Digital Narratives. And the Narrative of Romance Readers as Early E-Adopters.

I’ve just come home from a panel at my university on the topic of digital narratives. I thought I would share a bit of it.

The first speaker, a New Media professor, listed five areas of change: new forms of authorship, new relations between author and readers, new methods of publication, new forms of interaction, and new forms of communication and thinking.

She shared different kinds of digital narratives with the audience. Most of the links (as well as the rest of the talk) are collected here. One narrative, Ruben and Lullaby, is an app that is a sort of game where shaking or stroking the screen makes the trajectory of the relationship change. Here is a short video of someone playing it. Another one that looks really interesting is Trauma, a game in which a young woman wakes up in hospital having survived a car crash that killed both her parents. The player acts as a psychologist, and explores four dreams built from photographs mixed with strange, unreal seeming images.


One I thought was pretty cool is Rory’s Story Cubes. The main product is a set of 9 cubes with 54 images kids can roll to make stories. But there is also an app that does the same thing when you shake your iPod.

The next speaker was Catherynne Valente, a fantasy author who recently relocated to Maine. She pointed out how quickly things are changing, noting the growth in ebooks. She namechecked romance readers as early adopters, but then added that this is because romance novels are “disposable”, the 25 cent Harlequins. I took some umbrage to the term “disposable”. I later asked her what she meant, and she clarified that Harlequins are cheap, short and numerous, facts which I could not dispute. However, I pointed out that romance readers are also avid readers, and maybe should get some credit for being tech savvy and having disposable income. And she agreed, saying that she thinks it’s women who are driving a lot of the technological advances in publishing.

My own feeling about the disposability issue is that it’s complex. Most romance readers I know make fine distinctions between books, and the advent of digital books has only made this more apparent. There are some books we buy in e only, some in multiple formats, some only in hard cover. If Twitter is any indication readers — at least when they are not making impulsive one-click purchases — bring a complex calculus to not only what format they will buy, but whether and how they will store and display it.

As far as the narrative of romance readers as early adopters, I hope someone does an oral history of those early adopters before it is too late. I would like to hear from them why they took to e and what they sought in doing so. I think the story is complex and the motives are overdetermined.

But one of the reasons, and I pointed this out in the Q&A, is that romance readers were seeking less traditional narratives (here I am thinking of erotic romance like m/m, f/f, BDSM, etc., but it goes beyond erotic romance, I suspect). If I heard her correctly (and I may not have), Valente asserted that either the narrative or the technology can be complex, but not both, and that their predictability is part of the reason traditional romance narratives in a new format were embraced by readers.

One example of the huge changes in author web presence and publishing is her own experience of starting a blog as a kind of diary in 2000, on a site called Dairyland, which was part of a … wait for it … webring. She had about 200 readers which was considered vast. Later, her LiveJournal account (another nearly defunct platform) had about 2000 readers. She noted that her blog helped her sell her first published book, published on a small press in 2004, but that the 600 copies it sold, which then seemed outstanding, might not seem like so many today. She also noted she has a 20 to 1 rule on her own blog: 1 promo post for every 20 real ones. As a reader, that is a ratio I can support.

However she also said, “I personally am tired of talking about ebooks. I didn’t get into this to talk about formats and filenames.” She then noted that although everybody knows Amanda Hocking sold millions of books, nobody can name a title, or say whether her books moved them. This actually described the type and amount of knowledge I have of Hocking, and I thought it was a pretty interesting point.

She talked a little bit about the Kings of the Internet (Gaiman, Doctorow, Scalzi etc.), and how they can make a book. She credits the success of her own self-published children’s book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in A Ship of Her Own Making, in part to getting a mention from one of those kings, and then being featured on StumbleUpon’s first page. She asked for donations from readers of the book, and ended up making quite a tidy sum, the same exact amount of her advance later from a New York publisher to publish it. She also noted that pleasing the big men on the internet is a double edged sword, referencing the critique of HBO’s Game of Thrones published on Tiger Beat Down (this one, I think), that resulted in death threats for the blogger.

The final point I wanted to share involves the concept of “singularity”, one with which I was not familiar before. She credited SFF writer Charles Stross with the concept of the singularity – a postulated future line in the sand beyond which you can’t effectively model your life. Often this is taken as the moment of true AI, the moment when the machine is no longer us but is itself. However, she said looking backwards, she thinks the internet is a singularity. She knows, cognitively, that she lived before the internet, but finds it hard to recreate that life experientially.

Anyway, a very interesting afternoon.

12 responses

  1. Although she didn’t articulate it, I suspect from the rest of her talk that part of the reasoning behind challenging technology vs challenging narrative has more to do the numbers of people rather than a particular psychological point of overload. If there is a small set of people willing to deal with challenging technology and a small set of people interested in challenging narratives, the union of those two sets is going to be vanishingly tiny. In order to have any degree of success the book has to limit itself to one or the other.

    I don’t think I’ll touch the “disposable” comment, other than that I suspect the intention was disposable stories more than disposable books and that the same could be said of other genre books as well, including the SF&F that I read so often. It’s one of the reasons the genre gutter exists: a lot of genre authors don’t have a lot of respect for the genres they write and treat them as plug-and-publish story templates. The good ones that don’t do that are often overpowered by the bad ones that do.

    Also, if you’re interested in the singularity concept you’ll get more mileage by looking up Vernor Vinge than Stross (his books are better, too). Though I know what she meant, I don’t agree that the Internet qualifies as a singularity-level technology…you have to think bigger for that. Much of the impact of the Internet could have been (and in fact was) accurately seen ahead of time in SF from Asimov to Star Trek.

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  2. It was a pretty interesting talk. I’m glad I went, and it was nice to have an actual conversation with you!

    I thought the Amanda Hocking point was really interesting as well. At this year’s BEA, some of us were talking about how we suddenly started hearing about Amanda Hocking selling tons of books – but none of us had ever heard of her before that or known anyone who had read or reviewed one of them since. I still haven’t seen any of her books reviewed or heard of anyone I know reading them.

    I was surprised to hear the singularity mentioned without mention of Vernor Vinge. If you are interested in reading them, we have some of his books you could borrow.

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  3. @John: Thanks for the alternative explanation of the “challenging technology/simple narrative” comments.

    Also, I agree with you about the internet not being big enough to be a singularity.

    @Kristen: That’s interesting that the Hocking point caries through with SFF bloggers. I wasn’t sure if her view was influenced by hanging out with writer types.

    And I will check out Vernor Vinge. Prior to this my only “singularity” reference was Star Trek.

    Great to see you both, and thanks for the books!

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  4. Tangent based on a parenthetical: was Valente’s assertion that LiveJournal is a defunct platform specific to its usage by published authors for communicating with readers? Or more general? I would agree that it’s no longer the author platform that it once was, but it remains a significant platform for other communities, particularly fandom. (Says the blogger who has moved her book-related posts to WordPress.)

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  5. I was about to mention Vernor Vinge, who actually coined the term singularity…but I’m glad others beat me to it! To make this comment more useful, here’s his 1993 paper. (I was on a panel once about the singularity and gender – pretty interesting!)

    @John It’s one of the reasons the genre gutter exists: a lot of genre authors don’t have a lot of respect for the genres they write and treat them as plug-and-publish story templates. The good ones that don’t do that are often overpowered by the bad ones that do.

    Also, I think it harms all genre writers when we try to put different genres into a hierarchy – it’s using the master’s tools!

    I might be getting off-topic here, but I always twitch when romances are described as “disposable.” I hate that term when applied to fiction of any kind.

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  6. It is interesting how romances are always disposable and predictable according to people who do not read them. When I would say that e-reading has opened up so many different opportunities for different stories for romance readers and that e-reading for many (obviously not all) people who read in e-format gives a sense of connection and community through the blogs and discussion boards and review sites that have arisen around the ebook format. It still feels like the discussion around ebooks suggests that they simply replace print books. I don’t think they do just that. I agree the internet is not a singularity but the internet changes the reading experience and what is happening when we read so I don’t think you can consider ebooks without considering the role of the interwebs and how they change us through points of connection such as ebooks.

    I also think the singularity is a very gendered notion having listened to all those male SF writers who want to give up their meat bodies and live in the cloud making little worlds to suit them. Personally I think we are becoming cyborgs without the machine bodies. We are evolving through our technology.

    Reading anything by Vernor Vinge is worthwhile.

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  7. @Merrian:

    It still feels like the discussion around ebooks suggests that they simply replace print books.

    I agree completely with this. I understand why people want to focus on the content, and get annoyed when we talk about the form, but — and maybe I have read too much philosophy of technology, or too much Derrida — but I don’t see how we can separate those two things.

    I also think the singularity is a very gendered notion having listened to all those male SF writers who want to give up their meat bodies and live in the cloud making little worlds to suit them.

    Oh that’s funny. But SF is a very male world itself, isn’t it?

    @Victoria Janssen: Well, since you opted to share that you were on a panel on singularity and gender, can you say whether you agree with Merrian that the singularity is a gendered concept?

    And thank you for the link!

    @jmc:

    was Valente’s assertion that LiveJournal is a defunct platform specific to its usage by published authors for communicating with readers? Or more general?

    To be fair, I think “defunct” was my word, and perhaps stronger than she meant it. But I do think she views Twitter, FB etc as better platforms for authors. Thanks for getting me to clarify.

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  8. I was thinking about romance readers and ebook take up and wonder if it is also becuase romance readers were online already? They were in the right place at the right time to try out and take up this new reading opportunity. This suggests that reading ebooks is an outcome of a way this community operates in particular.

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  9. Pingback: The Leaning Pile of Books | Fantasy Cafe

  10. I do know it was VV who coined the term–I mentioned Stross in the context of someone tied to the term who now wanted to escape it.

    I don’t believe that LJ is defunct, and I did bring up its massive Russian userbase. It’s smaller than it was, but it’s not over yet.

    @Jessica I think it’s easy to separate form and content /in this case/ because the content it identical in print and ebook. Ebooks are an economic and cultural conversation, but the vast majority of ebooks are print books readable on a Kindle. That’s all. We may see change in content in the future, but the content is the same across platforms at the moment.

    (Thanks for letting me butt in!)

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