Amazon’s Kindle has created quite a splash. It’s got me thinking, wondering about the future of the novel, of story telling in general, of the obsolescence of different forms of media. What follows in this post is a rumination on what might be coming down the barrel, whether it’s inevitable and what it might mean for readers and writers both. I start off slow, but bear with me.
Choose Your Own Adventure Books: I was hooked on these when I was a kid, though my preference was for a more Fantasy/Sc-Fi brand called Fighting Fantasy. For those who aren’t familiar with these books, they allow the reader to assume the role of protagonist, and decide the course of events, to make choices and risk failure as they seek to complete the quest. A typical choice might ask the following:
To accept the ogre’s offer, turn to page 7
To attack the ogre, turn to page 35
It was immersive, great fun, and eventually led me to role playing, where instead of being presented with two or three choices at each juncture, you were limited only by your ingenuity and the skill of the story teller.
To change tack: In 1987 Julio Cortazar wrote Rayuela, translated into English as Hopscotch. It’s a brilliant novel, and can be read in a variety of ways. Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, where you pick what the protagonist does, you are instead offered the choice to delve more deeply into esoteric elements of the story by skipping to passages that describe or explore elements of the tale that the direct narrative skips over. There were some 300 entries, but only 150 or so of them composed the actual novel; the other half were ancillary, and enriched the text, subverting and complicating the tale. You could read the novel in any number of ways, but that was the crux of it: the choice was yours.
Now consider James Joyce’s final ‘novel’, Finnegan’s Wake. This book has defied scholars and critics, professors and the general public since it was published in 1939. The reason is that the text is composed of so many intricately composed layers of suggestion, association, different languages and poetry that it takes a truly erudite student of all disciplines to understand it. Here is a sample, via Wikipedia:
O here here how hoth sprowled met the duskt the father of fornicationists but, (O my shining stars and body!) how hath fanespanned most high heaven the skysign of soft advertisement! (page 4, lines 11–14)
What does this mean? Here’s the following analysis:
One possible deconstruction of this text is: “O here here [cry of agreement/where the sleeping figure lies/hear hear– listen up] how hoth [hot/hath] sprowled [sprawled the sleeping figure/prowled in the night] met the duskt [dusk, it is now dusk/dust, as in dust to dust] the father of fornicationists [fornicationists are made of dust/ dusk precedes the night of fornications] but, (O my shining stars and body!) [!] how hath fanespanned [sprowled:evil,restrictive::fanespanned:good,expansive/sacredly spanned/a sleeping mind spans] most high heaven the skysign of soft advertisement [the stars divinely advertise the night]”.
Although each individual word is obscure to a greater degree than other texts, so that any two different readers will have different interpretations.
A simpler example would be when Joyce takes the German word ‘ameise’ (meaning ant) and combines it with the English word ‘amazing’ coining the adjective “ameising” meaning the amazement caused by an ant. The vast majority of words in Finnegans Wake sound out to normal English words.
I’m not just posting this to give you a headache, but to give you a glimpse of the novel’s limitations. What Joyce was attempting to do was create depth by collating and collapsing multiple meanings into each word. He was taking ant and amazing and collapsing them into ameising. Unfortunately, the end result, as brilliant as it might be, defies our ability to read it in its current medium.
So what? Well, consider the Kindle, the new eReader from Amazon. Most of the debates revolving around this new gadget seem to center on whether it can duplicate the qualities of a book. Can you curl up with it? Read it in the bath? Carry it on a train? I think that instead one should look at it (and other eReaders) as an evolution that will allow authors to go beyond the current constraints of the novel. Hopscotch prefigures hypertext; Choose Your Own Adventures prefigure links in general, and what might Joyce have wrought with the dynamic abilities of the internet, HTML, online resources and multimedia at his fingertips?
One should not ask if the Kindle can duplicate the old, but what it will allow that will be new. The current generation of kids in first world countries are being raised on YouTube, Facebook, WarCraft, Playstations and the Wii. The youngest are not simply grown accustomed to being wired and logged in, they have never experienced anything else. To a child of today, to a five year old who already knows more about computers than most adults, what is the appeal of a linear, static, single POV story? What might eReaders allow in terms of new forms of storytelling?
Consider World of WarCraft. The last report that I read in September stated that there were 7 million players with active accounts. It was at 6 million in March. And it’s growing. That is what kids today are doing for entertainment. And what is World of Warcraft? It is an advanced Choose Your Own Adventure game, a world in which you choose whether to be good or evil, whether to complete quests, whether to pursue story-lines. Because yes, there is a meta-plot, and it’s advancement is to a large degree determined by the desires of the players. The staff at Blizzard are weaving a world of such complexity about these 7 million users that it rivals any world of Tolkien’s or Pullman’s.
This is what the Kindle is fighting. This is what regular novels have already lost to. World of Warcraft is only the beginning, for it will become increasingly more sophisticated and enjoyable. It has a cadre of ‘Storytellers‘ who’s job it is to write and manage the metaplot, to create miniature quests, to tend the world. That, I believe, may be the future of storytelling.
Think about it: 8 of the Booker Prize finalists failed to sell more than 1,000 copies. World of Warcraft gained 1,000,000 new players in six months. And just how old do you think these players were?
Anybody who rails against eReaders, who insists that we need to ‘save’ literature or whatever is perilously antiquated and blind. An entire generation is on the march, entering worlds of gorgeous graphics, enthralling quests and communities millions strong. If novels are going to compete, they too need to evolve. And that is precisely where the value of the eReaders lie: in their potential to compete through evolution.