Your Innovation Ain’t All That

Robot from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxyor The Future of Storytelling Might Not Be So Fancy

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine, knowing my penchant for all things techy and mental, sent me links to two websites, both of which contain experimental digital fiction.  One, a short fiction website called Dreaming Methods, uses clever coding to create an app-like experience in your browser. The second, Nawlz, is a more conventional interactive comic where the frames move and change depending on user interaction, thus giving the reader the illusion of control (it’s actually rather good).

This is what I had been waiting to find ever since I’d heard of enhanced eBooks – casting off traditional storytelling to embrace the possibilities given to us by technology. At first, I clicked happily away, pressing buttons, lighting up text, and having a grand old time. But the more time I spent looking at it, the more I realised this was the online equivalent of Ulysses or, even more damning, To The Lighthouse (has anyone tried to read that book? I mean read it, not write an essay on it or discuss it at a dinner party).

Where was the story?

The first website brought to mind the love child of Nosy Crow, Nietzsche (in his later years) and Thomas Pynchon. Yeah, sounds cool, doesn’t it? But have you ever considered what that mash-up might actually look like? The works themselves are brief and dark, relying on flickering text and static hums to convey meaning. If you had tried to ignore the sensory experience and focus on the text, you probably wouldn’t have gotten much from it.

Ultimately, this simply confirmed for me why mainstream publishers are shying away from book ‘apps’ as a way to convey stories. It’s not because of the blinding traditionalism. It’s because the scalability of something like this is minimal, but the investment, both money and time, would be immense. Also, I ultimately feel using this sort of innovation to tell stories is as effective as using a baguette as a walking stick.

They are exciting, yes, and they are interesting. But, just like looking at the inside of an animal’s corpse is not everyone’s idea of a nice day out, some of this stuff is too experimental to be deemed anything other than an exercise in boundary pushing.

Having said that, I think that if an author were to come to a publishing house with an idea of how their story could be genuinely enhanced by this kind of technology, that publishing house would listen. I hope they would. Still the operative word in that sentence is ‘enhance’, not unnecessarily pimp out.

I do think it’s a good thing that people are experimenting. Without this, we might never get the recipe right for any new developments and new ways of storytelling (and there will be developments after eBooks, which are in fact the present of publishing and not ‘the future’). But just because something is possible doesn’t make it a good idea.

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