Wrapping the renga

Sarah Lindon
14 June 2007

The votes are in. Our authors' and readers' rengas have their conclusions, picked by the writers from among each other's proposed endings. So we know what happened next. But what did happen? Did the writers find the process infuriating, as their careful consideration of character went out the window with the very next section added? Or were they delighted by the inventiveness of their fellow writers?

This was a brand new experiment for us, so it was both a tense and an exciting moment when each new section came in. The first thing I noticed was how the stories' structures mirrored each other, despite taking place independently. The topics and styles were different but - despite showing less unity than a solo-authored piece - they followed a pattern. Action in the first section, a slowing of pace in the fourth section to explore characters' inner life, this interior development lengthening as writers in turn tried to get to know characters... Though, as one author told me, writing for the renga was a bizarre and "clunky" experience for someone who usually writes solo, form and technique emerged nevertheless.

The stories don't have the polish of journalism, or the focus of conventional fiction. Instead, possible forward routes for the story proliferate from section to section - in the readers' renga particularly. But publication in instalments, combined with the possibility the next writer might do something totally unanticipated - bad or brilliant - created pay-offs in suspense and surprise. The openDemocracy team decided to favour participants' creativity over polish, permitting freedom to set and solve challenges for each other. My role was to make sure as far as possible that the writers didn't prevent their co-writers from being able to add to the story when their turn came.

An introduction to the renga project is here

The authors' renga "How she got to the top" is here

The readers' renga "How she got to the top" is hereAnd some contributors set the bar very high indeed for their fellow writers with the challenges they created. The readers' renga saw more "gaming" than the authors' - it sometimes seemed that each participant tried to take the whole story into their own hands and send it in a new direction. This brought some fun, some frustration, and some strange sets of character traits! In fact, the readers' renga seemed to dance around different stereotypes as it went along, as it called on cultural references, to serve as shorthand in place of character development and to clear the stage for extra plot manoeuvres.

By contrast, the authors made gestures of listening to each other, repeating phrases or features of previous sections, to create consistency and realism. It was this drive for unity that I underestimated when our judging team picked the openings. We thought the beginning we picked could be read in different ways and that the authors could choose to confirm or subvert the expectations it set up. The opening scene looked like the build-up to a rape and this is how the writers decided to treat it, despite my hunch that they might transform it. A dream device diverted the action early in the story, so this ambiguous episode wasn't settled until the final instalment. Only one author decided to turn the events into something other than a rape in their ending exposition - and though it was good, this conclusion wasn't chosen for the published story in the vote. In the meantime, some writers found it limiting to be confronted with a possible rape because they hoped a story about "women and power" might be able to leave such issues behind.

If, as one writer suggested, times - or women - have moved on, it would surely have been easy to transform it and write a different outcome. But it wasn't. As the story progressed, I wondered if a different start would have allowed the writers more freedom to explore their own visions of "gender and power", rather than one that seemed dictated by an opening that asked them to decide whether or not their protagonist was a "victim". But each successive writer put their mind to the topic and entered it imaginatively, giving it real purchase. And their story nevertheless cast light on realms far beyond the private: we gained a panoramic view of home, friendship, a culture left behind and a culture embraced, exploitation, political intrigue, patriarchal attitudes and media manipulation. Was it limiting that the question of violence hovered throughout? I'm undecided.

The readers' renga also involved sexual politics. There may have been more fun in the story of a tea-lady and work-experience girl, but both characters (as well as Maxwell Wynne) and their negotiation of power relationships were sexualised. Svjetlana Slivovitz's sexuality seemed particularly discomfiting at times, perhaps because she was portrayed as the more powerful or mysterious woman of the two for much of the story, or just the more interesting - foreign, politically and intellectually engaged, "going places" as an outsider rather than an insider. But she seemed to suffer most from participants' divergent feelings about the story and the topic.

As you may have noticed, with the writers now named, our authors were all women, while the readers were mixed. The authors also came from around the world - bringing very different backgrounds and experiences to the experiment - which might go some way to explaining the disparities felt by one author, between the "gender vision" of the writing in their story, and gender theory as it is now practised in the academy.

Did the gendering of the writing groups affect the stories? You could try looking at the reader renga and guessing which sections were written by men and which by women. Many experiments and studies have failed to correlate style and gender consistently or reliably. But perhaps - in both stories - the self-conscious treatment of subject matter could be more revealing than style.

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