E-Novels for E-Readers

France remains one place where they take literary culture – and so its central element, the novel – seriously. People still read there. But that doesn’t mean that that country remains immune to the steady march of progress, which these days can only refer to consumer electronics and telecoms. In the French newspaper Le Figaro, Margaut Bergey surveys some recent innovations that threaten to redefine the very nature of what we mean by literature.

In part, the value-added from Mme. Bergey’s piece comes simply from the specifics she provides. I had vaguely been aware of a novel having been published wholly via Twitter, but didn’t know anything more specific. Turns out it was called The French Revolution, by Matt Stewart, and, sure enough, just over a year ago (starting on Bastille Day 2009, appropriately enough) it was “published” in the form of 3,700 tweets. Here’s that Twitter-feed’s site, but by this point you (together with me) are a bit too late: that particular collection of tweets constituting the novel is no longer available, so you’ll have to buy it from Stewart’s site here.

At least from an iTunes link accessed via that very same homepage you can download a free iPhone app that provides supplemental video, music, and recipes (!) to enhance your reading of Stewart’s novel. Come to think of it, why not just make an app that is a novel in and of itself? Well, they’ve already thought of that, even in France. There the pioneer has been a certain Hieronymous Donnovan (real name: Laurent Blanquin), although initially he published his novel Real TV from September 2008 until January of 2009 via the alternate social network MySpace, posting a new chapter every Monday. The interactive nature of that particular medium meant that feedback from readers, as the novel was being revealed piece-by-piece, was a given. Says Donnovan: “Even though I knew where I was going [with it], the comments did have repercussions on the [novel’s] course.”

When that exercise was over, he then got together with the French company Storylab to turn the work into an iPhone app: the first five chapters free, but €1.59 for each set-of-five of the remaining 15 chapters, making the total cost €4.77. Since then that original iPhone app has been supplemented by one for the iPad and another for Android, and Donnovan has been joined in this sort of enterprise by William Réjault, a writer of somewhat greater renown within France. He also chose to publish his novel (Le chemin qui menait ver vous, or The Road That Led to You) on the iPhone/iPad with initial chapters free and later chapters costing something, for a total cost of €8.00. Multiply that by 20,000, which is about how many times the apps have been downloaded so far, and see whether you don’t come out at the end with a decent piece of change. (Granted, some readers would have not paid for the full book, and this revenue was inevitably shared to some degree with Réjault’s app-builder.)

And there are sure to be others, including one Alexandre Jardin, who will publish his new novel Le Zèbre (The Zebra) via iPhone/iPad app between October of this year and May of next. But M. Jardin plans to take an even more different approach: the action of his novel will apparently happen in “real time,” meaning that he’ll be making it up as it goes along, relying heavily upon readers’ feedback as to how the tale should progress, to the point that certain active readers might even become actors in the story themselves.

All of this naturally casts a new light on what literature and the authorship thereof is supposed to mean, although it is not as if this sort of heavy influence on the very make-up of a novel wielded by the technical details of its publication is anything brand new. The classic works of Charles Dickens, for one, were famously structured with a view to their serialization in the leading British newspapers of their day. (Among other things, this meant that each chapter had to end with some sort of climax, so that readers would be curious enough about how things turned out to be willing to buy the next edition of the paper.) In the decades in-between, however, and particularly since World War II, a vogue set in for non-linear narration, in which authors of fiction felt free to skip freely back and forth from present to past (and, I suppose, to future as well). This sort of thing, one can assume, will be rather harder to pull off when one is, in effect, collectively building a narrative largely on the basis of reader feedback. There is also the Idea that stretches back at least to the Romantic Era of the Author as the lone, genius artist, delivering his life-wisdom to us the readers from the mountaintop – what will happen to that? Or was it ever a valid concept in the first place? The Nobel Committee, for one, does seem to assert that it is, every year, in the second week of October.

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