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.