Sunday, October 14, 2012

When Fiction Goes Digital

Today's column for the Sunday Guardian.

It’s been said many times that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for TV. Well, if Calvino, Cortazar and B.S. Johnson were here now, they’d be working on apps that redefine narrative. Robert Coover, in fact, wrote perceptively about the implications of hypertext decades ago, speculating on the emergence of “a third voice”, distinct from the priestly and the demotic. It’s just this sort of voice that may be emerging now.

Although they say people are reading less than they used to, it's also true that they're reading more on the Web, even if it's just status updates on Facebook. Publishers have been trying to ride this change, tailoring their offerings to synch with changing reading habits.

There’s Faber’s iPad app of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the Penguin app of Kerouac’s On The Road and, more recently, Sourcebooks’s Shakesperience. All of these comprise, apart from the text, a series of video interpretations, readings, interviews and glossaries.  Thus, these interactive encyclopedias, marvellously produced, use a different medium to provide, in marketing jargon, “an immersive experience”-- but they clearly don’t aim to do more than that.

Others are trying to turn low attention spans to their advantage. Last month, Amazon launched Kindle Serials, wherein readers could download and pay for volumes, one episode at a time. There are nine such serials so far, all of them in genres such as murder mysteries, sci-fi and detective novels -- no doubt because of their abilities to end episodes on a high, leaving the reader panting for more. Another digital publisher, Byliner, has also launched similar serials, the first two by Margaret Atwood and Joe McGinniss. (This is the moment to insert the obligatory Charles Dickens reference.)

Such ventures don’t play with established notions of a written text; others, however, are thinking differently. Take Coliloquy, a “technology-based provider of active fiction”, that also serves up episodic content, but makes the story branch out into different directions depending on reader feedback. So far, they deal with young adult, romance, and adventure, and readers can vote for not just future plotlines but also character attributes and locations, among other things. To me, this smacks of pandering to existing tastes, rather than setting out to create something intrinsically new.

What’s of much more interest is The Silent History, an app released this month by a team comprising Eli Horowitz, former managing editor of McSweeneys, as well as other writers and digital publishers, and “a team of contributors on five continents”.

Calling itself “a new kind of novel”, The Silent History sets out to provide the fictional record of a time in the near future when children are afflicted by a mysterious genetic mutation that renders them incapable of speech. (Fans of J.J. Abrams TV shows, take note.)

Within the app, first-person testimonials are released one day at a time, from Monday to Saturday -- among those released so far are one by nanny in New Jersey looking after a boy whose parents are away on cruise, by a diagnostician in Texas examining the pathology of the speechless and by a neurologist in Massachusetts stumped by the silent children but determined to know more.

What makes it even more innovative is a section called field reports: “site specific accounts of the many unexpected ways this silence is colliding with our physical world”. Such reports can only be read as and when you're actually present at the site being written about -- they’re unlocked when your device's location services synchs with the app.

Having read the first few episodes on my iPad, I downloaded the app onto my phone to continue reading, only to find, time and again, the annoying message that a server problem prevented the app from being “populated”.

Though they were prompt, professional and polite when I e-mailed to let them know, I couldn't help but think that there are times when there’s really no substitute for a printed book.

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