James Bridle, over at Booktwo.org, has written a thought-provoking piece on ‘the new value of text’ as he sees it, in a time when he feels there is ‘an increasingly pervasive’ (albeit erroneous) ‘notion that other forms of media are additive to literature, that they somehow improve it’. He discusses the current industry moves toward ‘enhanced ebooks’, books-as-apps, etc as part of ‘a profound assault on book publishing and literature, on the text itself.’ The addition of other media to text ‘reduce the bandwidth of the imagination.’
He’s not talking about ebooks, which do the job of getting text onto ereaders fairly smoothly. He is talking about literature, with a capital ‘L’ - Literature - and how it is possible that literature is under threat in an era where publishers become spell-bound by the potential for bells, whistles, and animated audio clips to add ‘value’ to works that a decade ago would have been published as plain old ‘books’.
It’s a fascinating post, with a few wobbly bits in it, (like where he asserts that text is ‘not platform-dependent’ - it was last time I looked at my collection of medieval scrolls), but the bit that struck me most forcefully was where he writes this:
‘“Storytelling” is what we do for children. It is the infantilisation of literature. And while there is much of interest in children’s literature and children’s publishing, to emulate it is to debase literature, and ourselves.’
In the past few years while I’ve been attempting to talk to people about what I see as the vast potential new technologies have to offer to both writers and readers who are interested in thinking about finding new ways to tell stories, I’ve often found myself referring to myself as a ‘storyteller’. And this never fails to make me feel uneasy. I’m not a storyteller, if what a storyteller means is someone who is really good at telling stories in any sense of our oral tradition. In my own life, I don’t tell stories, I’m not an adept raconteur. What I am is a writer, someone who sits alone most of the time, working on text, crafting text, shaping text, and, hopefully, creating literature. So I agree with James on this.
However, I wonder if the term ‘literature’ can be stretched away from the ‘long form prose narrative’ that James is so attached to, that I am also attached to as a writer and a reader. I consider my own attempts at experimenting with the new technologies to tell stories ‘literature’, in the same way that the books I write are attempts at creating ‘literature’. But ‘Inanimate Alice’ and ‘Flight Paths’, among other works, are not literature-as-we-know-it. But they are also not stories with media as additive; they are stories with rich media at their heart. They are more than the sum of their parts - or at least, that’s what I aspire for these works to be.
One other quibble with James’ excellent blog post. He states: ‘no application or television programme is equal to a well-written, long form text.’ Well, I just read ‘One Day’ which many people would argue qualifies as a well-written, long form text. I enjoyed it, and like everyone else, found it hard to put down. However, I’d argue that ‘The Sopranos’ and, oh, let’s say, quite possibly ‘Nurse Jackie’, are equal to it in terms of cultural significance and quality. But that’s where our arguments about what is art, and what isn’t art, sink into the swamp. So I’ll end there.