Putting Short Fiction on the Map: Comma's Gimbal App

A new app from Comma Press takes short stories and integrates them with detailed maps, allowing readers to explore unfolding narratives in real cities. Your commute just got interesting

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 20 Jan 2014

Apps are big business – in 2012, paid-for apps alone generated an estimated $8 billion worldwide, with that number swelling to $30 billion with ad placement and subscriptions taken into account. E-book functionality is built into smartphones and tablets as a matter of course, widening the market opened by devices like the Kindle and Kobo. Apps and digital delivery methods range from the 'enhanced content' offered by Harper Collins, with enabled devices showing video, animations and other content alongside and within the text; to myriad audiobook-related apps; to the steadily growing market for Kindle Singles – short stories and serialised works of fiction sold cheap, addressing a growing hunger for fiction delivered in digestible chunks.

Jim Hinks, Digital and Translation Editor at Manchester's Comma Press, is happy that the literary app market and the rise of e-readers has led to something of a renaissance for the short story, but is quick to shoot down one of the big myths. "People say we live modern, fast-paced lives, so short stories are perfect, because you don't really have to think about them. You can just sort of... fit them in, when you have time," Hinks reflects. "I don't think that's true, really. If you want the best out of a short story, you have to really concentrate, and read into it. It's a more difficult art form than a novel, which might link in a lot of context for the reader. Short stories are always going to be something of a niche." Faced with the challenge of how to fulfil the needs of this niche form of storytelling, and deliver an app that readers would find useful as well as entertaining, he and his team came up with Gimbal.

"When readers use the app, they can either view the story in text form, or they can listen to the audio, and actually see the route that the story takes across the city in which it is set," Hinks explains. "As you're listening to the story, you can see the journey across the city plotted on a map. The cursor moves along, and shows you points of interest along the way – these could be places mentioned in the story, or key landmarks." Deceptively simple, the experience of using Gimbal is addictive – particularly while on public transport. Designed with commuters in mind, the linking of your physical journey with an unfolding narrative in foreign territory is deeply engaging.

"You only have to look at things like the protests in Taksim Square in Istanbul recently to see how important town planning and municipal space are to the way people live their lives – the way we interact in public spaces," says Hinks. "We see this as a key concern of contemporary short stories. Short fiction is often about chance encounters between strangers in public places – in a square, in a shopping mall, on public transport. It's a trope that comes up an awful lot. Gimbal was designed to explore that idea. We don't see ourselves as being in competition with other literary apps, which have different concerns."

The Gimbal project began when Comma collaborated with Literature Across Frontiers, a pan-global organisation promoting collaboration between writers in different cultures and territories. It was funded in part by Arts Council England. "We had set up a series of residencies called the 'Tramlines' project – lots of writers went to stay with each other, and lay around on public transport discussing ideas and writing stories," says Hinks. Some of these stories, by writers such as Hassan Blasim and Yousef al-Mohaimeed, ended up finding a home on Gimbal, giving insight into life in their home cities in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

“Short fiction is often about chance encounters between strangers in public places” – Jim Hinks

"Most of the stories feature journeys taken by characters," says Hinks. Al-Mohaimeed's story is "about a clandestine meeting between a man and a woman, who he falls in love with. But because of the political and social situation in Saudi Arabia, this kind of interaction between men and women is frowned upon, at least in public – so they have to organise their meetings in a very clandestine way. It's all about these kinds of encounters on park benches, in shopping malls; but it's also about the way the government regulates these public spaces, and how this changes the way people live their lives."

Blasim's tale, set in Baghdad, "is all about crossing bridges over the River Tigris. The bridges are key points when you are moving from one place to another, and often each bridge is controlled by a different militant organisation. So these stories, which explore the geography of the cities they are set in but also let you see it on a map, allow you to explore a city and also learn about its politics, its sociology, its anthropology."

Gimbal's effect has a similar ambition to some of Iain Sinclair's writing about psychogeography – attempting to connect a city's physical geography, its architecture and its history to the territory of the imagination and experience. "Psychogeography has been part of the inspiration not just for the app itself, but for a lot of commissions in the past," says Hinks. "Years ago, we were influenced by people like Iain Sinclair, and other psychogeographers – their understanding of the city. We've always commissioned on the basis of location."

Hinks believes the short story is the perfect literary form for this kind of exploration. "Whereas poetry might cling more tenaciously to the source language, short stories tend to translate far better. And yet, they often deal with far more universal situations than the novel, which is often so rich in context that it becomes difficult to uproot and put into another language. Short stories tend to be about these universal, minute crystallisations of people's lives, which you can understand from another perspective. At the same time they have enough context and detail – geographical detail specifically – that you can also learn about different cultures."

Currently, the stories on Gimbal "tend to be realist, to a large degree." But the possibility for overlaying speculative fiction narratives on to maps of real cities is something the app may tackle when Iraq Plus 100, a collection of specially comissioned science fiction from Iraqi writers, is published late next year. "This is a book that asks Iraqi short story writers to imagine their city a hundred years after the US and UK invasion of 2003," says Hinks. "It's actually asking them to map that imagined future cityscape, onto their city as it is at the moment." These stories can work "as an allegory to talk about the politics of the time, or to describe a utopian or dystopian future for their city."

Asked what he sees as being the future for literary apps, Hinks has a clear idea: "I think searchability will be a huge thing," he says. "Hashtagging will be important, in the same way as it is on Tumblr blogs and in Twitter memes. The problem with many of the current literary apps is that they are a publisher pushing very specific, narrow content through an app – using the app solely for that purpose. I think literary apps that actually aggregate content and allow for more discoverability, and search options for the user, are where things are going to go."

Some of that searchability is what makes Gimbal a pleasure to use: "You can search for stories that are between 10 and 20 minutes long," Hinks explains, a feature aimed at commuters. "If your normal commute takes 30 minutes, you can find a story that perfectly fits your commute. You can pick by mode of transport, or by genre. The intention, right from the start, was to make something that was easy to use, and useful."

Hinks is wary of apps where the designers are "putting functionality in there for the sake of it," which led him away from his initial thought, of using GPS technology in some way. "We realised it doesn't offer much use to the reader to do that. So we had to take a step back and ask ourselves, 'What will people actually use? What will they want?' Hopefully we got it right, and it's something I want to do for all our future app projects... to look at what readers are likely to engage with."

Gimbal may also offer opportunities for emerging writers to submit their work at some point in the future. "All I can say on that is 'Watch this space.' We have something cooking at the moment along those lines. Gimbal feels like a starting point for us. It's just opened up so many possibilities – the process of doing it, finding out how readers interact with it – it's opened the door to so much more, in future."

Gimbal is a free app available from letsgimbal.com. It is currently available for iPhone and iPad, with an Android version currently in development http://commapress.co.uk