Welcome to the Generative Literature Project!

Murder: Chalk Outline by AJ Cann

Murder: Chalk Outline by AJ Cann

The Generative Literature Project is a Crowdsourced Gamified Digital Novel about a murder.

In the first phase of the project, which will take place Fall Semester 2014, ten creative writing professors and their students–from the US, The Marshall Islands, and Puerto Rico–will complete a series of artifacts about and around ten “distinguished alumni” of the fictional “Theopolis College,” a highly competitive Liberal Arts College that exists in the “leafy suburb” of the fictional town of Theopolis–approximately 25 miles outside Washington D.C. in Maryland.

In the artifacts created by the students and their professors can be found the clues and red-herrings, motives and alibis of the suspects in the murder of Theopolis College President, Cadence MackArthur.

The Project was created by Frederick Cope and Michelle Kassorla, and will be published by Hybrid Pedagogy.

The project is best described in a Call for Participation we published in Hybrid Pedagogy:

Theoretical Underpinnings

The idea of a generative novel is one that can be traced to the OuliPo group (Ouvroir delittérature potentielle) in France. The loose group of mostly French Speaking authors and mathematicians began in 1960 in order to investigate different ways in which to create works of art and literature. According to the OuliPo website, the generative writer is “un rat qui construit lui-même le labyrinthe dont il se propose de sortir.” (Trans: “A rat who builds the maze he wishes to escape.”) In this understanding of art and literature, the idea of creation, especially literary creation, is one of wordplay and gameplay. Therefore, the generative novel is, in itself, a game, and, we sincerely hope, will give rise to a game — one of interplay between people, cultures,and institutions — with completely new and unexpected results. As author Alain Robbe-Grillet said in his work For a New Novel:

Each novelist, each novel must invent its own form. No recipe can replace this continual reflection. The book makes its own rules for itself and for itself alone. Indeed the movement of its style must often lead to jeopardizing them, breaking them, even exploding them. (12)

In order to create a work of generative literature, there must be a creative constraint (limitation) which forces the writer to direct writing toward a particular purpose. This constraint can be based upon anything that compels the writer to generate text, but these constraints are usually one of two types: linguistic and situational. Linguistic generators can take the form of puns, anagrams, alphabetic eliminations, even grammatical progressions; and situational constraints can take the form of a particular creative situation which gives rise to the generative writing. There are, literally, thousands of generative constraints proposed thus far (Michele Audin currently attempts to catalogue them in Draft Atlas on the OuliPo website). Therefore, through the situational generator of the murder of the Theopolis College president, and the invention of the distinguished alumni of Theopolis College, we mean to provide both a creative constraint and a basic framework for students and faculty to begin the work of providing the primary narrative of this (potentially) much bigger and more encompassing digital project. Although the character sketches we will ask for seem traditional, those character sketches will serve as the Exhibit X in a much larger, more involved, and potentially more exciting digital project than we can hope to imagine as the progenitors (pun intended) of this project.

The Mechanics of The Generative Literature Project

We hope to begin with 10-12 classes. Each class will be assigned a brief sketch of one of the “distinguished alumni” of Theopolis College, and provided with a copy of the obituary for the College President, Dr. Cadence MacKarthur. Faculty will introduce the alumnus/alumna that has been assigned to the class, and work with students to assign characters who knew that alumnus/alumni. Students will then register the name, relationship, and important “target phrase” of a specific character who knew the alumnus/alumni with The Generative Literature Project using a Google Form. Students will create a short character sketch of that character, sharing important details about their relationship with the alumnus/alumna. For example, say the class was assigned the character of “Sue Smith,” a professor of linguistics at a nearby college. The student would might register the character: Mary Adams, 26, Graduate Student doing her Master’s thesis under Dr. Smith. The target phrase may be, “Mary worried about her thesis constantly because her advisor, Dr. Sue Smith, was extremely brutal in her commentary. She had already rewritten the thesis three times.” The student would then create a full character sketch of Mary Adams, including the target phrase somewhere in the sketch, but making that target phrase indistinguishable from any other part of their sketch, keeping it secret even from the faculty member leading their project group.

The Faculty member would then use student sketches as background to create the 1,000 word article about the distinguished alumnus/alumna (in this example, alumna Dr. Susan Smith) for the Theopolis Alumni Magazine. Once that article is created, the students and faculty would collaborate on how their particular alumnus/alumna could have committed the murder, and what their alibi might be. They will send that information to The Generative Literature Project.

Transmedia Potential

The class, if they wish, can create transmedia clues — utilizing Twitter and blogs to build-out relationships between characters and plot points. The Generative Literature Project will provide a Twitter identification and an email address for each of the alumni characters. Classes may wish to tweet on behalf of their alumnus/alumna; build relationships between their alumnus/alumna and other alumni assigned to other colleges, and include clues (and red herrings).

Not only could classes begin working with Twitter and other social media in the initial phase of the project, but we see a potential for this project going far beyond its initial scope. We are working toward publishing the narrative student and faculty work in a way that it could be gamified, richly illustrated, and interactive. We want to invite crowdsourcing and fan fiction, and we could invite other types of classes to become involved in the project as well (think of legal classes preparing prosecution and defense for each of the characters, or forensic medicine classes building out some autopsies and clue trails). This project could take on a life of its own, and we began to think of the possibilities of an unconstrained digital project.


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