Meanland: Something is happening here but we don’t know what it is … apologies Bob

The mainstream debate on the future of the book is still very much caught up in the print versus digital question: whether we engage in one industrial process or another, to produce one form of technology or another, to essentially deliver the same artefact: a device capable of storing and delivering text-based information.

While the artefacts produced are quite different in form (print book vs ebook) they essentially perform the same function and, in that sense, they can be considered to be the same.

This is a necessary, but at the same time short-term focussed, argument. It looks at what we have now (and have had for as long as any of us can remember in terms of books), the text-based, and seeks a way to preserve that information storage and dissemination concept into the future.1

But what if it’s already too late to preserve that model? What if trying to make the purely print-based work in a digital world is as limited in scope as trying to do radio on TV? I’m not suggesting that we abandon text, or that books as we know them will disappear tomorrow, just that we might do well to acknowledge that something new is emerging that might shake up the literary world in as powerful a way as the novel did in the eighteenth century and onwards.

Bob Stein, founder and co-director of the institute for the Future of the Book in New York, takes the idea of the book way beyond both the page and text. He believes that a book ‘fundamentally is a vehicle for moving ideas around time and space’. As such he sees movies, photos, paintings and songs and ‘anything that has encoded ideas in it that can be distributed’ as books. Radical? Perhaps, but is it the ideas he expresses or his use of the word ‘book’ to refer to such non-bookish things that rankles? Do we need a new terminology?

Stein builds on this concept, speaking of a book not as a thing but as a place (an idea he develops in an article entitled: a clean well-lighted place for books) where, ‘any number of people can jump into the vehicle and have a conversation about the contents, so the book becomes a mechanism for people to talk about the ideas’. In a digital world he sees the book, or at least the novel, becoming more like a multi-player video game, with readers interacting in and around the book. This is an idea which at first might seem too sci fi, too far away in the future to be of any real import now. But is it? Two recent newspaper articles might suggest otherwise.

By now we’ve all surely heard of Pottermore, J K Rowling’s ebook distribution platform and online Potter playground. Nobody knows exactly what Pottermore will be, but it seems that fans will be able, through the site, to somehow enter a virtual world representation of the Potter books in which they can play, interact and perhaps create their own narratives, as well as buy ebooks. A quote from Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor of media and mass communication at Queen’s University in Canada, in a recent piece in The Vancouver Sun describes the thinking behind Pottermore: ‘this isn’t about simply transporting book clubs online. It’s about transporting the entire world within the book and everything that comes with it.’ It’s about making the book a place. It’s about the ‘game-ification’ of the novel.

Before you eat me alive, let me say that this kind of experience probably won’t replace the traditional novel format for me, but then I’m an old fart. It might, however, herald the arrival of a new kind of storytelling. It might even become so huge with younger generations that by the time they reach my age (46) such platforms will have marginalised the novel as completely as the novel did poetry.

Another piece published in The Age hints at this game-ification not being a one-way street. As much as novels are becoming game-like, games are becoming novel-like too.

In an effort to combat flagging sales caused by players becoming bored with traditional shoot ‘em ups, game companies have begun to develop the idea of game as place. In Star Wars: the Old Republic, for example, players enter a universe in which, by themselves and through interaction with other players and elements within the game, they make decisions about narrative and character development. Such games are becoming incredibly complex arenas within which players increasingly create their own stories.

In another game changing shift, (pardon the pun), the game Mass Effect 3 (to be released March 2012) promises hetero and same sex in-game romance. Really? Romance in a game? Now we’re all listening, even if only pruriently so.

In a quote which echoes Stein, Ken Levine of Irrational games says: ‘Photographs tell stories. Movies tell stories. Songs tell stories. Games tell stories.’ The goalposts are moving. Storytelling itself seems to be on the move, or perhaps it’s breaking shackles imposed by print which nailed it to the page and to text?

What does all this mean for the current print vs e debate? Perhaps not much at this stage, but if Pottermore works then what’s the bet that there’ll be a JaneAustenmoreTM, a StephenKingmoreTM, or a DanBrownmoreTM sometime soon after.2

Perhaps we should all take heed of Bob Stein’s advice for present day novellists: ‘go work for a game company.’ Nuff said.

  1. I hope that by using terms such as ‘information storage and dissemination concept’ I’m not disappearing up the arsehole of my own vocabulary as our former PM Kevin Rudd did with phrases such as ‘programmatic specificity’, I just want to, in this instance, remove the romance from the discussion and focus on the mechanics of what books are and what they do. Incidentally, I love a print book as much as the next book nerd.
  2. All terms trademarked by John Weldon. I need the money!

John Weldon

John Weldon has worked as a freelance writer since the mid 90s. His work has been published by the Age, the ABC and the Western Times among other organisations. He currently lectures in Professional and Creative Writing at Victoria University. His first novel, Spincycle, will be published later this year by Vulgar Press.

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  1. Not to mention the prose-verse genre crossover initiative released by the estate of Edgar Allen Poe, ‘Nevermoremore.’

  2. A book is a self-contained text or entity, (a novel or piece of non-fiction) which can be contained in a number of different vessels or vehicles. Some of these are hardbacks, paperbacks, eBooks of several format, audio books etc. Spin-offs can be games, movies and stage- and radio-plays.

    All have their possibilities, roles, functions and uses, and some take the limelight for periods during the text’s life. It is possible for the movie to be more popular for a while, and then the novel (in any form) and then the game, for example.

    Yes, some games are novelesque. If one looks at Assassin’s Creed, one could become fascinated by the game’s similarity to a movie, and the shift to novel is not inconceivable. And that’s just one example.

    Irrespective of its container, the novel will live on if only for its social and historic significance. It continues, even as it did with Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Du Maurier, Waugh and Eco to give us commentary and concept, from Larsson to Brown and yes, even Rowling.

    If one were to compare the novel to the song, one would see that the mode of presentation, the container, or the system of conveyance is much less important than the content.

    Still, one would miss the paperback if it had to disappear entirely. This is not likely to happen – only control of its production is shifting.

    It’s WHO is making the books that is likely to arouse a lively conversation, rather than WHETHER ‘the book’ will endure. It will, and in enormous numbers, but the source of its creation and circulation will change. And we all know why. Or do we?

  3. Thought provoking, John, thank you and good luck with all that lucre rolling in from the trademarks.

    “It’s about the ‘game-ification’ of the novel.”

    Oh my. You can outsource that now, huh. I’ll keep that in mind for when my own imagination wears out.

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