What would happen if a battalion of US marines found themselves transported back in time and forced to fight the Roman Empire? It was a question casually asked on Reddit, expertly answered by a Reddit member and now reportedly set to be turned into a Hollywood movie.
The writer, James Erwin (who, by day, is a financial industry software manual writer), provided a brief and detailed account of the first 7 days of the confrontation during his lunch break and quickly racked up thousands of comments. Afterwards he asked the community what he should do next and they responded by requesting a sub-reddit for the story to develop.
Erwin wrote the eighth day on the new subreddit, including some material from fans on how the story could develop. Shortly afterwards a whole culture emerged with fan fiction, artwork and logos all appearing. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking and advised Erwin to stop posting any more updates on Reddit and instead work on a secret screenplay for a blockbuster movie – a deal he accepted. To read a more detailed account of Erwin’s story check out this Wired article.
Reddit is fertile soil for crowdsourced flash fiction to grow. Anyone can post a compelling question, anyone can write a response and anyone can chuck in suggestions. This method of collaborative ideation is also something that established writers have begun to capitalise on.
Writer Neil Gaiman recently took to Twitter to call out for suggestions for a new collection of stories. The writer has described the project as a ‘ping-pong’ match between himself and his fans: he will write the tales, but the ideas and illustrations will come from his Twitter following. Brett Easton Ellis also conducted a brainstorm via Twitter while thinking about a sequel to American Psycho.
This is a method of writing that could only realistically happen on the internet; a place where readers can ‘write back’ to the writer in real time. As such this is an entirely new type of authorship – one that is in tandem with the profound changes that we see as a result of the digital revolution. This is a writing that comes from the logic of the screen as opposed to that of the book – and also a writing that destabilises the notion of a text coming from one single author.
Is this all that new? Could this development echo Roland Barthes essay from 1967, ‘The Death of the Author’? Barthes argues that it is never really an author that speaks. That the author was just an invention which emerged into modern society after the middle ages alongside the advent of science and mathematics.
Barthes made a call for the primacy of the author to be removed, for the convenient anchor of authorial intention to be thrown from the ship. According to Barthes, writing is where subjectivity slips away, where identity is lost and language speaks, not the author:
“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.. [The authors] only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely.
Will we see the emergence of a new literature? Is the first classic collaborative piece of storytelling around the corner? What will it look like? Will it ever be ‘complete’, or will it be like Wikipedia – growing daily with thousands of contributors?