writers’ creativity and contribute to the present condition of literature” , and in doing so, he defines liberature.
The term liberature is itself not new. Author John White coined the phrase liberation literature, or liberature, in his 1983 article “Liberation and the Unity of Opposites in Romeo and Juliet.” White later elaborated on his idea of liberature in his 1990 book The Meeting of Science and Spirit, where he describes it as “works of fiction whose primary concern is fostering self-transcendence and higher human development by expanding the audience’s consciousness beyond the egoic-mental realm into the transpersonal, thereby accelerating human evolution” . In Spanish postmodernist writing, the term liberature has appeared again and again. Julián Ríos, author of Loves that Bind and Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel, uses the word as a means to liberate the language and not the text. In an interview, Ríos says, “I hold the liberation theory that the best writers liberate the language from taboos, tattoos, cockatoos, repetitions, old fashion repressions and expressions, clichés, fetters, and so forth. For this reason I call it sometimes liberature for short, this liberating literature” . In Julia Alvarez’s 2001 novel In the Name of Salome, the term is expressed by the main protagonist Camila Ureña as a way for literature to be used for revolutionary purposes, or “reading with revolution” . Despite the appearance of the term in other sources, Fajfer’s approach to liberature as “a kind of total literature in which the text and the book in its materiality form an organic whole”  clearly separates it from the rest.
In her essay “Joyce, Liberature and Writing of the Book,” the translator and co-author of Fajfer’s work Katarzyna Bazarnik describes liberature in the following way:
such works which integrate the text and its material medium into an organic whole should be indeed seen as a distinct literary genre, which he called “liberatura” (in English “liberature”; after Latin liber, i.e., “book”) to emphasise the form of the book as their meaningful aspect. Thus, the material form of the book and everything it entails: its shape and structure, format and size, layout and typeface, kind and colour of paper, illustrations, drawings and other graphic elements may function as meaningful components of the work. 
She goes on to explain that the writer can choose any material or means, can even purposely use traditional techniques, as long as “the book is neither a transparent container for the text . . . but becomes a significant component of the literary work of art” . For instance, the writer specifically choosing the book’s typeface can be beneficial, which Fajfer comments on in the following way:
The majority of writers never reflect on the kind of typeface that will be used to print their work and yet it is one of the book’s component parts. It is as if the composer wrote a piece of music but the decision as to what instruments should be used was left to musicians and the conductor . . . when the writer ignores such questions and leaves the decision to a publisher, he does not do so because of an aesthetic theory he subscribes to, but because he does not recognise the importance of the question. By doing so he proves to be ‘deaf’, as it were, since the typeface is like tone in music. 
And if more writers became more aware of this music, then perhaps the book can be perceived as a viable and unique alternate outlet for information and entertainment by the burst culture, an idea book packagers like Charles Melcher have already been aware of:
We’re [here] to figure out how that’s going to make a unique, interesting, valuable experience in book form. Sometimes that’s an obvious answer and sometimes it’s not, but when you do it right you create an object people want to have and a book that competes with other media for the attention and dollars of the consumer. 
Another focus for Fajfer’s liberature is the treatment of time and space in literature. The notion of time, in this case, is directed at the time involving the reader’s participation with a given text:
The question of time poses a slightly different problem. In the above-mentioned dictionary there are three different entries concerning time: time of action, time of narration, and time within the literary work, but there is no time of the literary work, that is, the time of… reading. Somebody might call this splitting hairs, but the time of open works, when the reader becomes nearly a co-author, calls for such a notion. If the reader participates in the process of creating a work, how else can we describe what is happening with time when he or she fancies to read a book backwards (as, for example, G.C. Jung read Ulysses)? Or when a linear book is read non-linearly? Do existing terms suffice to account for that? And how can one accurately account for the notion of time in books such as Cortázar’s Hopscotch in which, with the author’s blessing, the reader himself decides on the sequence of particular chapters? 
Given that the manipulation of time is dependent on the structure of the book, it is no wonder that a work of liberature – in the aforementioned case, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, a novel where the reader can literally “hopscotch” through chapters in the order of their choosing – would draw particular attention to time itself. Depending on the reader’s choices, Cortázar’s book can either be a long or short experience. What is interesting to note is how such a book can adapt itself for traditional audiences – that is, those who perceive a book traditionally and would thus read it from front to back – and non-traditional audiences – for instance, members of burst culture who may purposely “hopscotch” to a quicker conclusion while maintaining the author’s intention. In many ways, the book reflects a complicated video game that would be right at home in burst culture; one that can be concluded frantically or leisurely while simultaneously providing multiple unique experiences based on replayability. In his book Interactive Design for New Media and the Web, Nicholas V. Iuppa defines replayability in video games through a series of questions:
Is there a branching storyline with a variety of strategies to complete the game? If you were to play it again from start to finish, how different would it be? Does it reward you uniquely for a different style of play? Will your friend share the experience exactly or with much difference? If it gives you something to socialize about and compare notes, that’s a good thing. What happens when you go back to an old locale in your game? Do you find it affected by your progress in the rest of the game? . . . Replayability gives a game a great sense of realism. 
Though the questions stated above are meant to be applied to video games, they can easily be used when discussing Cortázar’s Hopscotch and other works of liberature, by simply substituting “game” with “book,” “play” with “reading” and “locale” with “chapter.” In fact, it is interesting how Fajfer’s liberature mirrors many of the aspects of addictive video games, such as playability (the feeling of control the player/reader has), quantity and quality of the interactions (the interactions of the game/book allows the player/reader to feel as if the possibilities are limitless), and interface design (the quality and complexity of the game/book’s interface/layout).
Interface design in the aforementioned context is similar to what Fajfer means by space in literature. When examining the absence of his concept of “space” in a literary dictionary, Fajfer discusses the use of space in a literary work:
For what is the space of the literary work? According to the above-mentioned dictionary, nothing. There is no such entry at all; there is only space in a literary work, which, in other words (and slightly simplifying the question), means the setting of the plot. But the first, elementary space one deals with, even before one starts reading a work, is … an actual book – a material object. The outward appearance of the book, the number and arrangement of its pages (if there need to be pages), the kind of cover (if there need to be a cover) – this is the space of the literary work that includes all its other spaces. And, unlike those other spaces, this space is very real. 
The idea of space reflects the ability for the book to assist in the reader’s submersion of the material, by making the reader part of the experience through interactivity or detaching the reader’s perception of the book by making him unaware that he is reading a book. For instance, Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White, which not only plays with various fonts, but has “a questionnaire for his readers that parodies their hermeneutic activities”  which allows the reader a more active role in the book. John Barth’s “Frame Story” from Lost in the Funhouse allows the reader to cut the story out of the page and attach it as a Möbius strip so that it perpetually loops, thus allowing the story to never end. Though simple in execution, the story’s complexity is in allowing the reader to destroy a page from a book and to reconstruct it in a manner which allows the story to exist outside of the book’s boundaries, while simultaneously forcing the reader to reexamine the very nature of what characterizes a story. Along the lines of cutting a story, William Burroughs’ The Exterminators, written in collaboration with Brion Gysin, encourages the reader to cut the text with a pair of scissors or a knife in order to fight against the idea that we are controlled by language:
What is important here is the technique (the method of composition) and not the product (the actual “text” of The Exterminators). Burroughs implicitly demands that readers cut up his texts as well as the texts of others (by the way, cutting up pages of The Exterminators often yields interesting results), his objective being not to name a meaning but to instigate a process. 
Further examples cited by Fajfer include B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Radosław Nowakowski’s Hasa Rapasa and Nieopisanie Świata, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mile Milliards de poems. Johnson’s The Unfortunates is published as 27 loose sections to be read in any order that are contained in a box that resembles the shape of a book. As stated by Fajfer, “This unconventional, aleatoric form of the book is supposed to reflect disintegration brought about by illness and death, and the chaotic workings of the memory” . Nowakowski’s Hasa Rapasa is published as a triangular book that resembles a diamond shape when opened, whereas Nieopisanie Świata has interlocking pages that best resembles a Möbius strip. Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, like Snow White, asks the reader to write in the book; in this case, draw on its pages. Queneau’s Cent Mile Milliards de poèmes is a poem where each verse is on a separate strip. When opened, the book looks like the head of a mop. Regarding Queneau’s work, Fajfer writes, “only the departure from the traditional codex form of the book allowed for the adequate and full realisation of the [author’s] vision” .
All of the previous examples represent liberature’s ability to use the “very real”  space in order to provide the reader with an experience that transcends the book’s limitations. Bazarnik uses contemporary theatre practices to best describe the potential for liberature and its space:
The greatest reformers of the 20th century theatre began creating their work from constructing its space. For people like [Tadeusz] Kantor and [Jerzy] Grotowski this was the first and fundamental matter. Especially Grotowski was consistent in this respect; each of his performances had its own autonomous space, independent of the space of the theatre where it was performed, that immediately established a fundamental relationship between the actors and the audience (for example, in his famous Kordian, spectators were seated on hospital beds and the performing space had nothing in common with the traditional stage). The fictional space of the presented work was imbedded into the real, pre-prepared space (in Kordian it was a lunatic asylum), which produced an astonishing effect of the unity of form and content. 
By abandoning the traditional layout of the theatre itself and blurring the line between the audience and the actors, theatre becomes something else entirely; just as by manipulating the form and space of the book and forcing the reader to become a part of the experience, the book can also change into something else. Why does the book have to be rectangular? Why does the book have to use corresponding pages? In other words: Why does the book have to look like a book? Or, as Fajfer puts it, “Why, then, don’t writers abandon the traditional form of a book?” . He admits that “force of habit and inertia”  keeps the traditional form of the book stagnant. According to Fajfer, unless the writer is prepared to declare that he “shares the authorship . . . with the editor, typesetter, and manuscript reviser”  he should take a more active role in the overall look and production of a book:
Shouldn’t the shape of the cover, shape and direction of the writing, format, colour, the number of pages, words, and even letters be considered by the writer just like any other element of his work, an element requiring as much attention as choosing rhymes and thinking up a plot? The writer must finally understand that these matters are far too serious to be left light-heartedly for others to decide. I am not suggesting that he should be a printer and a bookbinder as well. But I believe that it is his responsibility to consider the physical shape of the book and all the matters entailed, just as he considers the text (if not to the same extent, he should at least bear them in mind). The shape of the book should not be determined by generally accepted conventions but result from the author’s autonomous decision just as actions of his characters and the choice of words originate from him. The physical and spiritual aspects of the literary work, that is, the book and the text printed in it should complement each other to create a harmonious effect. 
Fajfer is asking writers to become more involved in the overall process of storytelling, to become more attentive to how the book presents the narrative, and to make connections on how the form of the book can enhance both the story and the readers’ experience. This entails writers becoming more aware of the book’s form and space. And in order to better understand this – and to better explain liberature’s use of space – we can look at how Iuppa defines interface design in video games:
How you get things done within the interactive space – the less complex the better, but it has to be as complete and good as the best interface designs out there because the mass of players will compare your interface to all the others and expect the same functionality they are used to in the genre and even more. Do it better, faster, and more efficiently . . . The quality of the user interface (UI) is judged by its ease of use against the breadth and depth of the activities it controls. If a player has to think about the UI beyond the first break session, it breaks the immersion and is a poor tool for interaction. 
Again, we can apply many of the ideas here to books with “interface design” being used for “book design,” “interface” for “form,” “UI” for “reading,” and “players” for “readers.” Through this definition, the strengths and weaknesses of a liberary work become evident. Its most notable strength is creating the ability for a book to compete in the current burst cultural environment, as it not only becomes something irreplaceable in other media, but rather it becomes something more identifiable to someone who has been busy playing video games growing up rather than opening a book. At its weakest, however, there is always the possibility for liberature to push the book to become similar to its competition by mimicking rather than expanding on its own strengths.
Putting it all together, we can establish a criterion for a book to qualify as a work of liberature, focusing on the following six categories: 1) Form; 2) Writer Participation; 3) Reader Participation; 4) Manipulation of Reading Time; 5) Re-readability; and 6) Inimitability.
- Form: The form of the book is non-traditional; meaning, the reader is forced to read from right to left, upside down, or the pages are not attached or in any particular order. The typography can also be non-traditional through the use of multiple fonts, varying sizes, and different paragraph shapes.
- Writer Participation: The form of the book, as described in the aforementioned paragraph, has been selected by the writer through a participatory process. The writer has the final say in how the book is ultimately presented, and this presentation reflects and/or enhances the writer’s story.
- Reader Participation: Through the form of the book, as decided by the writer, the reader must actively participate in the reading to fully appreciate the experience. This participation can allow the reader to choose the order of the reading experience, encourage the reader to engage in social networking that relates to the reading experience, or physically write inside or take apart the book.
- Manipulation of Reading Time: The time it takes for the reader to complete the book is enhanced or handicapped by the writer’s choices. For instance, by changing the page order or altering the typography, the reader is required to make choices regarding where to read next or even skip a page or a section.
- Re-readability: Due to the writer’s or the reader’s choices, there is a possibility that the book can provide multiple reading experiences with different results. If the reader is able to choose what order the story is read, then a second reading can provide a different ending.
- Inimitability: By combining all of the previous five criteria, the book provides an experience that cannot be imitated in other media. This is not to say that it would be impossible to turn the book into a movie to some degree or another, but it would be impossible to replicate the reading experience.
ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO QUIT?
A recent mainstream example of liberature is Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. The 2006 novel is essentially two dueling monologues, one of Sam and the other of Hailey, who appear to be chasing one another through time and space. Danielewski sees Sam and Hailey as “two homeless kids who are unpursued by any family or law” , or as gods “with the world just blurring by” . The reader can read the book from front to back to read one monologue and then flip the book over to read the other monologue. It should be noted that the publisher recommends reading eight pages of one character followed by eight pages of the other, though Danielewski is quoted as saying that “You can read the book any way you want” . Because the monologues share the same pages, the text for the other character is upside down on the page, with the current character’s text progressively getting smaller the further into the book the reader gets. Following the theme of revolutions – and perhaps to impose restrictions on Danielewski’s own writing process – the book is 360 pages long, with 180 words on each page, 90 words for each person. Also worth mentioning is the sidebar with “artfully arranged”  historical information where the reader can get a more concrete grasp of when the characters are. The letter “o” and the number “0” are printed in gold in Hailey’s section and green in Sam’s. For the paperback edition, “at the author’s request, [the book was made] flippable and added a horizontal design element, swapping out the traditional vertical look”  allowing the book to have two distinctive front covers.
Only Revolutions is a book that seems to be specifically catered to the particular appetites of the burst culture:
In many ways, the book almost has to be downloaded. If you read one side, you’re really not getting the whole thing . . . You really sort of have to consume the whole thing and then let go of the book and allow it to sort of shimmer inside of you . . . it’s assembled outside of the book really. 
The reader must not only adjust to his book’s challenging realities, but sift through the textual and visual “noise” that accompany the narrative; all of which allows the reader to construct the experience beyond the book itself, similarly to how a television show keeps the viewer guessing between episodes or how an addictive video game keeps the player going over the game mentally when not physically playing.
If enough successful examples of liberature – like Only Revolutions – do arrive in the market, blurring the line between text and reality – and thus the relationship the reader has to the narrative – just as contemporary theatre blurs the line between the stage and the audience, then perhaps the burst culture’s perception of the book’s potential can change also.
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