New Media Transmedia, Article, Books, Comment, Culture, Features, Fiction, Internet, Robert McCrum, Robert McCrum on books, Technology, The New Review, The Observer — May 16, 2011 6:24 — 0 Comments
The web allows stories to be spun in new ways
‘Transmedia’, or the ability of the web to be text, audio or video, often at the same time, is changing the story-telling genre
The simple truth about the book in the 21st century is that this is a golden age of reading and writing. As Umberto Eco puts it in his latest publication, This is Not the End of the Book (Secker Harvill), "the computer returns us to Gutenberg’s galaxy; from now on, everyone has to read".
The figures support this. Despite a dire economy, there’s a boom in progress. In 2009, in the US, during the worst recession for 100 years, American readers bought more than 800m new books. Here in the UK, the number of published new titles per annum has risen from 65,000 in 1990 to a staggering 177,000 in 2010, far greater – pro rata – than France, or Germany.
Our literary microclimate is flourishing, too. Book festivals up and down the country are heaving with record attendances. Book clubs and reading groups have become middle England’s bingo. Every publisher has a reader’s group website to promote new books. Then there are the prizes: Smarties, Orange, Whitbread, Aventis, Booker, Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper, and this week, the Encore prize. The buzz of books and reading is so familiar that it’s easy to overlook, but it reflects an astonishing surge in global literacy.
When Dante published The Divine Comedy in 1321, barely 10% of the Italian population could read, and not even Shakespeare’s contemporaries could spell his name (or their own) consistently. In 2008, by contrast, 98% of American adults and 83% of adults worldwide were described as literate by Unesco, which reported that between 1995 and 2008 there had been "an overall global increase of about 6% in rates of adult literacy". In a world of 7 billion, of whom about one-third use "some kind of English", that’s a huge potential audience for books.
Some examples of increased literacy are more influential than others. In India, for instance, literacy has increased at a rate of 90% per annum since independence in 1947. Part of this is the inheritance of the Raj, but the bald truth is that in 60 years the subcontinent has done with literacy what it took the US more than 200 years to achieve.
Readers worldwide are driving technological innovation, which in turn is slowly changing the book and its stories, manga novels from Japan or Bollywood fantasies from Mumbai. This is not new. In 15th-century England, Caxton and the development of movable type inspired the vernacular Bible, the rise of periodical journalism and, finally, the novel. Dickens and the Victorians were shaped by magazines such as Household Words.
The worldwide web has already begun to have an influence on imaginative expression. The internet, as Frank Rose writes in The Art of Immersion, "is the first medium that can act like all media. It can be text, or audio, or video, or all of the above. It is nonlinear, thanks to its adoption of the revolutionary convention of hyperlinking." According to Rose, "a new type of narrative is emerging – one that’s told through many media at once in a way that’s nonlinear, that’s participatory and often game-like, and that’s designed above all to be immersive. This is ‘deep media’."
Kate Pullinger, a Canadian writer who has spent her adult life in the UK, is fascinated by the opportunities of deep media. Pullinger has pioneered "digital fiction". She insists that "my primary concern is to tell stories", but believes that "the new technology has the potential to inject a new dimension to storytelling". She describes digital fiction as "a hybrid genre", mixing screen and text in radical ways. Pullinger thinks that "we have barely scratched the surface in the potential for storytelling".
There is a literary dividend to such initiatives, and it is beginning to shape the narrative of the book. "An artistic movement is forming," writes David Shields in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, "What are its key components?" His answer is randomness, spontaneity, reader participation, a fascination with artifice and authenticity, "a blurring to the point of invisibility of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real".
When it is a genre that evolves, as much as the formats in which it appears, you know the medium in which you work is a living thing.
A creation concocted in the Eco lab?
Mysterious Albanian exile Milo Temesvar, the acclaimed author of Let Me Say Now, was once the talk of the Frankfurt book fair, with publishers such as Feltrinelli, Gallimard and Rowohlt competing for the rights to his work. Temesvar’s later books, The Patmos Sellers, for instance, were also reviewed in Europe, but his name has faded from view. He is, however, mentioned in the introduction to The Name of the Rose. Circumstantial evidence of this kind, mixed with teasing references in Umberto Eco’s prodigious bibliography, suggests that he is one of Professor Eco’s delightful fabrications, a spoof on the absurdities of publishing and a vehicle for occasional parodies of books such as The Da Vinci Code.
There’s just no silencing some people
Towards the end of the 1950s, an infuriated Harold Macmillan was moved to exclaim, "Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher?" The answer, half a century on, appears to be no. At the age of 97, Pincher has bundled up the experience of his Daily Express scoops into a book entitled Treachery. This incorrigible witness to the misdemeanours of Britain’s secret state first published his magnum opus in the US out of fear and respect for the Official Secrets Act. But the onset of his centenary has given him renewed impudence. Now the Edinburgh publisher Mainstream is bringing out a UK edition with a lot of new material, notably Pincher’s unflattering verdict on Christopher Andrew’s "authorised" history of MI5. I hear that he has also sold the film rights, which raises the intriguing question of who might play the quasi-fictional character of the Fleet Street legend "Chapman Pincher".
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