A couple of months back, I wrote a piece looking at a number of “interactive” narratives, including Ian Pears’s Arcadia, that were intended to try to evolve literature into something new and digital. Now The Economist has an article looking at Arcadia in its 600-page hardcover print edition and the interactive multi-threaded app. The app features three intertwining narratives and allows readers to experience them in whichever order they like.
There’s not a lot of new information in the Economist piece that wasn’t in the earlier articles I covered. It does round up a batch of other interactive fiction projects and games and discuss them briefly, and suggests that “this is the real future of electronic literature.”
“Arcadia” is all the more noteworthy for the fact that large publishers have largely given up experimenting in this realm. Most have turned away from costly innovations that have not paid off, like enhanced e-books, focusing instead on using digital tools to support the broader reading ecosystem. The Kindle, for its part, has stopped evolving, as the book theorist Craig Mod recently glumly noted. The market for e-readers is so saturated that Waterstones no longer stocks the devices. Publishers prefer to explore new ways to marry print and digital. Melville House has a line of “illuminated” novels with QR codes that lead to extra digital content; Picador published “The Kills” in 2013, a “digital-first” thriller that links to online films from characters’ points of view. FSG’s “The Silent History“, a multi-author 2012 serial story in an app, is marketed now as a print novel. Random House, meanwhile, offers a straightforward series of classic stories for mobile phones called “Storycuts“.
Sometimes it seems as though every where I look, I see authors and publishers complaining that the current state of e-book devices “has stopped evolving,” or words to that effect. They compare it to the early days of movie-making, when people just filmed plays instead of using editing to create narratives. They clamor for some new form of books to move e-books into the twenty-first century.
But do you know who I don’t see clamoring for futuristic interactive digital narratives? Readers. You know, the people who should ideally, theoretically, be buying and consuming whatever the new form of this medium turns out to be? It seems as though readers are perfectly happy with their archaic, staid collections of stationary words on pages, whether those words are ink on paper or liquid crystal under glass. At least, that’s the form of literature that Amazon and other bookstores sell, and they don’t seem to be in any danger of going out of business.
But at least some publishers are in danger of going out of business. So they’re trying all these new things, even augmented reality, in a fit of “if you build it, they will come” enthusiasm. After all, doing something is better than doing nothing, even it’s the wrong thing. It even seems to have affected some of the wrangling around the new EPUB 3 format.
Five and a half years ago, I wrote:
As far as I know, there are not any book-like needs out there that the present form factor does not fulfill. Nobody that I know of looks up from a gripping book, shakes his head sorrowfully, and sighs, “If only this book had a movie embedded in it.”
And it’s still true. Interactive books might be interesting curiosities, but they’re not what readers want. At least, if they do want such things, I’ve never heard about it. And all the writers and publishers in the world talking about how great interactive literature is won’t mean a thing if they can’t convince readers that it’s something they need, too.
Credit for Pearson photo: Here.