Craig Mod is psyched about the future of literary storytelling. “With digital media,” he writes in “The Digital Death of the Author,” an article that’s part of New Scientist’s “Storytelling 2.0” series, “the once sacred nature of text is sacred no longer. Instead, we can change it continuously and in real time.” E-storytelling is to storytelling, he says, as Wikipedia is to a printed encyclopedia. And that’s a good thing:
The biggest change is not in the form stories take but in the writing process. Digital media changes books by changing the nature of authorship. Stories no longer have to arrive fully actualised … [Ultimately,] authorship becomes a collaboration between writers and readers. Readers can edit and update stories, either passively in comments on blogs or actively via wiki-style interfaces.
Sound familiar? It should. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when personal computers were new and their screens appeared to literary theorists as virgin canvases, there was enormous excitement over the possibilities for digital media to revolutionize storytelling. The enthusiasm back then centered on hypertext and multimedia, rather than on Internet collaboration tools, but the idea was the same, as was the “death of the author” rhetoric. By “freeing” text from the page, digital media would blur the line between reader and writer, spurring a profusion of new, interactive forms of literary expression and storytelling. As George Landow and Paul Delany wrote in their introduction to the influential 1991 compendium Hypermedia and Literary Studies, “So long as the text was married to a physical media, readers and writers took for granted three crucial attributes: that the text was linear, bounded, and fixed.” The computer would break this static structure, allowing text to become more like “a network, a tree diagram, a nest of Chinese boxes, or a web.” That in turn would shift “the boundaries between individual works as well as those between author and reader,” overthrowing “certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text.”
Then, as now, the celebration of the idea of interactive writing was founded more on a popular ideology of cultural emancipation than on a critical assessment of artistic expression. It reflected a yearning for a radical sort of cultural democratization, which required that “the author” be pulled down from his pedestal and revealed to be a historical accident, a now dispensable byproduct of the technology of the printing press, which had served to fix type, and hence stories, on the page. The author was the father who had to be slain before culture could be liberated from its elitist, patriarchal shackles.
The ability to write communally and interactively with computers is nothing new, in other words. Digital tools for collaborative writing date back twenty or thirty years. And yet interactive storytelling has never taken off. The hypertext novel in particular turned out to be a total flop. When we read stories, we still read ones written by authors. The reason for the failure of interactive storytelling has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with stories. Interactive storytelling hasn’t become popular – and will never become popular – because it produces crappy stories that no one wants to read. That’s not just a result of the writing-by-committee problem (I would have liked to have a link here to the gruesome product of Penguin Books’ 2007 wiki-novel experiment, but, mercifully, it’s been removed from the web). The act of reading a story, it turns out, is very different from, and ultimately incompatible with, the act of writing a story. The state of the story-reader is not a state of passivity, as is often, and sillily, suggested, but it is a state of repose. To enter a story, to achieve the kind of immersion that produces enjoyment and emotional engagement, a reader has to give up not only control but the desire to impose control. Readership and authorship are different, if mutually necessary, states: yin and yang. As soon as the reader begins to fiddle with the narrative – to take an authorial role – the spell of the story is broken. The story ceases to be a story and becomes a contraption.
What we actually value most about stories, as readers, is what Mod terms, disparagingly, “full actualization” – the meticulous crafting of an intriguing plot, believable characters and dialogue, and settings and actions that feel true (even if they’re fantastical), all stitched together seamlessly with felicitous prose. More than a single author may be involved in this act of artistic creation – a good editor or other collaborator may make crucial contributions, for instance – but it must come to the reader as a harmonious whole (even if it comes in installments).
I agree with Mod that the shift of books from pages to screens will change the way we read books and hence, in time, the way writers write them, but I think his assessment of how those changes will play out is wrongheaded. (See also Alan Jacobs’s take, which questions another of Mod’s assumptions.) A usable encyclopedia article can, as Wikipedia has shown us, be constructed, “continuously and in real time,” by a dispersed group of writers and editors with various talents. But it’s a fallacy to believe that what works for an encyclopedia will also work for a novel or a tale. We read and evaluate encyclopedia articles in a completely different way from how we read and evaluate stories. An encyclopedia article can be “good enough”; a story has to be good.