The Novel is Dead...
Speaking writer to writer...
We live only a few tomorrows away from the 21st century. We will all be strangers in
that strange land, and getting from now to then will be difficult. We have to create the
destination as we approach it (granted, as writers we're all used to that, right?) but the
scary thing is that we get only one chance. No rewrites, and no one has creative control.
How hard will the transition be? Let's look at one piece of it. Our piece, writing . . . .
Gutenberg is finally dying. After nearly seven hundred years of moveable type, we stand
on the verge of a new era in the communication of ideas. Thoughts and dreams once
transmitted by paper and ink are now coded electronically and passed from mind to mind in
seconds over the internet. The change, which began with the invention of the computer and
its acceptance as a word-processing tool, is on-going and accelerating. What does this
mean to writers?
I'd like to nail the following theses to the figurative church door of the internet for
consideration and comment. Let me know what you think.
Good news, bad news
- The novel is dead.
- It is linear where the new world will be holographic. It is static where the world will
be dynamic. It is a single-medium in a multimedia world.
- The book is dead.
- Paper -- the print medium -- may continue to exist as a specialty item, but it will no
longer be used as an instrument of mass communication. A hardcover book costs only a few
dollars to print, and yet publishers have to sell it at twenty or twenty-five dollars to
make a thin profit. A CDROM disk, on the other hand, costs a dollar and can hold five
hundred MOBY DICK's.
- Most large publishers won't survive.
- ...at least in their present form. Their business centers on shipping paper around the
country, between editors and authors, between printers and booksellers. Paper is heavier
than electrons. It costs more, and for most purposes, all the value of it is locked in the
pattern of ink on it's surface. Patterns are cheap and light. They can be sent around the
world almost instantly.
- The royalty statement is dead.
- Royalties are paid based on copies of a product sold, but the product is the information
on a book. Everything else is merely packaging, and no matter how attractive the
packaging, the fact is that the information is infinitely reproducible. Anyone who buys
the book of the future can make as many copies of the important thing--the words, sounds
and pictures--as he or she cares to. So what are we gonna get royalties on? And who's
going to control them?
- No market for writers is safe.
- Motion pictures? They'll soon be on CD-ROM. The VCR market is already as large (in terms
of viewings) as the theater presentations, tapes can be copied as easily any other medium,
and soon the telephone companies will be able to transmit video in real time. That means
anyone with a little technical and business expertise will be able to sell movies on
demand to anyone with a telephone. Worse, growing bandwidth and compression technologies
will soon put them on the internet. What about magazines? Sorry--they're moving onto the
internet now and tomorrow the phone company will be the preferred distribution medium.
Newspapers? Music? See above.
- The communications world is growing.
- There are more channels into the average home today than there have ever been. A hundred
years ago, there was one. Print. Fifty years ago, we had only four: radio, television,
telephone and print. Since then we have added cable TV (how many channels? 150? 300?),
CD-ROM game and music discs, the internet....
- The novel will survive.
- But you and I won't recognize it. People need stories to take them out of the mundane,
make the humdrum bearable, and offer an occasional insight while doing it. Each
generation, however, comes to the novel for something different, and the novel not only
evolves to offer them what they need but changes shape to provide it in a suitable form.
- The 21st century novel will be a 21st century experience.
- It won't be enough to put one well-chosen word after another. The novel will have to be
full of color and movement, sound and everything else the tech-gnomes will come up with.
- Authors are more important than ever.
- One of the biggest complaints about all the new channels of communication is that
there's nothing new on them. Everything is clones and reruns. The future will need more
writers, not fewer.
- The business of writing will change drastically.
- Emphasis will be on the concept, the vision. Creation will move from the garret to the
production studio. Graphics and sound, at least, will supplement the written word. That
means creativity will become even more limited, constrained, by group-think and economic
- Linearity is passe.
- Hypertext means the audience will create its own path through the author's work, and
even hypertext is passe. Read that again. Even hypertext is passe. VRML is
coming up. Okay, they can't do that now, but wait ten years. The box on your desk (or in
the TV) will run at gigaflop speeds, the screen will hang on the wall, and your audience
won't live your stories; they'll interact with them and maybe even change them.
How are you going to hide a plot in that?
You know all those cutesy-dumb little hard hats and under-construction signs the
newbies scatter around their first home pages? Pretend one is here, because writers--you
and I--are architects. We craft a story by putting this sort of a character next to that
sort, sticking them somewhere unpleasant, and then using the mix for a foundation. We nail
incidents together, higher and higher, until we've got a resolution. Sometime in the next
ten or twenty years, we've got to solve a big problem. How are we going to build a novel
if the reader can just wander around our structure any damned way he wants. Suppose he
skips the sixth floor and never learns who the hero really loves? How is he going to make
sense of all our hard work? Imagine trying to write a mystery or a gothic when the reader
can start with the resolution, say "Oh, so that's it!" and throw our work aside.
How can we control, not the reader, but the experience?
I'd dearly love to hear opinions or ideas,
contrary or not, on how to solve the control problem. I've got an idea or ten, and I will
work on them as I have time.
What I'm after is more than a novel. It is a first step toward an interactive
multimedia experience, a gestalt, that will be literary as well as visual and perhaps even
audio. (I could use some help with graphics.)
Coming soon: Storyville!
Storyville exists on the border between time and eternity, dream and nightmare. All
the dimensions get tangled up here, all the lives touch.
Copyright ©1995, Harlen Campbell
Last updated Nov 6, 1995.