Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
In November 2011, Pantheon Books announced Mark Z. Danielewski’s newest project: a serial novel entitled The Familiar:
The novel will be published in 27 volumes, with one new installment coming every three months. Julie Bosman of the New York Times likens this to the book version of buzzy, serialized television shows like Mad Men.
What we’re talking about here is not a novel series but a single novel written in a series of installments. The first volume is set to come out in 2014, so we still have a while to mull over the implications. The temporal gap between the announcement and the date of the first release inspired in me a session of writerly hemming, hawing, and eyebrow furrowing.
All this could simply be a matter of timing. The Fifty Year Sword, Danielewski’s novella-length ghost story is set to be released in October of this year. It may be safe to assume that issues of spacing are the driving force behind this decision. I’m all for safe assumptions.
But to be truthful, my initial gut reaction was grandiose speculation: does this mean that Danielewski will take two hellish years to write all of The Familiar, set it in stone, and then publish it in blocks over the course of seven years?
But, but, but—I vigorously waved the Dickensian banner from my digital revolution outpost—doesn’t that defeat the purpose of writing in serial form?
I am not opposed to the idea of approaching novel production using methods that echo serialized television, but I also feel that something critical would be lost if the publisher doesn’t take full advantage of the genre. Serial fiction traditionalists and denizens of weblit circles might agree with me here that much of the genre’s charm and excitement lies in the intimacy of the reader-writer community. A post on the Internet fiction idea blog Novelr.com elaborates on this aspect of serialized fiction:
…you get to watch a book take shape, right in front of your eyes – week in, week out. You get to talk to the author while you’re reading, via book comments and Twitter. You get to be part of this crazy, rabid, fanboyish group of fellow readers who await the weekly update with barbed club in hand and then afterward gather together in the comments to speculate on plot development like Potter-maniacs on the eve of a book launch.
Oh…but printed fiction and Internet fiction are totally different worlds, right?
Perhaps that was once true, but ereader technology has finally bridged the Great Content Divide. These changes are enthralling though to some extent terrifying. For the publishing industry, the digital revolution is the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness, the epoch of belief and the epoch of incredulity.
According to a report by the Yankee Group, global ereader sales revenue is expected to grow from about $1.9 billion in 2010 to $8.2 billion in 2014. Furthermore, the average price of an ereader is also expected to fall.
A related report by the same firm entitled 2012 Mobility Predictions: A Year of Living Dangerously (December 2011) underscores the sweeping economic power of all things portable and digital:
The mobile gold rush is global in scale and touches all customers. In the last five years, 2 billion new users joined the mobile revolution. Looking ahead, mobile workers and consumers will embrace tablets, mobile content and personal cloud services.
Then the question hit me: will The Familiar come out in print, digital, or both? Also, if “both” is the answer, which will be first? What if Pantheon Books is sitting on its haunches, wisely waiting to see how current technological shifts will affect the 2014 reading milieu? The writer himself seems to be comfortably surfing on these waves of change.
In a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times, Danielewski states:
It’s possible that [our publishing] schedule could be accelerated. We’re constantly open to new ideas — where will we be in 2014? Maybe digital releases every week, every few months a trade paperback or hardcover. The novel is designed to accommodate, anticipate various platforms.
To my great relief, he also plans to set up a flexible structure for The Familiar and is currently exploring strategies that balance a solidified fictional world and a “co-creating” relationship with the audience.
All doubts aside, if anybody is going to boldly carry the revived serial genre into the digital frontier, Mark Danielewski is the right author for the job. Best known for his debut novel House of Leaves and his experimental literary style, Danielewski knows how to push boundaries.
I wonder how far he will push this genre and how he will work his writing to accommodate a new medium. In the midst of all this wondering, I’m allowing myself to entertain one little wish for the future: that one day The Familiar and other fiction of its kind will be so…familiar to mainstream America that it will indeed become part of our popular culture. I would like to see new American literature emerging from the digital revolution bruised but ultimately triumphant in a Rocky Balboa kind of way, changed but revitalized, diversified, and thriving.