Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 6, 2010

brave new digital world (number 3,782 in a series)

Craig Mod on how the digital world changes books:

The biggest change is not in the form stories take but in the writing process. Digital media changes books by changing the nature of authorship. Stories no longer have to arrive fully actualised. On the simplest level, books can be pushed to e-readers in a Dickensian chapter-by-chapter format — as author Max Barry did with his latest book, Machine Man. Beyond that, authorship becomes a collaboration between writers and readers. Readers can edit and update stories, either passively in comments on blogs or actively via wiki-style interfaces. Authors can gauge reader interest as the story unfolds and decide whether certain narrative threads are worth exploring.

For better or for worse, live iteration frees authors from their private writing cells; the audience becomes directly engaged with the process. Writers no longer have to hold their breath for years as their work is written, edited and finally published to find out if their book has legs. In turn they can be more brazen and spelunk down literary caves that would have hitherto been too risky. The vast exposure brought by digital media also means that those risky niche topics can find their niche audiences.

“Dickensian” in the first paragraph above gives away too much of the game; maybe all of it. In the Victorian era, books were pushed to magazines in a chapter-by-chapter format, and indeed, in era and in all others allowing for serial publication, “Authors [could] gauge reader interest as the story [unfolded] and decide whether certain narrative threads [were] worth exploring.”

As for readers editing and updating stories, that was certainly a major feature of the publishing world before copyright laws became clear and enforceable: consider, for instance, the unknown writer who altered and continued Don Quixote, pausing only to mock Cervantes for his poverty and his war injuries (Cervantes had lost the use of an arm in the Battle of Lepanto).

There are many literary activities that digital technology makes easier; I’m not sure there are any that it makes possible. And not all the things it makes easier are worth doing. We need to consider these matters on a case-by-case basis.

As for the claim that digital technologies will make writers bolder, I think just the reverse is true, but I’ll explain that in a later post.

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