Let’s say that you’re a novelist a bit bored with yourself and by the usual plots, who feels like trying to put two characters into a gravity-smashing relationship with each other.
Why not, say, a woman who allows herself to be seduced by a much younger man? Would she necessarily have to look like Demi Moore or Francesca Annis for this romance to get off the ground – and with or without the alpha-to-omega knife work that made Demi the cheerful, landmark advertisement for plastic surgery that she is?
How do you demonstrate — believably — that there’s nothing seriously wrong with your male character when he chooses this love interest over internet porn depicting lovelies as dewy-eyed as fake or real twelve year-olds, or flesh-and-blood women his own age or younger? Would you necessarily have to make him as wild as Demi’s Ashton Kutcher or as gnomish and remote as Ralph Fiennes, Francesca’s ex-partner of something like a decade?
So you post a few pages of this story on your website, refreshed by stretching your imagination for a psychological high-wire act. But then in the comments section beneath your work-in-progress, you find a reader usually well-behaved and cooperative spitting nails. ‘Never!’ says the post. You ask, ‘Why not?’ And the outraged commenter types, ‘Because it’s not a relationship that’s going to go anywhere.’ [my ital.]
Time for me to admit, now, that I’ve borrowed most of that disagreement from real life – specifically, from Alexander McCall Smith‘s riveting piece in The Wall Street Journal of all places, about a fortnight ago. He explained that he’s been publishing a Scottish series of books with a fortysomething heroine and a lover fourteen years her junior – ‘considerably younger,’ he said. He got into the argument with a reader making the case for undefeatable gravity at a book signing in Australia. He told her that he thought that the romance ‘was going rather well.’
Again my reader lost no time in replying. “No, it isn’t,” she said emphatically.
That was me put in my place. After all, I was merely the author. As it happens, Isabel’s relationship with Jamie had not been my idea in the first place, but had come about because at an earlier stage in the series I came under attack from a journalist — another woman — for not allowing Isabel to become romantically involved with Jamie. I had originally intended that their friendship be platonic, but had been told in the course of an interview with this journalist that I really had to allow something closer to develop. “Your readers will expect it,” she said. “And it would be so empowering for them.”
Not one to stand between my readers and their empowerment, I had decided to let Isabel develop a romantic liaison, only to be taken to task later by my Sydney critics for exactly this.
And there you have one reason why I find it so hard to wax enthusiastic about the prospect of collaborative (and) (or) interactive fiction, as I told our Talleyrand of the blogosphere, @BaronCharlus – technically @exitbarnadine, now — on this very site. Writers working alone are already taxed by choosing from such a superabundance of imaginative possibilities – switching from one set to another, reversing themselves, arguing furiously against their own decisions – that some (for instance, John le Carré) notoriously lean heavily on editors to keep their own plots straight. And anyway, how can literary composition and decisions subsequently second-guessed, contorted and distorted by a nearly dialectical process, like the one McCall Smith endured, count as improving anything? Literary quality? Plausibility? Proof of the depth of an author’s understanding of his characters – or of life experience re-imagined or recollected in tranquillity?
Still, this post is actually an admission of defeat, since technological change – I refuse to equate it with progress, in this instance – is apparently pushing us in the direction of shallow literary conception-by-committee, willy-nilly.
The kind of multimedia book-as-Bondmobile recently considered in this space already has a name – a Vook, if the man who coined it is as influential as he hopes to be. He made a fortune in property and has established his own company specialising in the ‘author videos’ to which @Sean Murray has introduced us, and is also reported to have written a thriller all by himself. Here is the New York Times’ description of his Vook vision:
Plenty of authors dream of writing the great American novel.
Bradley Inman wants to create great fiction, dramatic online video and compelling Twitter stream — and then roll them all into a multimedia hybrid that is tailored to the rapidly growing number of digital reading devices.
Collaboration is naturally at the heart of the idea – as in his demonstration of a proto-Vook, built from his own novel, whose title doesn’t trip quite so lightly on tongues as his neologism. For The Right Way to Do Wrong, he
got TurnHere to film two dozen short videos with actors that augment the book’s main mystery.
If I had to settle for giving just one reason why I think that books really are going to be displaced by Vookishness – and sooner than we think – it’s the endemic distractibility, the death of concentration, that the same article mentions:
Even worse, on multipurpose reading devices like the iPhone, more immediately gratifying pastimes like video games are a click away for readers with short attention spans.
And this reasoning also struck me as sound:
“Publishers are going to be confronted with the idea that either the words on the page have to be completely compelling on their own, or they have to figure out a way to create new sorts of subliminal draws in the new medium,” said Sara Nelson, the former editor of Publishers Weekly and a publishing industry consultant.
Ms. Nelson has seen the Vook prototype and says it is intriguing, but the challenge is to avoid feeling gimmicky. “If you are going to put video in a book, it has to flow so naturally into the story that readers don’t even realize they are switching mediums,” she said.
…. Collaboration is seen by many as virtually the nervous system of the digital camels swaying lumpily into view (as in ‘horse designed by committee’), @BaronCharlus will be delighted to see — for instance:
WEBook, a venture-backed start-up in New York, allows people to collaborate on writing books and is working on new ways to let readers give writers real-time feedback on their work.
Perhaps one kind of novel-writing – though in the near future, I expect we’ll say, novel-direction – will simply become a branch of Civics, and we’ll forget that novels were ever about high aesthetics, or certainly inspiration from a single set of viscera. McCall Smith concluded from his experience with his dissenting readers, that
… the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent. . . . Stories … are part of our moral conversation as a society.