Why You Will Never Read Fiction Online

Cory Doctorow has posted an interesting article at Locus Magazine about why reading ‘long-form works’ off the screen will never succeed – not that there’s anything wrong with reading off the screen – just that novels aren’t written or made to be read in a digital environment.

His article goes on to say the various problems facing reading novels online: the multitude of distractions available with a click of the mouse (oh wow – i need to clear up my spam folder!), and the fact that pleasure reading on a computer is in a splintered, scattered form.

The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.

His observations are true, for someone who has published 3 books and then released the entirety of all 3 books on his blog. In unbroken text, under a Creative Commons License, no less. So let’s ask ourselves, is it possible to release fiction online and attract a sizeable audience doing so?

I believe it is possible, but very difficult. Writing a novel in blog form to me has always been just another way of writing a book. There may be readers, and then there may not be readers. But putting your novel in a digital format allows for a lot more flexibility (and a certain degree of interactivity) that writing in, say, a spiral bound notebook.

So what works for online reading at the moment?

1. Really Short Stories (RSS?) – Millions of people read blogs everyday, and if there are people reading personal blogs like Dooce and An Unreliable Witness then it is only safe to assume that people will read fictional accounts of the lives of fictional characters. So while we can have fiction on the web, the stories presented cannot be as long as Lord Of The Rings, or even War and Peace.

2. Sharp Writing – We deal with words on the web. There is no escaping that, even with the proliferation of broadband and the rise of streaming (music and video). People still communicate with each other through words, and it is in our best interests to devour sharp, witty, high quality writing that comes in bite-sized pieces. Which brings us to our next point:

3. Bite Sized Pieces – There has to be a system for delivering your story in acceptable portions (not too often, yet not too spaced out) and each portion must be of an acceptable lenght. How can this be accomplished? Blogs may have RSS feeds, but there is the inherent problem of the reverse chronological order that its posts are presented in. Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town has a service that delivers chapters (from chapter 1 to chapter 2 and so on) to your favourite RSS feed reader every few days. And I’m very interested with an experimental online book form that can be found at the Institute for the Future of The Book (link).

4. Pictures, videos, sound – I won’t go so far as to say that all books should have pictures and videos and sound, but all these three are possible with the web, why not make use of them to enhance your (sharp) writing? Pictures accentuate points in the text (if the text is a wee bit long), and videos and sound are an accepted part of high speed internet entertainment. Again, if it’s out there, why not find a way to incorporate it into online fiction? Why ever not?

5. Don’t write a novel -Yeah, you heard that right. There are a generation of writers now – online, whether they’re bloggers or not. They write short pieces, funny pieces, pieces that get read. They’re not writing a novel, but their work (or their blogs) can be turned into books. So I suppose we have to concentrate on the little things, the parts that make our blog a whole, before we even think about book deals and whatnot.

Cory Doctorow is right. While we’ve made leaps and bounds in the social aspects of the internet, the majority of writing and fiction and literature still goes through the same (offline) channels as before. Blooks and online fiction may be an alternative way, one that breathes new life into the publishing industry, but it isn’t one that can easily succeed in digital form alone.

We will not be able to produce War and Peace successfully online, granted. Nobody will read it. But this is where I see some hope – if the web allows anybody to write, and this writing is short and sharp and readable within the distracting environment of the web, then we’re bound to get something brilliant.

After all, amongst the 1,094 million internet users worldwide (Jan 2007, source), there’s got to be something worth reading out there, right?


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Category: Publishing · Writing · Writing Web Fiction