Monday, January 4, 2010

Is Serialization a Serial Killer?

Max Barry is an Australian novelist. He's published three books: Syrup, Jennifer Government, and Company. He has a wife, a daughter, and used to work as a marketer for Hewlett-Packard. He also may be contributing to the destruction of what our culture has come to recognize as the novel.

His latest project is a "real-time serial novel" entitled Machine Man. If you're confused as to what that means exactly, you're in good company. Basically, Barry wrote 185 pages on a one-page-per-day regimen, posting each in turn onto his website. Every day, he'd use reader feedback from the previous post to inform the next page of the story. The goal was to use the Internet to "successfully deliver fiction" in what he calls a "drip-feed" format. The content is free up to page 43, then you can buy your own feed to access the entire story for $6.95. Since the work is complete as of December 1st, you can choose to read it in the paginated way Barry wrote it, or else read it in full.

Incidentally, the story is about a man who loses his leg in an industrial accident and decides to build a new one. I can't help but notice the bearing this plot has on Barry's project's effect on the publishing industry at large. Isn't he trying to forge a replacement for an appendage (the book arm of traditional publishing) lost to technology? He defends his idea:

"I think there are a lot of gimmicky attempts to mash fiction and the web together, regardless of how well they fit. They are promotions for a print novel, essentially, rather than genuine attempts to engage the medium and work to its strengths and weaknesses. I wanted to write something that fit."

I like his forthright effort to cross swords with new media rather than admit defeat. Other ventures, like Dahlia Lithwick's serialized chick-lit novel and the Protagonize site where members "create Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style fiction and build interactive stories", are making similar stabs at digitizing fiction. So maybe, with regard to my opening statement, the destruction of the novel that Barry is contributing to isn't a bad thing, but rather a creative solution. However, as Barry says himself ("I don't think the web is a great medium for novels, because novels are supposed to be immersive: you need to sit down and disappear into them."), adapting the novel to the Internet may be virtually impossible; digital serialization might just be incompatible with the form.

But what about vintage serialization, à la Dickens? Author Nicholas Rombes is publishing his new detective novel Nightmare Trails at Knifepoint via the U.S. Postal Service. The subscription period runs, for $18, from January 2010 to January 2011. The Rumpus blog writes that Rombes is publishing the book "stuffed into small manila envelopes, addressed by hand, with personal messages typed out on old hotel stationary and delivered right to your doorstep." This format harkens back to the days of installments shipped across the Atlantic, tossed in twine-bound parcels at the feet of hungry readers. Maybe, in contrast to Barry's project, regression is the appropriate defense mechanism in lieu of almost assuredly suicidal exploration into dangerous territory.

MediaBistro's GalleyCat blog asks, in a post on writer Helen DeWitt's inability to make any headway on new books given the distraction of the Internet, "Will the Internet Spoil the Next Great American Novel?" There are programs to explicitly block out the incessant stream of IMs, emails, texts, and BBMs, like DarkRoom and Writer, which may be enough for some authors. But workflow interruption aside, the very use of that word- "author"- may become an anachronism in a society inundated with writers upon writers who pay no heed to forms of yore, like the novel.

1 comment:

  1. if allison "the next dickens" stadd wrote a serialized novel, i would certainly read it.