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Digital lit: How new ways to read mean new ways to write Add to ...

The Next Day is a graphic novel about people who have attempted suicide. Once it is posted online in September, you’ll be able to click your way through it according to your own preferences about how it should unfold. CityFish is a Web-based short story, about a Nova Scotia girl visiting relatives in New York. Unfurling horizontally, like a scroll, it looks like a scrapbook, full of photographs and short videos of the places it describes. Inanimate Alice is an episodic, interactive, multimedia novel for children that offers text, videos and puzzles as it recounts the adventures of a heroine who becomes a video-game designer.

The e-book is changing the publishing business, but will digital technology actually change the way we tell stories, the way writers write – for better or for worse?

Some speculate that the move to reading off electronic tablets will force writers into shorter and more direct narratives. Others worry that the rush to add video will turn writers into screenwriters on creative teams that produce novels as a branch of filmmaking, and they wonder if the nifty interactivity of video games can ever be applied to serious writing to create a new digital literature. As for us faithful readers, will we be hard-pressed to ever find a writer who can still produce a good old-fashioned novel?

“There is a kind of reading people do on screens that is different from the reading they do on the page,” Lev Grossman, the American novelist and technology writer for Time magazine, recently told the Book Summit, an annual industry conference in Toronto. “It is powerfully linear, which can be really intoxicating … [On an e-reader] I sometimes find my finger is clicking faster than my eyes are going. I have to keep up with my madly clicking finger. It’s a … very powerful narrative, very plot-y feeling to the reading and, as it happens, I am a plot-y writer.”

The e-book format doesn’t encourage lingering on particular images or phrases, referring back, skimming forward or comparing passages; so Grossman predicts the emergence of hybrid novels that combine literary fiction with plot-driven genre writing. For example, his 2009 book The Magicians – an adult science-fiction/fantasy novel about a youth who enrolls in a university of witchcraft but finds it unsatisfying – operates both as genre fiction and as a critique of genre fiction.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the e-book will make much difference to writers’ style. Some observers point out that its goal is to reproduce the traditional reading experience as closely as possible, and many argue the video components that can be added to an e-book are no more revolutionary than the interviews with a movie’s director and stars that appear as extra features on a DVD. Real experimentation may lie elsewhere.

“E-books as we know them are electronic replicas of books, it’s paper under glass,” says Kate Pullinger, author of the children’s novel Inanimate Alice – which can be viewed free online. (She also won the 2009 Governor-General’s Award for her conventional novel The Mistress of Nothing.) “If you are going to put a work of fiction on a computer, why would you not use the multimedia components a computer has to offer you – image and sound and interactive games?”

Montreal electronic writer J.R. Carpenter, creator of CityFish, agrees: “I have been using the Internet as a medium since 1993. …There is fantastic multimedia, non-linear storytelling that has been going on since the beginning of the Web, and e-book publishers are not interested in that.” She says that a work such as CityFish, which explores odd corners of New York through the eyes of a displaced teen, is another way of reflecting the imagination, adding the visual images and sounds that are associated with places in the author’s mind.

These multimedia experiments often use short texts because readers seem unlikely to tolerate long passages of type in a video or interactive environment. “Maybe the chunk is not the chapter; maybe the chunk is the paragraph, and one paragraph can lead to more, different paragraphs,” says Caitlin Fisher, Canada Research Chair in digital culture at York University, who used that approach in her 2001 multimedia novella These Waves of Girls. “People have been figuring out how to get their message onto a single screen. It makes some writing better and some writing worse.”

Another tricky decision is how much power to give to the reader. Since the 1990s, fiction writers have experimented with hypertext, letting the reader follow secondary or subsequent passages out of the main text (perhaps never to return). Seminal works – such as These Waves of Girls, a hypertext short story about a car accident, created in 1987; or Shelly Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, a feminist retelling of the Frankenstein story, published in 1995 – established the new field of electronic fiction, and the issue of authorial control has been hotly debated ever since.

“You get these interactive projects – it’s such a novelty, the first 20 minutes the person is just learning the interface,” says Alex Jansen, the owner of Pop Sandbox, a small digital publisher that produced The Next Day and will turn to fiction with a forthcoming photo novella based on a short story by Toronto writer and Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith. “By the time they are done clicking, they have taken the narrative into the middle of nowhere. You do still need a storyteller.”

The Next Day team discussed how much interactivity they should really include in the online version of the project, which will be hosted by the National Film Board’s and TV Ontario’s websites, and finally decided to limit it. You can chart your own path through these four stories of attempted suicides and their emotional aftermath, but the site is programmed so that you can’t limit yourself to a single story but will hear at least part of all four.

Prof. Fisher agrees that the issue is how to draw the reader through the text. “It’s interesting to say maybe people would navigate your novel like a game environment,” she says. “People find a game environment compelling. [But] does it always have to be a puzzle or maze? Could great writing draw you through it? … We don’t have serious writers experimenting with it.”

Fisher also notes how seductive video is, hoping books will not simply be replaced by some version of interactive film or augmented reality. “We have this push that all literature can become movies. Everyone can cheaply make and edit moving pictures. It is pushing out interesting experiments in writing.”

In that regard, e-books augmented with video interviews or apps that add video content to classic texts – for under $20, you can watch Fiona Shaw recite T.S. Eliot’s poem on The Waste Land app, or chart Jack Kerouac’s progress on the maps provided in the On the Road app – seem counterintuitive to those who think the whole purpose of reading a book is to engage in an act of the imagination that makes it a less passive experience than watching a movie or TV.

“It is such a terrible idea,” novelist Grossman said of video-enhanced e-books, at the Book Summit. “It is not a more-is-more situation.”

E-book videos and fancy apps also require production budgets usually only available to big publishers working with bestselling titles. Although few literary writers would claim that “monetize” is an elegant word, the issue of how to make money from digital work that is usually published free online is emerging as key to future experimentation. The early hypertext novels remained rarefied projects, not because of their content – it was generally accessible – but because they were often available only on discs, and were never distributed by major publishers. (Both afternoon: a story and Patchwork Girl are available as $24.95 CDs from the American hypertext publisher Eastgate). Today’s experimentation is openly available online, but, Fisher points out, it is often being created in universities by salaried scholars.

Independent creators do get some grants to make digital texts – Carpenter, who got some Canada Council funding for CityFish, lives like a visual artist on grants and fees, while Jansen puts together budgets much like a film producer and got a NFB/TVO grant for emerging documentary makers for The Next Day. But unless writers who earn their living directly from their writing can take up the digital call, the new forms are unlikely to go truly mainstream.

“I’d be happy to purchase an $80 electronic novel that promised to take me places I hadn’t been before, but it’s a hard sell,” says Fisher, who wants to see writers making technology work for them rather than technology shaping the form. “It is crucial writers be there asking what kind of tools might be useful … and not just accept what computer science hands them.”

 

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