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The Future of Narrative

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by Joseph J. Esposito, President, Processed Media

Joseph Esposito

Have you seen “Why You Need an App to Understand My Novel,” the fascinating column in the Guardian by the novelist Iain Pears? Readers familiar with Pears’s earlier work (An Instance of the Fingerpost, Scipio’s Dream, and also the Jonathan Argyll art history mysteries) have come to expect a degree of experimentation with how stories are put together.

His latest novel, Arcadia, with its 10 different narrative strands, pushes experimentation further—so far, in fact, that Pears came up against the limitations of the printed page. As he puts it in his column:

“I undertook the project because I had reached the limit of my storytelling in book form and needed some new tools to get me to the next stage. I have always written novels that are complex structurally; in An Instance of the Fingerpost, published many years ago now, I told the same story four times from different points of view; THE DREAM OF SCIPIO was three stories interleaved; while STONE’S FALL was three stories told backwards. All worked, but all placed quite heavy demands on the readers’ patience by requiring them to remember details often inserted hundreds of pages before, or to jump centuries at a time at regular intervals. Not surprisingly, whatever structure I chose there were some who did not like it.

Pears goes on to offer a forceful critique of the current state of electronic publishing: “Ebooks are now quite venerable in computing terms, but it is striking how small an impact they have had on narrative structure; for the most part, they are still just ordinary books in a cheap format.”

Before we strut about our adventures in digital media, let’s reflect on that last phrase: “just ordinary books in a cheap format.” O brave new world, which is like the old world, except that you can get it off-price at Walmart.

Where the Inroads End

Pears’s comments prodded me to reflect on just how little revolution there is in the digital revolution. As The Who said, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.” Even in the heavily digital world of STM journals, the PDF is still the coin of the realm. Where innovation has taken hold is not so much within the primary content type but surrounding it: altmetrics, new search and discovery tools, and data analytics.

What is striking is not how extensive digital inroads are but how they stop at the wilderness of print. So, for example, the college textbook market, which seems a natural for electronic textbooks, now records about 3 percent of its unit sales as e-books. (College publishers misleadingly report higher figures because they claim a digital sale for anything with a digital component. So a student pays $200 for a print textbook and then goes online for supplemental material. The publishers put that $200 into the digital column.)

Trade publishers’ sales are running around 25 to 30 percent for e-books, a big number but not a revolution. And that percentage varies widely by category. Linear fiction (especially young adult novels and adult commercial novels) is more heavily skewed to e-books, but other categories, particularly books that are not straight narrative text, are less likely to be sold in electronic form. University presses, with their complex page makeups—not to mention the predilection of their owners to write in the margins—record about 15 percent of their sales as e-books, a figure that is rising.

What Pears’s comments make us see is that there is no reason to publish in digital form unless that form does something that print cannot. The stringing together of multiple narratives, as in Pears’s own work, challenges the limitations of the printed page.

This point is not original to Pears; I think in particular of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and John Barth’s Chimera as early experiments in testing the limits of the printed page. (Barth himself calls attention to the nested narratives of Tales of the Arabian Nights.)

It is not the originality of Pears’s comments that is relevant here, but their timeliness. Digital technology is now ready to make these “experimental” narratives possible. (Disclosure: I am an advisor to Lithomobilus, an early-stage company that is building and marketing a software platform to enable the kind of multiple narratives Pears describes.)

What’s interesting to me about Pears’s situation is that he started with an idea and then set out to develop the tools to manifest that idea. It’s clear from his article that he was not particularly adept with digital technology and found the process of developing an app to be frustrating.

I tend to think that innovation usually flows in the opposite direction: a new tool appears on the scene and people then learn how it can be used (that is, capability precedes innovation).

Sometimes those tools are put to unambiguously positive ends; think, for example, of using the close analysis of metadata to enhance online discovery. Sometimes the tools surprise everyone with what they make possible. Think of the digital CD in the music industry. Introduced to improve audio quality and lower costs in manufacturing and distribution, the CD made Napster possible because of its digital nature. Had anyone in the music business seen that coming, we would still by purchasing LPs.

The App’s Applicability

The experiments of a literary writer may not seem particularly relevant in other publishing segments. But I think they are, as a look at a very different segment suggests. Those of us involved in STM publishing today assume that we all know what an article should look like and that the only meaningful questions are those about the quality of the content and the ability to find relevant pieces (and cite them and so forth). We are changing how we measure the value of articles (altmetrics) and how we find things (new discovery tools such as Google Scholar), but how has the article itself changed?

The article is as much a literary form as a sonnet or an epic poem; the forms enable some things and prove unwieldy for others. I suspect that the multiple narratives of Pears’s fiction will someday find an analogue in expository writing that enables intersections of one theme or thread with another, which would provide, as it were, a new form of discovery.

In the meantime we should give Pears’s latest a chance—and then ponder its implications beyond the world of fiction. You can download the app at apple.co/1EUT6Ud.

Joseph J. Esposito is president of Processed Media, an independent management consultancy providing strategic advice, operating analysis, and interim management in the area of digital media to publishing and software companies in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. He writes extensively on digital media.

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