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STORYCUTS: Adventures in digital pop lit

Last month, Will Self wrote an interesting piece which traced the simultaneous rise of the symphony and novel forms. Emerging at the same period of history, Self says:

‘[…]while I don’t see any necessary correspondence, say, between the symphonies of Stamitz or Gossec, and the novels of Aphra Behn or Samuel Richardson, there is a practical affinity: during the late 18th century, just as the symphony orchestra had no settled constitution, so the epistolatory novel was in the process of establishing what might be termed a unity of narrative voice as well as an effective chapter-based structure.

He argues this reached its apogee in the 19th century, when both bore a significant confidence − a ‘totalising capability’ − in the work of Beethoven and Brahms, Tolstoy and George Eliot.

But after the turn of the 20th century and the advent of modernism, whereas the symphony evolved into more radical forms, Self feels the novel got stuck in a rut:

‘[…]for a century or so the symphony and the novel made love to each other, quite beautifully. But now its artistic partner has died, the novel, instead of moving on, lies there in the dark summoning up past pleasures while playing with itself in a masturbatory orgy of populism.’

I can see how you might dispute Self’s thesis here, but when I listened to him give this talk on the day the piece was published, I started to think about a crucial difference between music and text: that music went through a radical re-definition when it was amplified. Classical music gave way as the predominant force to modern forms of pop and rock, then funk, dance and hundreds of subgenres.

Roughly a century, later the written word is going through its electric period. Perhaps now is the time for that radical redefinition of narrative.

How does the Storycuts series – an overarching brand to sell short stories and as singles out of their collections – fit into this theory? Well, adhering like it does to the iTunes sales model of songs versus whole albums, I think the digital short story can (and should) be the pop music of literature.

That’s not to say that it’s an inferior form compared to the paper novel – many would argue a three minute Beatles song matches anything Brahms composed. A story, like a great pop song, creates a rich interior world within its own parameters. What’s exciting for me is that the impulse to spend 99p or so on a short story (or bundle of stories) to download might open up a new market for stories, much like iTunes and song downloads opened up albums to a more casual listener.

Last week, Richard Beard wrote on this site that ‘[w]hile traditional publishers are busy repackaging, digital design studios are inventing exciting bells and whistles.’ Whilst I can assure Richard that his publisher is moving on narrative possibilities from all angles (though this response to his post takes an interesting line on whether Richard’s piece suggests a lack of ambition in his re-thinking), what I hope Storycuts conveys to the industry, and most importantly writers and readers, is that a ‘big content’ publisher like Random House – with dozens of lists – can draw on the breadth and quality of its storytellers to pull together and produce viable, impactful digital content under strong brands. Storycuts represents a huge, coordinated effort from most sections of the business (design, contracts, accounts, ebook production, QC team, editorial departments, sales marketing, publicity etc etc) and is a truly cross-divisional collaboration under a new umbrella series to deliver stories to readers old and new.

We can launch this to co-exist alongside a small and dedicated digital-only story publisher like Shortfire Press and our bigger trade peers: the web is a great leveler like that.

Bloomsbury declared 2012 ‘the year of the short story’ earlier this week , but short stories are really a perennial. And I think a new era starts here.



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