Why interactivity: a response to Pepi Ronalds in the Killings blog

the holy grail

Last month, Pepi Ronalds wrote a piece for the Killings blog called “Why we’re still curled up with the book”. In it, she talks about how as readers we have a resistance to interactive ebooks because of our history with the physical book. She begins by identifying a problem with the word “book” and the way it’s used to describe both physical and electronic reading platforms (yes, I have just called the printed book a physical reading platform), even though those can be very different things. I see her point, but it’s her use of the word “interactive” that I had difficulty with and that’s what I’d like to explore here. But first, to respond to the crux of her argument.

Ronalds quotes a novelist and lecturer called John Weldon, who says that even though we don’t realise it, we have internalised a schema for reading physical books that enables us to immerse ourselves within them. But ereaders, even though at their simplest they mimic the book, have a different schema and it’s one that we’re still learning. Ronalds quotes her own experience of not being fully engaged when she reads books on her Kindle. Weldon says that it’s because she’s aware that she’s reading on a device rather than a printed book and her brain is preoccupied with processing that fact rather than becoming immersed in what she is reading.

Ronalds’s experience does not echo mine. A couple of weeks ago, I read a couple of books on my ereader in quick succession. At one point, I caught myself trying to turn a non-existent page. Earlier in the year, I had the opposite experience. I had picked up a physical book and found myself trying to swipe the page, rather than turn it. Clearly my brain does not make much differentiation between the two formats. They are interchangeable to me, both sources of narrative pleasure that have my complete engagement.

The argument about the schema is the overriding message of the Killings piece. It is set up at the beginning and explained in detail at the end. But in the middle of the writing, there is a dismissal of interactivity. Ronalds talks about a publisher of enhanced ebooks, who is stopping production because of poor sales. She says that magazine publishers have been abandoning interactivity, though doesn’t say what that interactivity was. She mentions Weldon’s novel Spincycle and the facility he created to allow the reader to communicate, via visits, comments and emails, with the main character. He says this has not been well taken up. His argument is that people prefer to read the story on the page rather than follow it elsewhere. Weldon also says that collaborative writing, where the audience become co-contributors, hasn’t been embraced by readers.

A lot of different types of interactivity are grouped together in this argument. None of them are interactivity as I would describe it but I will come back to that. The evidence used to dismiss all of them is the theory of the schemas. While I can understand this logic when applied to books vs simple ebooks i.e. those with digitised text only, and I see how the argument could be stretched to enhanced editions and transmedia, I don’t follow how it can also be applied to collaborative writing.

And so to put the other side for these different types of interactivity. While enhanced editions may not have been commercially successful so far, David Wilk has argued that “the platforms that reach the largest number of readers either don’t support media at all [most Kindle devices] or their makers don’t promote their color devices for reading in the first place [Apple on their iPads and iPhones as they don’t pre-install iBookstore by default]”. Therefore, we don’t know whether there is a viable market for these types of products. Personally, I’ve read a number of literary apps and enjoyed them all. I particularly loved Faber’s The Waste Land because of Fiona Shaw’s filmed performance of the poem. I was transfixed as I watched her. Hearing a poem read gives a completely different perspective on it. Especially if it’s spoken by someone who is skilled in delivering the lines. This is the benefit of encountering the poem through the app rather than the printed page.

The Kills by Richard House, which I have not yet read, is an example of a transmedia novel that is commercially successful (and also critically acclaimed). Though, I admit I do not have a strong argument here because I do not have a list of other successful transmedia novels that I can reel off. The Kills may be the exception to the rule or it may be the first of many to come, if it’s a sign that publishers have now worked out how to do a transmedia title.

Naomi Alderman, literary novelist and video game writer, wrote earlier this year about audience participation being one of the exciting developments in the digital space. She was one of the writers involved with Exquisite Corpse, a collaborative thriller project run this year by London’s Southbank Centre. The novel was crowd-written over Twitter, with a different writer to edit the project over each of its 10 weeks.

It’s worth noting that in the article mentioned above, Alderman also wrote about digital writing allowing for increased immersion in a story. This is the opposite point of view to the schema theory.

Ultimately, I read Ronalds’s piece as her worry about the Future of the Book. But to me the discussion about books vs ebooks is irrelevant. The digital book is evolving. At the moment it is mostly a literal interpretation of the printed book. There is some squabbling over formats and devices but in the end the public will decide whether they want Amazon’s proprietary ebook format or one that is open standard, and whether they prefer an e ink or a backlit screen. This will be a temporary solution as the technology evolves further. Already, Sony are said to be trialling a digital paper notepad in some Japanese universities and that will again change the nature of our ebooks.

Meanwhile, we’re focusing on this and overlooking the interactive digital works that are being created that blur the boundaries between books, films and video games. This is what our digital future will bring us and it won’t threaten the physical book because it will be doing something that the printed page can’t.

When I use the word “interactive”, I’m not referring to either a standard or an enhanced ebook or transmedia or a collaborative work. I mean interactive in the sense that the audience – be it reader, viewer or player, or a combination of all three – will have influence over the story. It was on behalf of this sort of interactivity that I read Ronalds’s piece with a sort of bristling puzzlement.

I acknowledge though that there is confusion over the wording. Ronalds identifies difficulties with the word “book”. Wilk talks about the problematic nature of the term “enhanced ebooks”. He says that “enhanced” can refer to the ability of the reader to move through the book via a live table of contents but it can also mean the inclusion of audio and video, which is the definition I would use. He goes on to say it could also be used to describe other forms of user engagement. And that’s where we might be getting into the territory of what I consider to be interactive. At the moment, these words mean different things to different people.

I was hoping to be able to illustrate my point with a discussion about interactivity in the new iPad thriller The Craftsman. It’s claimed to be part book, film and game and if this is true it will be my holy grail – a meeting point of these three forms of entertainment. The creators say that no two readers/watchers/players will have the same experience interacting with it. However I’m unable to give my own assessment as this app is not due to be available in Australia until Christmas.

But I can mention Emily Short’s First Draft of the Revolution. Short is a renowned writer of interactive fiction and here she puts the reader in control of how the story is written. There are a handful of characters in this narrative set in a kind of parallel universe of pre-Revolutionary France and they communicate with each other via letter. You are presented with the first draft of each of their letters and are unable to press send until you do a bit of rewriting. This gives you the opportunity to determine what information the characters reveal within the letters as well as set their overall tone. You don’t change what happens in the story but you do change how it is told. It’s a narrative game – a point where books and video games have met in the middle. I’ve written extensively about these sorts of blendings over the last few months and you can find them in my Reading in the Future posts.

Disclosure: I originally pitched this idea to the Killings blog. But after my first draft they preferred it to be more about the business side of epublishing and the general public’s attitude to ebooks and I preferred it to be more about interactivity. I have since rewritten the piece substantially to rebut Ronalds’s argument on a more micro level and I have reduced the examples I gave for interactivity so as not to repeat material I’ve already covered on this site.

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