Technology and the Craft of Writing

Aug 07, 2012

Not long ago, I came across a book titled Orchestration by English composer and musicologist Cecil Forsyth whose musical bias in favor of the violin was apparent in the following passage: "No attempt will be made here to describe accurately the shape of the violin or the possible relationship of that shape to its exquisite musical qualities. It may suffice to say that the form in which we now have the instrument is apparently beyond improvement. Since Stradivarius's day only non-essential alternations have been made..."

The print book is similarly exquisite. It is portable and remarkably durable. Within the space of the printed page exists the linguistic instructions vital to awakening the "cinema of the mind." Even in a state of degeneration printed books can be beautiful.

But in light of the e-reader revolution, the great literary debate arose: is the book beyond improvement?

I have come to believe that the argument is more philosophically stimulating than truly helpful in the process of content creation. What we have before us is not a matter of improvement, but evolution. We're talking about technology after all. The enhanced ebook may be a bird of a different feather but it still needs two good wings if it's going to fly: a smooth user experience and, of course, a compelling story.

The user experience of a printed book hinges on its aesthetic invisibility. The book's form must be an attractive product if it is to catch the eye of the consumer. Yet it must also be capable of self-erasure, calling little to no attention to itself as the consumer/reader engages with the narrative. Furthermore, the architecture of the book influences the narrative transmitted to the reader.

Consider the novel. Outside of experimental works like Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, one generally reads through a novel in a linear fashion, from front to back, one page after another in numerical order. In the absence of sound and - in many cases - visuals, the written narrative must provide all the sensory details necessary for the reader to fully experience a given scene. The printed page is silent, static, and spatially limited. These limits form a particular ecosystem for the craft where artistry does its magic.

Let us take this excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as an example: "The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier, minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word."

Skilled writers work with a medium bereft of image, sound, taste, or texture -and from nothing, they create their stories. I would even venture to say that the works of great authors exist better when unenhanced by the bells and whistles of multimedia. At the same time, enhanced ebook apps such as iBardRomeo (Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land do have wonderful uses, allowing for a greater appreciation and understanding of more challenging pieces.

The ecosystem changes when the tablet becomes the primary vessel for a story, or when a story is written specifically as a tablet narrative. The screen carries with it certain techno-aesthetic expectations (images, video, audio, interactivity, connectivity, etc.), and if we're dealing with Apple's iPad these expectations move a few notches higher.

The tablet is too new, too glitzy to be invisible. Technology has to perform well, and the story has to perform in harmony with it. Narrative flow is no longer based on chronologically ordered pages, or at least it needn't be. As in life, one can interactively unearth a story and the surrounding context from a variety of angles.

The Silent History, which will be released by Ying Horowitz & Quinn for the iPad and iPhone this summer, is said to take full advantage of the devices' features. According to the BuzzFeed article, "The Future of Digital Publishing: A Book You Need to Read on the Street," the narrative is two-pronged: 

"[Readers] download an app and then receive daily doses of fictive oral history (‘Testimonials') that they can read wherever. This is where the main plot unfolds. But the real innovation comes in the related, secondary piece: the geo-tagged ‘Field Reports' that can only be downloaded when the reader is standing in a specific place, as shown by the mapping interface on the app."

Judging from the trailer, the device itself will be churning out large chunks of sensory details, and in fact it should. After all, what's the point of having a Retina display if all you're doing is reading off it?

But herein sits the dilemma. In the production of an enhanced ebook, the presence of a tablet screen naturally creates a bias towards image, but can one truly "read" an enhanced ebook lacking in text? I may be loosening my nostalgic attachment to printed books for the sake of novelty, but my attachment to reading words still stands. The new scheme calls for a serious reevaluation of literary craft lest narrative be overshadowed by the tools employed for its delivery.