THE BOOKLOVER’S FEAR OF THE FUTURE
“If I stood on the bow-backed chair, I could reach
The light switch. They let me and they watched me.
A touch of the little pip would work the magic.
A turn of their wireless knob and light came on
In the dial. They let me and they watched me
As I roamed at will the stations of the world."
- from 'Electric Light' by Seamus Heaney
New technology is marvellous and terrible, makes the impossible possible, promises paradise, threatens to unleash abominations.
Every generation feels nostalgia for the last innovation and anxiety about the next.
"Wireless" had become such a cosy word, an old fashioned term for the first electronic form of communication to become old hat, summoning up Cat's Whiskers, the Shipping News, Listen with Mother, pop pirates on the North Sea. Now wireless technology allows us to walk our laptops from room to room unhindered, to browse the web in cafes – and baffles older surfers like my mum who doesn’t quite trust a machine you don’t need to plug in.
This paper looks at the anxieties of one highly influential writer and reader faced with the prospect of books going digital and then presents a menu of ideas, informed by conversations with a range of ‘book people’, outlining ways to help those who love fiction to engage with new media.
For those interested in making multimedia literature for the web, it’s frustrating that the literati cling on so tightly to their books. And yet all those who love reading are right to be wary of changes that might threaten the essence of what they hold so dear.
- What frightens authors and readers about the digital revolution?
- What might inspire writers to incorporate new media in your work?
- How can the web give authors greater control over the way their work is received?
- What’s the role of fiction in relation to the other media in people’s lives?
- What new roles are emerging for organisations working with writers and readers in the digital age?
Andrea Levy’s father arrived in England from Jamaica in the Windrush ship in 1948. She grew up in North London, watched Doctor Who as a girl and listened to the Beatles and Bowie. She wasn’t a reader and didn’t start to write until she was in her mid-thirties, producing novels which explore the Black British experience and its evolution.
Levy’s fourth novel, Small Island, won the Orange Prize for Fiction and then most of the other prizes that year; it jettisoned her into bestsellerdom and celebrity. The book has been translated and published around the world, and was chosen for a massive reading promotion across Britain: Small Island Reads 2007.
In this interview Levy reveals her unease about changes taking place, but becomes increasingly intrigued by its possibilities and engaged with the issues for literature in a transliterate age.
IMAGINE you’re producing your next novel to be published on a reader machine which could also be used to watch movies, TV, surf the web – and which made it possible for you to add, if you wish, elements like sound and moving images to your text - how does that grab you?
“How does it grab me? My gut would be that my job is actually to convey story with words and words are the tool and so I don’t think I’d want to put sound effects on or anything like that because I think it’s my job to put those effects on, that’s what my job in writing a book is about, it’s about conveying that message, those sounds, smells and whatever through words. So if I was to put a sound on I’d think I’m cheating.
“If somebody doesn’t quite get the accent – for example with Small Island I’ve read too many times that Queenie is a Cockney, and think that nobody can quite hear that, but then I think that doesn’t matter because once something goes out of my hands how the reader interprets it is fine.
“I can’t think of anything where I thought if you really don’t get this - except once with the word wind – the word wind is spelled w-i-n-d – how do you get someone to read it as ‘wind it’ not ‘wind it’?”
SO for this author the book itself is the text alone. But the success of Small Island has made it a multimedia property, with a radio adaptation, TV film in the making and a special edition of the novel with added extras. Is Andrea happy handing over responsibility for these versions to others?
"More than happy. Once something’s out there it has a life of own. As long as I don’t have to take part in it, it's someone else’s interpretation and it doesn’t worry me.
“If you ask me about it I’ll have an opinion, but I don’t feel that precious about it that I’d throw a wobbler.”
Authors can now build a direct relationship with their readers through the web, and many enjoy this, updating their sites frequently, blogging to their fans. Andrea doesn’t.
“If they're comfortable with it, fine… I am extremely uncomfortable with it and actually don’t think there's anything to be gained from being incredibly accessible with who you are as a person. I've fallen out in my head with writers who I know too much about. You think, I don’t want to think this person is an arse hole. I have this thing with David Bowie, I grew up with David Bowie, I love him - and the more I hear about him now at that time I am horrified. And I think is that right, should I be put off the music and what it meant to me because the person I believe to be a litle twat? Should that influence me? Probably not, but it does.
But there are other ways a writer can build a web presence.
“I go to websites and cannot be bothered to try to figure out how to get in here. It’s not like a book. You cannot tell when you Google something what state it will be in, will it be a school essay, or an erudite bit of a book or, ‘hi! Welcome to my website’? It’s so vast and hit and miss that you do need a lot of time with it and a lot of patience.
“The marketing stuff has a ring round it, it's finite; what you're talking about is an open ended experience, you don't know where it will take you or how it will take you, like those windsurfers on the beach you'd get dragged along by something that isn't what you really want to do.”
But isn’t that the point when you might lift off to new heights of creativity?
I talked to Andrea about a conversation I’d had with Stephen Page, CEO of Faber books and President of the Publisher’s Association. He’s convinced publishers will survive as arbiters of quality and the paper book won’t disappear, but recognises that fiction has taken a form defined largely by the habits of the printing process. Novels tend to be a few hundred pages each, stitched or glued together, taking a year or two to create. An on-line publisher could break with that tradition, could employ a team to work on a never-ending novel of the soap operatic kind, commission an author to bring out a story episodically, as Cory Doctorow does now via e-mail, or be sent a paragraph by Ishiguro in the morning and publish it globally in the afternoon.
“Without being copy edited? My god!”
As a writer you could think afresh about how you wanted to tell each story.
“I wouldn’t like it. I’d hate it, to do something episodically. I know for certain I’d go down roads I didn’t want to go and I’d want to go back because I discard large chunks sometimes. I was talking to a writer the other day who started an episodic thing and then had to complete the book and couldn’t get rid of the stuff they’d already done.
“I’m sure there will be younger writers who have grown up with a different understanding of how media works and how they interact with the different media we have that would find it as an exciting challenge. I’m quite old now and it's taken me quite a while to really enjoy novels, to see when a novel is good that it is the best form of art you can get…I’m probably never going to see a film in a cinema where the bad guy triumphs. I know that somehow it doesn’t work like that. But I know I can read a book and anything can happen and therefore it's a very rich experience, and there's nothing else like it. It’s one person's vision, completely in your hands, it’s a pure thing – you and the page, there is no intermediary. With the novel you can try and push the form, try and do something experimental - if you have a nice enough publisher they may even publish it, you never know.
“It’s a place where you have a little bit more freedom to tell a story. The next bestseller is always a surprise.
“I’d be very surprised if the book in book form doesn’t survive any other onslaught on it. And one reason is that books in book form are the nearest you get to storytelling, the nearest form of communication and possibly one of the oldest. It's just one human being talking into your head. And that will survive any gimmick.”
A TURNING POINT
“But actually having said that I've just put myself off that argument. In that not a great deal of people read a lot of books. I’m surprised that I have friends who don't read books or say, I read one but it took me ages, it’s a difficult thing to do.”
Twenty years ago if you were interested in ideas you read books and hoped to write books. Now every reader also uses TV, films and the web. We all lead transliterate lives. A lot of the fuss currently about the future of the book is about the cultural dominance of literature over other forms isn’t it?
“It’s true. You gain everything from everywhere.
But I still say the novel is where you go for a more thoughtful experience.”
“Film and TV – they’re always nicking books. The storytelling in books has something about it that those other media haven’t got the space often to explore and have a look at and so they want your book immediately, and they want to make it into a film.
In fiction you can break the rules - you’ve got that openness, but then the movie makers can come in and introduce the happy ending and the car chase?
“And they do and their rules can often make a very good story - nothing like the book, but - you’ve started out with a product of such quality that you can play about with it and still keep a beautiful story. And I think that’s because the writer of the book took time with it and took risks with it. But also the pinnacle for all my friends: they all just say, ‘Oh you’ve finished a book? It might get sold as a film!”
Books are second class citizens in that respect.
We’ve talked a lot at Booktrust about book time, how what we're really about is the value of making more time for reflection, and its getting harder to claim that reading is automatically the place where that happens.
We need to define more clearly what it is that we mean by creative reading – is it about using text to make pictures in your head, or an emotional and intellectual space where we feel empowered to respond to cultural input, blended from text, website, TV, radio, conversation.
“Yes, I see what you mean. I'm getting very, very nervous now.”
The question is, why does Booktrust just promote reading rather than intelligent viewing?
“Absolutely, and I've always been a great advocate of TV, and when people ask me where my storytelling influences come from I always cite TV and film and not books, because I never read books when I was younger. I learnt to tell a story by watching the television - soap operas, plays. And I know I did and I can tell by the way I write. And there are some writers, George Eliot bless her, I say she did not have advantage of having watched television. Brevity. She's a fantastic writer - I shouldn’t pick on her, but Dickens sometimes; I think, oh if only he'd watched the telly he wouldn't have been going on and on and on about that.
“There are some writers, bless them, whose parents wouldn’t let them watch telly when they were little and then went straight onto Oxbridge and learned really to read books through literature and I used to say, and I don’t think I can now, that I could tell those who had learned their storytelling through 19th century literature and those who'd learnt it from the telly.
“The other thing: we do tend to be incredibly snobby about other cultural media.
When I do readings and say my influence is TV there's a gasp and they think ‘she must be thick’. In 50 years time you'll get writers saying I can spot writers who are influenced by blogging. But I can safely say I’m never going to be influenced by a blog because I never blog.
Well you say that now…
“You think I will blog?
“When you talk about these possibilities, these new ways of doing things that are coming up, every organ in my body clenches. I mean it really does. But that’s just about change which is always difficult to manage. But it’s because I really love my craft and I don’t want it to change, you know what I mean, because it’s such a beautiful thing. But I can see that when I was saying earlier about the book – I’m thinking, well really in the great scheme of things not many people read books, and perhaps more people would read books if they were more interactive and came to life for them a bit more.
“It would be quite nice to build a team of people you worked with who did the films and the website… Instead of Dreamworks it would be Andrealevyworks.
The only limit is your imagination. There’s a tremendous amount you could do.
“There’s going to be a lot of pain around it, in terns of money like there was with the music industry where they tried to block things then thought, no well it’s going to happen so let’s go with it. But there will be a lot of pain about because writers are badly paid and a few people earn money but lots don’t. Exploitation will be rife. It’s a tricky one and agents are finding it hard to keep up.
Nobody knows what has value and what doesn’t.
“Yes, so agents are very, very, very nervous.”
According to the ‘Long Tail’ idea, if you have something of specialist interest you can keep it accessible for a long time - you can tell the whole world about your obscure book, and up the other end you become a brand and can keep your own database and sell directly.
‘I’ve often thought of that. I’ve sold 800,000 books in this country. If I had everybody’s name, I could publish the next book myself and go straight to them.
I could have a website with adverts on it. I could be rich, RICH!...(Laughs)
But there is a certain sort of romance about writers that you can’t be cavalier about. I was with a friend recently and saying how I thought I might get quite a lot for the next book and they looked at me and said that’s not why you do it is it and the pain - the idea that I might be doing it for that reason and not for a better reason. I feel it too - If I thought my favourite writer was just thinking about making money I’d be just devastated.”
IDEAS FOR ANDREA
So what is the essence of Andrea’s concerns and how could a new agency linked to an organisation such as Booktrust provide support and services that would help authors and readers find their way in the new literary world?
Firstly any new initiative must be entirely devoted to the quality of writing and reading, but quality without snobbery; no breathless rush to embrace whatever gismo and gimmick comes along, but a breathing space for creative thought, undefensive but clear sighted about new developments, devoted to examining the essence of the reading experience and enhancing that rather than diluting it.
New media writing has been even less concerned with market forces in recent years, but will soon be under the corporate microscope as companies seek product for new gadgets. A shared space for reflection could be valuable.
INFLUENCED BY A BLOG?!
I think it’s possible to develop a website on the future of books and reading which would be influential amongst the literary community.
This needs to provide links to the best new media work around, reviews of those sites and books which look to the future of reading, ideas for reader development projects which use the web in new way. Finding a tone of voice that bridges the language of book and web cultures is the biggest challenge.
Peter Forbes, ex-editor of Poetry Review and now a science writer feels there is room for a new on-line journal with some of the spirit of ‘McSweeney’s Quarterly’, the magazine created and edited by American author David Eggars, champion of graphic novels and the short story.
The blog could spearhead a campaign for authors’ rights and engage in viral marketing by publishing and disseminating new media writings donated by authors, all on the theme of intellectual property.
Protecting authors’ income is paramount. But lawyers and software designers and agents and legislators will need to work on that one too. Although authors are hugely concerned about the potential loss of earnings from widespread flouting of copyright, they’re nervous of being drawn into marketing and money making schemes that damage their reputations and conflict with their politic beliefs and creative processes.
In the same way that an agent can fight ferociously on behalf of their client, so a different kind of intermediary can help an author to define and implement their on-line strategies. Do they want to sell books, promote their political views, provide background information to their work, engage directly with their readership?
There is also a role to be played in brokering relationships between authors and creative makers of digital art and fiction – helping to create and manage the equivalent to the ‘AndreaLevyWorks’ team that will help an individual writer control the realisation of their fiction in other media.
Cally Poplak is Director of Egmont Press specialising in children’s books many of them featuring TV characters (or ‘properties’). Publishers, Poplak says, have not been good at responding to the challenge of the new, but need to recognise that their key strength should be knowledge of customers, what they want and how best to reach them. She sees businesses setting up where an author, a designer and a publishing expert work together on a project, creating, developing and distributing content. This team would create a fiction including paper book, multimedia and interactive content for the user to explore as they please, choosing what to read, watch or listen to. And she thinks this approach could draw some back to reading, in particular teenage boys who aren’t ‘into books’, but will go to them for information they need.
AndreaLevyWorks would build a database of fans of her work. While Andrea wrote the text, her team would be producing the audio version and graphic elements for the web and downloads, all to Andrea’s specifications. The publisher on the team would be tasked with finding the best means to market and sell the entire package in line with the originator’s artistic vision.
Stephen Page is uncertain whether the e-reader will ever be a big seller, and is waiting to find out before Faber devise content for it. But one electronic platform is already commonplace. Jane Tappuni is Managing Director of iCue, a company selling fiction to download to your phone. You can scroll through chapters or read it one word flashed up at a time (like getting a novel drilled into your head). The product will be launched to the general public this year, and many publishers are on board. Jane is optimistic - she tells me about ketei, Japanese Mobile fiction which has been selling in bulk for years. A regular novel might be structured in five chapters, but a mobile novelist like Mica Naitoh has to write 100 volumes, each one persuading readers to want to see the next. So is this form akin to the haiku or the soundbite? That depends on the quality of the work it inspires.
Although every major publisher has a digital expert on board, many come from very different industries and most seem at sea about their strategies.
Agent David Godwin has gone on record saying agents could cut out publishers and take their authors’ work directly to market via the web. When I speak to him he’s interested in a collaboration to commission new media work from a range of authors including major literary names and emerging talent. This could be toured to literature festivals and venues as the focus for discussion. As a charity for readers Booktrust has no commercial axe to grind and is well placed to lead such experimentation and debate.
How do young people, as they learn to be readers of life, put together insights gleaned from various media to construct an individual world view?
A few years ago my son went to see a band at the ICA. At the door he was given a bag containing a packet of seeds, a plastic bull, a CD, a feather, a copy of a novel by Will Self, a key ring bearing a web address. The selection demanded decoding; visiting the site it became clear that each item connected to a song title by the band. Vitally it was not a book promotion at all but simply an incentive to think more deeply about the music. It points the way towards other projects to develop our transliteracy skills, by which I mean the reader’s ability to connect ideas from a range of media.
Imagine a multiplatform exploration of Andrea Levy’s work and its themes of immigration, prejudice and identity, marketed through eBay or Amazon to all those who google her name. A book group which normally discusses a novel per month decides to subscribe. Over a period of a month group members are each sent short stories by the author, emailed to them every few days with web links to related sites, video or podcasts.
Participants are invited to write their own stories on themes related to the books. These are submitted to a reader in residence who sends feedback on their work. The whole group could meet online for a discussion. A final podcast by Andrea prepares the group for their next real-time meeting where they discuss the book and the process they’ve been through.
Then imagine a multi-platform fiction delivered the same way – an expansion of the ‘Online Caroline’ model pioneered by Tim Wright, written by Levy, designed by Banksy with film by Greenaway, hosted by Zadie.
Well, I think that sounds exciting, but I have to admit that others I’ve talked to in the process of researching this essay are not so convinced.
Peter Florence, Director of the Hay on Wye Festival, writes, “Non-fiction – yes, sure: the game’s up. Wikipedia won and will devour the knowledge of the publishing world and parcel it up into free, manageable bites.
I don’t think the i-reader will devastate the fiction arm of the publishing industry as it has the music industry. The net is already awash with blogs a very few of which become books. This is a useful model…
New Literary Forms? I imagine text messaging jokes or sampling audio of under 3 mins is about as good as this'll get. Within a written entertainment culture the value of books is their length. No-one watches movies on three-inch screens, and people won't read novels on them either.”
No, but they may use them to enjoy new literary artforms designed to be that shape.
Liz Attenborough, Director of the 1997 Year of Reading, writes: “I feel confident that books in their current form will continue, alongside new additional excitements. Way back in the early 70s, when I started in publishing, we were told that no one wanted hardback books any more, but 35 years later they still seem to be around. I also remember that when video was first introduced we were told that cinemas wouldn't be necessary any more. Well, it's the video that has gone before the cinema, which thrives as a particular way of seeing film, alongside home screenings of DVDs. (It's fun that the cinema has now had to produce 'ads' to tell people not to talk or make noises as there are no rewind buttons in the cinema, and other people may not wish to hear the chatter of others.) So I feel that new electronic ways to tell stories will grow and thrive, and we will think of new things we want to put in the book format. The birth of one does not necessarily mean the demise of the other.”
But there’s certainly a bitter cynicism abroad about the endless stream of new platforms which force us to re-buy the same tunes and movies and discard the last outmoded device. There’s a deep-seated resistance to undermining the perfect bound, printed page. It’s up to those who are excited by the creative potential of new media writing to provide the incentive we really need to read it: engrossing e-narratives that are unputdownable, unswitchoffable and unforgettable.
Is the book an object made of paper, is it a process, or a name for the entity in which we store and read our cultural product?
For my generation, movies, TV and rock music have been as important as poetry and fiction, but still our cultural store was seen to reside in books. That is simply not true anymore. My son has an A Level in English and at twenty two continues to read fiction, but his cultural ‘bookshelf’ would naturally include all media.
Booktrust’s name has seemed anachronistic, but now… As the Mission Statement for Bob Stein’s Institute for the Future of the Book puts it: “ for the past five hundred years, humans have used print — the book and its various page-based cousins — to move ideas across time and space. Radio, cinema and television emerged in the last century and now, with the advent of computers, we are combining media to forge new forms of expression. For now, we use the word "book" broadly, even metaphorically, to talk about what has come before —
and what might come next.”
My iMac died last week and all the data on the hard drive has gone - which makes me painfully aware of how much its contents matter(ed) to me. And now I’m writing this on a new laptop which invites me to ‘bookmark’ my favourite websites; a networked device storing pictures, tunes, words – my own and other people’s. I can sit in the garden and read good looking print off a sharp, attractive screen. The book of the future is in my hands, and behold it’s called a MacBook.
No publisher has yet brought out a Paperlaptop.
Don’t worry, Andrea – the book rules OK.
"I choose to believe that humans have agency. That what we know, communicate, and do can make a difference…Every medium has its own affordances, scope, and limits. Are humans simply the passive victims of the tools we create, or do we have control to any degree over how we use them? I suppose that is one of the big questions regarding global warming. Big test for human race coming up!”
- Howard Rheingold, (from an on-line lecture for de Montfort University,
Creative Writing & New Media M.A.)