Monday, 6 September 2010

The new lit three: joining the dots

The past bits of this series have looked at various small projects that have hinted at the directions that literature could go in, using either new methods of delivery or collaboration. The next question is what will happen when people start throwing cash at these changes, trying to combine them into grand projects that present new forms of storytelling. And wouldn’t you know it, people are already trying it.

Here I’m concentrating on two projects and comparing their approaches. One is the centralised, corporate advertising exercise, The Conspiracy for Good, and the other is the slightly mysterious historical fiction conglomerate, The Mongoliad. These are of course very different, but they both involve using social media and the internet to draw an audience into a large-scale work of fiction.

The Mongoliad is currently in beta testing, only opened its website in the past few weeks, and will probably be kicking off properly near the end of the year. Details are still slightly sparse, but it seems to be an attempt, involving authors Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear, plus a horde of other writers, programmers and assorted assistants, to create a shared universe based on the year 1241, when the Mongol armies were poised to cause trouble in Europe. As far as I can tell, it will begin with a serialised novel and then expand into what they aren’t ashamed of calling ‘para-narrative’. They claim this will involve storytelling methods that are ‘pleasingly unique’. Once this official text has laid the groundwork for a setting, the plan is to open the world up to the community of readers/consumers, who will generate content alongside the official staff. It sounds a bit like a cross between a novel and wikipedia, and with Neal Stephenson at the helm I’m certainly intrigued.

The Conspiracy for Good might be sponsored by Nokia, and might appear to have a pretty standard good/evil plot construction, but as a concept it has enormous promise. It’s the brainchild of Tim Kring, who created Heroes, and it’s described as an alternative reality game. It began with a series of viral videos setting up the good and evil organisations in the story, and did manage to cause a bit of ‘this is clearly a hoax’ fuss, which is generally a good sign, despite the mobile phone company logos all over the place. It seems to be a straightforward story that is played out through internet media and live performances, where the narrative is pushed forward by the actions of readers/viewers/whatevers. People involved have to solve clues on websites (there appears to have been some pretend-hacking stuff involving The Pirate Bay, which is impressive grey-market penetration for a corporate affair) and attend events to trigger new segments of story.

So these are pretty different projects, both with quite serious chunks of cash and technology behind them. I think the Mongoliad sounds far more interesting as a piece of writing, but The Conspiracy For Good sounds better as a concept. I like its ideas about audience-involvement, where rather than being a platform for fan-fiction it is asking people to treat its world as real. Soaps and other successful, long-running creations often succeed because they lead to fans having conversations as if characters were real people. Having fans as agents in the story could create another layer of immersion, assuming people can be persuaded to overcome the irony instinct.

However, although I like this principle, I’m less keen on the actual art. It seems a bit bland and basic, and the celebrity cameos seem more like naff marketing than ways of combining the story with reality. Also, as a word child, I’m faintly irritated by how much of it is told through videos. I like the ways they’re concealed and released, but I much prefer text for this kind of thing. Clips are supposed to be accessible, but they tie you in and force you to watch them on their own terms, in a situation where you have a computer with speakers or headphones. Text can be browsed and skimmed much more easily, as well as put together more cheaply, making the medium more accessible. Just look at the massive irritation that the BBC news website has turned into now that it's replaced half of its proper news content with videos. No longer can you click on a headline and flick through to pick up the facts: you have to turn up the volume and sit through a local news anchor somewhere sauntering through a script.

The Mongoliad, on the other hand, is tempting. I suspect its delivery will turn out to be less revolutionary than it claims, but even if it’s just a serialised novel with some high-tech bits and pieces tacked on, it might be worth a look simply for the canonical chunks of text. It’s possible that the collaborative writing might be almost as interesting, thanks to some rating and officiating techniques they have apparently created, but I’m not sure. The big problem with writing in a mass medium like the internet is sorting the good from the bad - finding the diamonds in the rough. If the communal elements of The Mongoliad are going to work, it needs to find a way of doing this, and so of making readers care as much about stories written by anonymous users as they do about chapters written by Neal Stephenson.

My real point is not whether one or both of these will succeed or fail, but that their existence is interesting, and points to the sort of things that might happen in the future. One area that could go either way is increased corporate involvement. The generation of these large interactive tales could require the kind of money that will need corporate sponsorship and support, and so turn authors into content-creators for evil global mega-corporations. On the other hand, there might be a growth of grass-roots writing in the collaborative vein of things like The Mongoliad, gradually lessening the monetary aspects of literature and making it into a public resource. Obviously the most likely route is that we’ll carry on being somewhere in between these extremes, but hey, imagining dystopian futures is one of the best things about writing...

Anyway, that’s the end of this little series. It’s been interesting to write about and research (where ‘research’ equals scrabbling about on Google. It’s the modern way), but it’ll be more interesting to live through. Electrobooks and associated devices are currently still a bit rubbish, a bit niche and a bit basic, but something will change. In her kind reply to an e-mail I sent, Kate Pullinger said ‘writers need to be thinking beyond the printed page - most ebooks are still, essentially, the printed page on screen, nothing more’. The novel has plenty more years in it, but I think it will soon find excitable offspring rushing around its feet, and those children of fiction could grow up to be just as exciting as the parent.

But no, I won't be buying an e-book reader just yet...

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