“Playing” the Novel: As we move into a digital world, how will narrative form change?

In part as a response to CEO Jeff Bezos’s announcement that more customers are buying digital books for the Kindle than hardcover books at Amazon, Linton Weeks, in his NPR article “Books Have Many Futures,” discusses the various forms books will take in the not-so-distant future.  Indeed, within the next five to ten years, the physical form of the contemporary novel is going to change.  It seems inevitable.  More and more people are reading novels on Kindles, iPads, and Nooks—and even those who resisted the idea at first, such as myself, have been impressed with the readability of text on these devices.

I waver between being excited by these new changes and leery of them.  As an aspiring novelist, my greatest concern has to do with how it will impact publishing industry, how writers, editors, agents, etc. will be able to make a living … but I do feel certain of one thing:  We will always crave narrative experiences—it’s built into the human circuitry—and we’ll always need the active participation that reading fiction (and poetry) offers us to gain a richer understanding of ourselves.

So, my question is this:  If the way we read is changing, then will the way we write need to change as well?  Weeks suggests just that: “And could it be that there are new forms of storytelling out there — video games, interactive multi-user dungeons, role-playing games — that we are just beginning to explore?  In the same way we moved from Homeric recitations to books, could we now be moving from books to shared, multi-narrator stories?”

I’m prone to nostalgia.  My novel Dodging and Burning is set, for the most part, in 1945.  I love the dark romance of mid-20th century hard-boiled fiction.  I teach a historical survey course on British Literature.  I feel deeply that, to write good fiction, contemporary writers must have a thorough understanding of its roots, from Chaucer to Dickens to Virginia Woolf.  But I find it much more difficult to feel at peace with where the novel needs to go.

For instance, that Weeks mentions video games in his article makes me wince.  When I was fourteen, I gave away my Nintendo, because it frustrated me.  It hedged in my creativity.  I didn’t like playing within the constraints it set up for me.  So, the very idea that we need to make novels like video games—that narratives will have to be played, so to speak, to engage readers—gives me a stomach ache.

Yet, I think there’s something to it.  After all, to be good, art of any sort can’t be static.  Great artists and writers have always been innovators.  Just think of the impact that James Joyce or Virginia Woolf had on the novel … or Gertrude Stein and Hemingway on prose.  Also, good fiction—”Writerly” fiction, as I mentioned in my last blog entry—needs to involve the reader, make him or her “a producer of the text.”  Could being a “player” be like being a producer?

Although we’ll always crave (and need) complex narratives, writers may have to begin stretching and bending the form more aggressively.  As much as I love where the novel has been, more and more I realize that I need to pay attention to where it’s going and think about how to change narrative form to suit new tastes without undermining its integrity.  No easy task.

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1 Comment

Filed under Classic Novels/Mysteries, Contemporary Novels/Thrillers, Getting Published, Marketing You and Your Work, Teaching and Writing

One response to ““Playing” the Novel: As we move into a digital world, how will narrative form change?

  1. Great post, John. I think that certain types of narrative will lend themselves to new media more than others, just as certain stories are more suited to film than others.

    I think that the video game market will, at least in the near future, be a good place for pulpy stories that can be fun to play through, but the up-front cost of development will, for the most part, dissuade the development of subtle, character-driven narrative. There are a few video games (e.g. BioShock) that are very effective forms of storytelling, but the stories are relatively straightforward and almost invariably violent (BioShock is a very disturbing, but fun and intellectually stimulating game). That is because games where one just walks around freely, without any guidance and where there’s no threat of loss to life/limb, aren’t fun enough to gain a big market share, much less recoup the cost of development. A few months ago, Roger Ebert recently wrote a pretty snobby (and, in my opinion, wrongheaded) piece about how games can’t be art ( http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html ), and we had a fun discussion on my facebook page about the merits and demerits of video games as art. Artistic games (e.g. Flower, a lovely Playstation 3 title that is more an experience than a game) are in their infancy, and it will take the time investment of subtly-minded, character-driven, story-loving authors who want to develop a game before games (if that’s the right word) that are both artistic and narrative can develop (and this has to be done, obviously, with a team, which makes it even more challenging).

    I think that what you call writerly fiction will continue to live primarily in the written word, as it has a relatively narrow market, outside of academia. Man is, and will always be, homo symbolicus and homo loquens (to borrow from Walker Percy), and only words can do what words can do. Although images can be a powerful symbolic and narrative force, they are a fundamentally different form of expression than words.

    I think that e-books could actually be healthy for writerly fiction because writing will become an increasingly inexpensive art form. That is to say, it takes one writer (and, obviously, usually an editor and team of friends) to produce and refine a story. No actors, musicians, programmers, etc. Until recently, publishing houses have been narrative gatekeepers because they are taking most of the financial risk. They obviously serve an important function, and I think that most important writers will still be published through major houses, even as we move away from paper, because they’re putting their stamp of approval, so to speak, on the commercial (and, if applicable, literary) value of a work, and so having their stamp on a work ensures its wide dissemination.

    With self-publishing (e.g. Lulu) and, more importantly, electronic publishing, it will be possible (albeit challenging) for writers to bypass the gatekeepers. Now, this will probably mean that there’s even more bad fiction circulating (and a lot of it), but I imagine that it will also mean that more people will be willing to invest their time and write their story, which (it seems almost certain) will lead to narrative innovation much more quickly than centralized, house-driven publishing can, and a greater proliferation of new narrative, writerly, literary forms.

    I think that e-books (especially on the iPad) will be wonderful for children’s stories. Here’s a great (albeit frenetic) example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gew68Qj5kxw

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