The Novel is not under threat from technology
December 14th, 2010
When I bought an iPhone a year ago, my first novel, Martin Martin’s On The Other Side, had just been published by Jonathan Cape, and then it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. My life had suddenly turned ineffably sci-fi; the iPhone delivered the kind of high-tech future I had been promised by Arthur C Clarke and his exciting film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and here was Arthur himself was considering giving me an award (OK, so he died in March, 2008, but let’s not get hung up on dates and facts).
One of the first things I did with my palm-sized glossy black pebble of the future was to download loads of free books using the app Stanza. I read The Island of Dr Moreau on a flight to Japan. I started reading War And Peace. Again. Then I downloaded an app which was a book by a writer who hadn’t been published conventionally. On his website, he revealed he’d had 14,000 downloads in three months. My eyes nearly fell out. It was the final prod I needed. I was going to make an app. It’s what Arthur would have wanted.
My idea was to expand on a photography exhibition I’d put together in 2009 called Stills From The Unmade Film of a Half-Written Novel. The title says it all. I’d taken 20 short extracts of the novel I was writing, and still am writing, which is about time-travelling air conditioning salesmen trying to save the world in the 1960s, and made 20 images based on them as if they were production stills from a film. It was installed in Norwich Arts Centre for a month.
I knew I’d need a coder. Line after line of utterly baffling computer instructions that makes an iPhone do what you want it to? Witchcraft. I couldn’t even start thinking about an app without having someone on board to do all that for me. I was lucky that a friend happened to know Matthew C Applegate. He is a musician and an artist, recording as pixelh8. He’s worked with Imogen Heap and Damon Albarn and he lectures in advanced computer cleverness. He saw the exhibition online and the idea interested him.
We planned to get together over a plate of noodles in Wagamama (Positive Eating + Positive Living!). We hadn’t met before, he said people tell him he looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi out of Star Wars. I was expecting Sir Alec Guinness, I got Ewan McGregor, beard and all. We sketched out the app on the back of an envelope. I wanted the app’s homepage populated with TV screens; touch a screen and up pops more content. I wanted photography, narration, music, and I definitely wanted a vintage tape machine with turning spools that played music by the band, La Grupo, that appears in the novel. Matthew suggested that when the phone is tilted the screens could roll around like one-armed bandit reels. I agreed enthusiastically. He spent the next three months thinking about how to make that happen, and then put the whole thing together in a frantic week of 14-hour days.
While Matthew was thinking in code, I had to create the content. I used 19 of the 20 images from the photography exhibition, and I shot some more, mostly of the fictional band. The band and its music, its press coverage, its look, the myth surrounding it, became an important added dimension for the app. I think it’s my background in music journalism that’s responsible for this interest in the myths of rock. La Grupo’s music itself came from electronic music pioneer Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto. Jack lives in San Francisco, so I emailed him an extract from the novel which describes La Grupo’s music (improvised psychedelic rock with synthesiser at its core) and begged him to do something. Jack was interested in the collaborative nature of the project and got to work. I wanted to place guitar textures in the music, so I asked Balaclava Kid & Dad, a psyche rock duo from Norwich, to be involved. Not only did they work on some original music for me, but they also posed as La Grupo for the shots of the band in the app. Balaclava Kid & Dad and Jack Dangers became La Grupo and I heard their music come together and watched them come to life in front of my camera. It made my head spin.
I then asked Mark Mothersabugh of Devo, these days making most of his income from scoring movies for Hollywood, if I could use a piece of his music. I had curated an art exhibition of his work a few years ago, and have been an avid Devo fan since their first record came out. He came back within a few days of me asking and gave me his blessing. I was ecstatic for days. I knew that having Mark Mothersbaugh and Jack Dangers on board would generate interest in the app beyond literary circles, which was exactly what I wanted to achieve.
The other main contribution came from Dan Russell, an absurdly talented voiceover artist. He does a great deal of cartoon and advertising voiceovers. He agreed to do the narration for the app for a fraction of his normal fee, and then put so much work into it that I felt really quite guilty. But again, the project interested him and he was keen to be involved. He ftp’ed me his files as he finished them, and I had the strange sensation of hearing my characters have a real voice, instead of the mysterious one that forms in my head while I write, but could never vocalise. I could feel the novel becoming something outside of myself, taking on its own existence, independent from me, and making the app started to feed new ideas into it.
This hall-of-mirrors relationship between the two pieces of the work, the app and the novel, was one the experiences I was interested in; how one would feed into the other and vice-versa, each being advanced simultaneously. The novel is partly about the construction of reality from snippets of information, all emanating from a faulty machine, and how that reality can be twisted into different shapes, depending on how you regard it. It’s an idea inspired by contemporary modes of communication, using Facebook updates and Tweets and the like to build up a version of ourselves for others to understand. Using the app itself is a technological and literary praxis based on that theme; you get these disparate slices of story and imagery, and you have to snake your way through to make sense of it.
The app was downloaded 100 times in the first 24 hours, without any marketing or effort on my part whatsoever. If it carries on at that rate, in three months more people will have interacted with the app than have bought my novel in the last two years. Maybe I should have finished the novel and had it ready for publication the day the app went live. That way perhaps I would have increased sales of the book. But this really was an experiment, an art for art’s sake exercise.
The Novel (capital T, capital N) is not under threat from this technology, people will always love to read, nothing beats it – we all know that. But there is a generation for whom the novel will be just a part of their expectation from their favourite author, or a new author. They will want to know more, to be friends on Facebook, to follow them on Twitter, and they will expect interesting, updating content on their mobile devices which lifts the novel and its creator off the page and into the full-colour, multi-media real world. It’s a medium which suits a new kind of writer; multi-taskers, collaborators, technology enthusiasts, the connected.
The way the publishing world is embracing this new platform is in stark contrast to how the music industry reacted to new technology changing its business model, and I think that where they failed and lost their way, publishing will adapt and strengthen and will play a defining role in this technology’s development. Just don’t ask me to deliver it in 3D.