WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Where’s the game-changing technology for the way we make fiction?

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Really enjoying David Byrne’s book, How Music Works — something of a compendium of his thoughts on everything from sound physics to the business of making and selling music. In one early section, he goes into the history of innovation in sound recording, starting with the Edison cylinder and going all the way through the digital revolution, reflecting on how each step changed something fundamental about the way we conceive, record, and listen to music.

This leads me to an obvious comparison with fiction writing, in that there is no comparison whatsoever.

Fascinating that, aside from the mechanical means of getting words onto the page, there has been no innovation in literature that changes the way it is made and understood.

For instance, Byrne thinks that the development of sound recording in and of itself changed the way music was written and performed. Vibrato in the playing of stringed instruments like the violin became more predominant because it hid mistakes that a wax cylinder or early disc only exaggerated. Composers began to think about the length of a record side (78s at first) when structuring pieces: four movements fit two records or four sides. And when the LP came along, albums could become more thematic, long-form storytelling rather than a collection of ten independent songs.

In fiction, or any sort of published writing really, technical innovations have only made it easier to do the writing — they haven’t changed the writing itself. I can remember several times in the past fifteen years or so when speculative wonderers looked forward to the day that the ebook would make possible novels with any number of narrative paths, since the reader would be able to jump from one part to another or construct different endings simply by the path she chose. It hasn’t happened in any game-changing way that I’ve heard of. Now and then you might hear of a novel that tries, but nothing seems to come of it.

In fact, the book I’m aware of that comes closest is on paper and sold in a box: The Unfortunates by English novelist B. S. Johnson. Its several separate parts can be read in any order you like, as long as you read the beginning and end in their assigned spots. It’s a wonderful experience, and you’d have thought it might be emulated in ebooks by now.

Writing appears to be on a much longer evolutionary arc, so that only innovations in form, style, and intellectual approach change the way we read. These take time. They aren’t much affected by developments in computer technology or delivery systems. An ebook is still the same text as its printed counterpart, an audiobook just a different way of taking in that text as well.

On the other hand, maybe we’ve reached a point where the psychology of reading has changed, and writers have to adapt to it or lose their markets entirely. Readers have less time to read, shorter attention spans (thanks to demands on them from the outside), a preference for visual or multimedia presentations, and most of all a dizzying number of options for how to spend their free time.

I’m not sure there’s anything on the horizon innovation-wise that will make it any easier for fiction writers to evolve along with the people we’re writing for. Music keeps adapting, for better or worse, while writers pound out beginning, middle, and end ad nauseam.

Do you know of any innovations that might be game-changers?

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10 comments on “Where’s the game-changing technology for the way we make fiction?

  1. sknicholls
    April 30, 2014

    It seems the way fiction reads has changed to me. popular genres write in choppy short sentences. Sometimes, they are one word or incomplete sentences. It changes how I read and think as I read. I can’t say that I like it though. It seems a violation of everything I was taught about literature. There is also less focus on intellectual reflection and more focus on showing action.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 30, 2014

      True, but that’s the kind of change that’s always taking place. I wonder more about some kind of technology that will cause writing and reading to evolve somehow…

      • sknicholls
        April 30, 2014

        I think computers have done that. Self publishing is also.

  2. John W. Howell
    April 30, 2014

    I am constantly amazed at how slowly innovation comes in certain areas. I think people who actually read are becoming fewer and fewer due to innovations in entertainment and social media. The true readers will always enjoy a well written story. The rest not so much.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 30, 2014

      You’re right about entertainment and media. Both are siphoning off readers of books into the realm of short videos, games, and music. But yes, I think there will always be committed readers, at least for the rest of our lifetimes.

  3. ericjbaker
    April 30, 2014

    Your blog is depressing! But I cover up my feelings with 🙂

    I’ll never make a dime as a fiction writer, will I?

    You can lie to me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 30, 2014

      If you’re lucky, yes, you will make ten cents. You’ll have spent about two grand to do it.

      • ericjbaker
        April 30, 2014

        Sounds like my music career. About $5K in gear, time spent promoting, burning gas all over NJ and PA for anywhere between $0 and $75 a show.

      • Kevin Brennan
        April 30, 2014

        And that’s $0 divided among the band members too!

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This entry was posted on April 30, 2014 by in Writing and tagged , , , , .
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