Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
For people who make a living, or at least have the talent for, creating worlds from nothing but the contents of their heads, fiction writers today are taking the easy route. Writers are often lauded for their fresh characters, situations, settings, and great dialogue, but while these have always been the mainstay of new fiction, they don’t usually bring about a paradigm shift.
Where will the next paradigm come from? How will it emerge in the context of a paralyzed industry and a self-publishing wave focused on genre writing?
Let’s brainstorm. The first thing I start thinking about in terms of something new is how to mash up two or more elements/approaches/media. It’s not unreasonable now to think in terms of multimedia treatment of fiction, as a matter of fact, and there have been some attempts at ebooks with a variety of graphics, music clips, videos, and interactivity that make for an entirely new experience. Like I mentioned earlier, the ebook allows for plenty of options, yet one huge drawback is the expense of adding these materials to a “book.” The concept quickly becomes a production rather than a manuscript, so that the writer will need an art director, a designer, a music coordinator, a rights manager, and, probably, actors to put together a product that doesn’t feel shabby. That means a big budget. That means fundraising, Kickstarter campaigns, pounding the pavement for contributors, investing as much in the infrastructure of the thing as in its creation.
Yet, there could be something less elaborate instead, which might use images and other kinds of graphics that are not so hard to produce. Our culture is becoming more visual by the day, it seems, so that attracting a new audience to this kind of reading wouldn’t be difficult.
But there are other kinds of mash-ups that are possible, and perhaps we’re already seeing some of that in literary fiction. More and more novels incorporate snippets of emails, texts, and other kinds of “source” documents that writers use to move the plot rather than the traditional scene. The journal has been a long-time tool for novelists, allowing the insertion of first-person segments within a third-person narrative (see Town Father, for example), but use of emails lets us see how a character is presenting herself to a particular person, to compare her approaches to different people, and to read between the lines of her emails in contrast to her dialogue. Characters can become more multidimensional this way.
There’s already been at least one novel written in nothing but email exchanges (The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot, Avon Books) — an epistolary novel for modern times. Tweets, text messages, Facebook entries, and other electronic footprints are popping up a lot in fiction as technologies evolve.
Rachel Cusk’s Outline shows, too, that autobiography is fast becoming the fuel of modern fiction as the writer’s persona is actually the thing being sold, possibly more than the books themselves. There will probably soon be ebooks in which the writer features selfies, short videos, sound clips, photographs of settings — any variety of elements that would help support the text — giving the reader what feels like a one-on-one glimpse into the writer’s life. Of course, the art of fiction is to take autobiography and smear it with the paint of creativity, so that what seems like autobiography is really a well-designed, only half-true narrative. The multi-media approach makes it seem more real, even though it’s mainly fabricated.
Like many writers, I often collect photographs and songs that relate to my work-in-progress. Why not plunk some of these into the electronic text, where, especially if the author took the picture, enhancing the reader’s experience need not cost very much. Songs are another matter, obviously, since reproduction rights are horrendously expensive. They do help to plunge the writer into the time and place of a book though, like my own developing project set in the summer of ‘73. My ongoing playlist includes Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, The Moody Blues, Wings, and a Hoagy Carmichael flashback to 1946, “Ol’ Buttermilk Sky.”
Ambient sounds from the world of the book — say a street scene — could also be recorded by the writer and used like the soundtrack of a Ken Burns documentary, for instance, providing a subtle foundation for the scene. Snippets of speech, maybe voices that seem to be having the conversation the reader is seeing dialogue, would make the moment seem authentic in a way that plain text can’t.
In a way, this kind of approach would be a throwback to the old CD-ROMs of the ‘90s. They seemed like a nice idea at the time, but the technology wasn’t developed enough to make them a seamless or convenient experience. Producers didn’t appear to consider them a good medium for fiction either. Instead, they came to be seen as a way to deliver niche material to enthusiasts of whatever stripe: home-brewers, movie buffs, comic book collectors, vintage TV fans. But the idea of images and other media used in concert with text is certainly still a viable way to extend the appeal of fiction. Creativity allows for experimentation, though it will probably happen first in the indie world rather than in traditional publishing.
A backlash to the ebook is also possible, causing a resurgence of limited-edition texts that are as much art objects as books. I can remember the impression made by the Griffin & Sabine series twenty years ago — compelling narratives but also remarkable conversation pieces. Each volume had a fascinating array of hidden artifacts: letters tucked into envelopes, real stamps, postcards, all seemingly handwritten by the characters. There’s no doubt that something like that would be prohibitively expensive today for an indie writer, and might be seen as nothing but a novelty. But the idea is to find ways to make the world inhabited by the characters overlap with the one we live in. The reader gets an immersive experience, a place to poke around in instead of being strictly led through by the usual rules of narrative.
© 2016 by Kevin Brennan