At Slate, Paul Collins points out that Google Book Search heralds a new era of outing plagiarists. The searchable database of many thousands of books is a boon to researchers, but it also greatly eases the discovery of co-opted passages. Collins mentions a couple of examples and posits that “given the popularity of plagiarism-seeking software services for academics, it may be only a matter of time before some enterprising scholar yokes Google Book Search and plagiarism-detection software together into a massive literary dragnet, scooping out hundreds of years’ worth of plagiarists – giants and forgotten hacks alike – who have all escaped detection until now.” He also predicts that “in the next decade at least one major literary work [will get] busted.”
What’s the pedigree of a bestseller? That’s the question the New York Times asked last week in an article that, despite the endless waves of political scandal, remained on their most viewed list for the better part of a week. The article reveals the seamy side of publishing: publishers have foresworn the metrics used by marketers to study their audiences’ buying habits, because they, much like Creationists, “don’t believe in them,” leading to an industry where million dollar advances are gambled on the Flying Spaghetti Monster of editors’ intuition. So is it any surprise that an article about the billion-dollar, high-stakes world of publishing, with its talk of big bets and horse racing, comes off sounding like a description of a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting? Won’t someone stop the insanity? (Very nicely summed up here, btw.)Enter Macmillan New Writing, the controversial imprint of the British publishing house Macmillan. New Writing was founded to promote works by unpublished writers, particularly writers who have produced the kind of experimental, unclassifiable or controversial books that are worth publishing, but might not have what it takes to become best sellers, in other words, books that don’t have mass market appeal. The imprint publishes one book a month and currently comprises twenty titles, all of which are prominently featured in Macmillan’s catalog. No agents are involved, the publishing house accepts direct submissions, and writers get no advance, but earn 20% royalties.Sounds good, no? But it’s not all upside. Not only are the writers’ contracts non-negotiable, but Macmillan receives all subsidiary rights to the book and a first look at the author’s second book. Critics have reacted strongly, calling the imprint “literary slave drivers” and “vanity publishers,” and indulging in apocalyptic predictions of the end of publishing as we know it. (As if that would be a bad thing. The submissions, at least, are entirely electronic.) The negative press was so strong that the founder of the imprint, Michael Barnard, felt compelled to write Transparent Imprint, a book defending his idea. (Which the imprint, of course, published. See how that works?)Why all the consternation? Sure, novelists lose their right to film rights, translations, and licensed merchandise (Ignatius J. Reilly trebuchets, anyone?), but is that so bad? Without an agent, they wouldn’t be able to sell them anyway, and apparently Macmillan has been doing a good job so far, bagging a movie deal for the thriller The Manuscript and a decent advance on a German edition of the fantasy novel The Secret War. What’s really at stake, it would seem, is the publishing industry’s ego. Despite the fact that their best work is guesswork, they like to believe they know what they’re doing when they get into a bidding war over a total unknown. The novelist Giles Foden, quoted by the Guardian, put it like this, New Writing’s list is like “putting a bet on every horse in the race – but without paying for any of the bets.” And that doesn’t make us feel very special, does it?But, if the New York Times is right, isn’t that what publishers are doing anyway? If advances are the big gambles everyone says they are, then they only serve to make publishers risk averse. Much like Hollywood, which instead of looking for fresh material, increasingly hedges its bets by turning out retreads of once popular comic books and old TV shows, the publishing industry is in a rut. Bestsellers are inherently unpredictable, and yet, if a publishing exec had to choose between a cutting edge novel and another Harry Potter knockoff, you can bet that “Parry Hotter and The Sorcerer’s Merkin” would be the one stacked on the front tables of Barnes and Nobles nationwide. By not giving writers advances, New Writing has found a way around this problem, allowing them to take a chance on a book, while reducing the considerable overhead attached. This system should be a boon for mid-list writers who, it’s often said, are not nurtured by publishing houses in the way they once were. Sure, you’ll hear writers grousing about being unable to make a living from their work, but, with the exception of the biggest literary stars, isn’t that’s how it’s always been? For my part, I’d much rather have my books in print, giving my readership a chance to grow with me. After all, readers will seek out a good writer’s backlist, and every book that sees print should increase royalties from previous efforts. And what a boon for those writers who don’t have the savvy, connections, or good luck to get an agent. Hell, some writers, John Kennedy Toole comes to mind, are literally dying to get published.It’s been over a year since New Writing put out its first book, and the imprint’s list of well-reviewed books seem to be proving the naysayers wrong. The writers’ seem satisfied with the deal (here and here), and if Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort (recently reviewed here at The Millions) is any indication of the quality of the books New Writing has on offer, they’re doing the literary community a real service. It might be time for the rest of the publishing industry to put down their dice and take notice.Bonus Link: The MacMillan New Writing titles currently available in the U.S.
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the ongoing transformation of literary journalism. Today, Garth looks at the death of the newspaper book section. Tomorrow, Max considers revenue options for literary websites, including affiliation with online booksellers. And on Friday, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book.
The spring of 2007 now seems like a lifetime ago. A promising U.S. senator named Clinton was a prohibitive favorite in the Democratic presidential primaries. The Dow-Jones Industrial Average stood just over 13,000 points. And, in light of this last number, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s decision to stop publishing its weekly book review supplement seemed like some kind of weird aberration. In the best little-“d” democratic tradition, the National Book Critics Circle decided to protest the AJC’s move via a “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing.” The weapons it selected for this campaign – a petition and a series of panel discussions – may have appeared quixotic, but during a weeklong symposium in the fall, its basic premises became clear:
1) The stand-alone newspaper book review is vital to the health of literacy, and thus democracy.
2) The corporate overlords of the newspaper industry undervalue all three.
3) Newspaper book coverage is in imminent danger.
4) Therefore, so are literacy and democracy.
It should be added that, by the time of the symposium, obsequies over the loss of column-inches for book coverage had shaded into alarm about proliferating book coverage on the Internet. We at The Millions, who attended several of these panels, bit our tongues. Despite our lowly station as bloggers, we looked upon the participants as colleagues. And we didn’t want to prove media pundits right by rushing to judgment; after all, our material interest in the print vs. online debate may have colored our thinking. Now, though, we can say with some confidence (and some disappointment) that, by its own lights, the “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing” was a failure.
In the last two years, stand-alone book review supplements including several of the country’s most prominent (The Washington Post Book World, The Los Angeles Times Book Review) have ceased publication. The parent newspapers insist that the lost review space has been offset by increases in coverage in other sections, but frankly, we don’t believe them. If the health of book reviewing is to be judged by what happens in the print editions of newspapers, the patient is doomed.
One need not detail at this late date the basic economic mechanisms that have led us to this pass. We may merely condense them to an easily graspable equation: growing number of books + dwindling time to read – advertising revenue + market meltdown = flawed business model. And yet, the Death of Book Reviewing narrative – a boom-era tale in which the high priests of print defend literature against both corporate bad guys and the vulgarians of the Internet – elides several contentious, and important, questions. To wit:
How good were the newspaper book review sections, anyway?
How inevitable was their demise?
How did those in power respond to the digital revolution – surely the biggest upheaval in the distribution of the written word since Gutenberg?
Does the Internet really spell doom for literary discourse?
By way of investigating these questions, we might consider the evolution – and fate – of book coverage at the nation’s most widely read print reviewing organ: The New York Times. For book reviewers, as for the larger (and equally endangered) world of newspaper journalism, the Paper of Record already serves as a sort of metonym. To paraphrase E.B. White, If The New York Times were to go, all would go. And so an analysis of the Times’ assets and liabilities, and of its response to upheavals in technology and the economy, will likely have something to tell us about the future of book coverage – and perhaps media – as a whole.
First, there is the begged question of the quality of newspaper book reviews. Almost since its inception (lo, these several years ago), the literary blogosphere has been asking this question of the Times, in particular. However, perhaps because bloggers’ animus toward the Times has been too easy to grasp or to dismiss (depending on one’s point of view) the attacks have had little effect on how the Gray Lady goes about her business. Devotees of the weekly New York Times Book Review and/or the daily “Books of the Times” column can write off Ed Champion’s efforts to save the NYTBR from its editor, Sam Tanenhaus, or Tao Lin‘s concise “Michiko Kakutani, Fuck You” (published in an online magazine Juked, but representative of web-wide sentiment) as products of ressentiment.
Meanwhile, from the vantage point of bloggers, whose reputations are only as strong as their most recent posts, the Times‘ authority appears, if not unearned, then largely heredity. Somewhere in mists of our pre-digital past, writers and editors worked to make the Paper of Record the first and last word on the U.S. book market (a favorable blurb from the Times, when available, will generally be the most prominent on a paperback jacket), but the enterprise has been coasting on its reputation ever since.
In defense of the blogs: the Times offers fodder for criticism on a schedule you can set your watch by. An edition of the NYTBR may contain a half-dozen or more of the sort of synoptic non-reviews that fail to interest the uninterested, while giving incautious or hurried readers the impression of an endorsement. Ledes of the “If writers were candy, writer X would be Smarties” variety proliferate. And though Michiko and Maslin, the Punch and Judy of the daily “Books of the Times” column, sometimes rise above their good cop/bad cop routine (see, e.g. Kakutani’s recent review of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned), they seem, in the main, to shoot first and ask questions later. (We will pass over in silence the tendency of the respective editors of “Books of the Times” and the NYTBR to split the difference: the frequency with which a weekday hatchet job will set up a B+ review on Sunday, or vice versa.)
Nor are bloggers the first writers to find the Times‘s book coverage lacking in luster, or representative of newspaper book reviewing as a whole. The origin story of The New York Review of Books, America’s preeminent literary-critical publication, dates back to the 1963 printers’ strike, when Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein realized that they didn’t miss one jot or tittle of the Times’ book coverage. They set out to create a literary supplement that would be missed were it ever to fold, and succeeded brilliantly. Around the same time, Jack Green published Fire The Bastards!, an account of the reception of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. Bloggy avant la lettre, Fire the Bastards! amounts to a catalogue of the ills of reviewing in general (as does, come to think of it, Balzac’s Lost Illusions), but Green singles out the Times for special derision: “the worst bookreview [sic] section in the world,” he calls it.
On the other hand, it must be said, the mission of the Times differs from the mission of a literary blog, or even of The New York Review. The latter venues address smaller audiences, and so can afford parochialism, partisanship… and passion. The Gray Lady’s authority, by contrast, derives in no small part from its commitment to subjecting the broadest possible sample of new books to an objective gaze, or at least to give the illusion of doing so. Reviews of romances, memoirs, and political tracts sit cheek by jowl with reviews of midlist literary fiction. (One can imagine La Kakutani opening an envelope to discover yet another debut novel, and despairing. One can imagine, sometimes, La Kakutani deciding that she hates books.)
It likewise bears saying that, within the parameters of its mission, The NYTBR and “Books of the Times” do certain things quite well. The front-page NYTBR reviews, with their more generous length and more engaged writers, often succeed in being thoughtful as well as comprehensive. (See, e.g. David Leavitt on Henry James). The back-of-the-book essay often succeeds at diagnosing some tendency within our literary culture. The bestseller lists and their appendages offer an index to what’s going on in the culture at large. And, in “Books of the Times,” Dwight Garner and Richard Eder have been known to tackle books far from the beaten path – even books of poetry.
But when some recent research sent me to the late John Leonard’s 1981 review of Rabbit is Rich (one last mark in The Times’ favor: vast archives), it seemed, in comparison with today’s offerings, an 800-word masterpiece: stylish, contentious, erudite, risky:
Huck Finn, after all, didn’t have to grow up. Ishmael, lest we forget, came back too. Rabbit has to compromise. “Outward motion” can mean “inner dwindling.” Freedom hurts. Only in Toyota commercials do we rise and hang suspended; the Flying Eagle sinks. After the death of God – after the chilling discovery that every time we make a move toward “the invisible,” somebody gets killed – we require a myth of community, something, as Felix put it in Coup [sic] that “fits the facts, as it were, backwards.”
Held up against the current offerings at the Times‘ “Books” page, it is also an index of how far we have fallen. Implicit in the “Campaign to Save Book Reviewing” is the notion that newspapers set an unimpeachable standard; that some ineffable quality would be lost were “the largest remaining stand-alone Sunday tabloid section” to surrender the field of literary journalism to magazines and the web. But even if we’re willing to accept, pace Green and Balzac, the campaign’s more explicit premise – that book reviewing is vital to the health of literacy and/or democracy – the conceit that newspaper book coverage is indispensable appears to be just that: a conceit.
Meanwhile, the hypotheses about “Grub Street 2.0” tendered at the NBCC panels have proven testable faster than anyone could have imagined. As dramatic as the loss of print book review supplements has been in the last two years, the transformation of online reviewing culture has been more so. Even more surprising: the direction of the change has largely been positive.
To be sure, mind-bogglingly vast plains of chaff are still only a keystroke away; someone is always willing to shit on Dante!, as N+1 put it, in its dismissal of the literary blogosphere. Yet the more venerable lit-blogs – some of them, anyway – have consolidated their reputations as critical organs. Newspapers have even launched their own competing blogs (Dwight Garner’s Papercuts and Carolyn Kellogg’s Jacket Copy deserve special mention.) And beyond the constraints of the blog, venues as multifarious as Open Letters Monthly, The Quarterly Conversation, Bookslut, and, in the last two months, N1BR, The Second Pass, and The Rumpus have mobilized resources of design and prose that frequently surpass what is to be found in newspapers. Web magazines such as Slate and Salon continue to offer inventive and high-quality book coverage.
Even more consequentially, in an era of rising unemployment, the economics of reviewing have shifted radically. For years, a good, professional newspaper book review was worth about $400, or 50 cents a word. Now, even as the number of column-inches available in print diminishes, online venues are starting to meet or exceed that threshold. Rumor has it that The Barnes & Noble Review pays nine times as much as a reputable newspaper for which one of our contributors has reviewed. In early 2007, other critics might have leaped to review for that newspaper; now it recommends itself mostly as a nice line in the bio. Even ad-supported blogs (like this one) are forcing freelancers to rethink their strategy. Although the per-word pay rate of such blogs will likely never match, say, Slate, the number of words available is, theoretically, unlimited. Prolific bloggers, by writing four reviews a month rather than two, quickly compensate for the loss of income from book review sections.
This is not to mention the less fungible forms of remuneration. As has been widely noted, one of the hidden pleasures of publishing work online is the ability to hear responses from readers, and sometimes to engage in debate. Reviewing online feels like a lively thing, where the Sunday newspaper supplements sometimes read, as a colleague put it, as the place “where book reviews go to die.”
The nexus of advertising and contentiousness and minimal editorial supervision raises important questions about standards, as partisans of print are quick to point out. Transparency is, at best, a vexed question on the Internet. What is to stop a blog that profits from Amazon links from promoting books it doesn’t believe in? Yet, at its best, there is a self-policing quality to the maintenance of online authority that has, for better or worse, begun to professionalize the blogs. Comparing the relative performance of newspapers and the web in assessing a couple of the most challenging books of recent vintage, 2666 and The Kindly Ones, we discover a leveled playing field. And as readers increasingly take their news online anyway, such a comparison becomes the work of a few seconds. (Some of the best coverage, of course, was to be found in print magazines such as The Nation and The New York Review, whose role in the reviewing ecology I won’t attempt to assess.)
Under these circumstances, the fate of our last freestanding weekly book review supplement would appear to be in doubt. With readers and reviewers jumping ship, publishers are the only ones left with a compelling interest in its continued existence. (Who else will supply that big blurb? Who else will, if nothing else, announce to the masses that a book exists?) And in a conglomerated publishing industry, the shortsightedness of upper management has tended to trump long-term interests; one can reasonably expect that publishers will continue to shell out less and less money for the advertisements that support the NYTBR. (Such is the logic of capitalism. An enterprise trims away the nonessential until it becomes, itself, inessential.) Given the stakes – and the broad array of tools available in the digital age – what has the Times done to ensure its longevity? More importantly, what should it do?
As with newspapers in general, the books editors at the Times and elsewhere have attempted to meet the challenges of the age from within the proverbial box. That box can be imagined as a collection of rigid lines: between print and online, between daily and weekly, between blog and non-blog, between delivery platforms, between backlist and frontlist, and even between one newspaper and another. Any media theorist worth her salt will tell you that these superficial distinctions matter less and less as time goes by, yet the main Times “Books” page is, at present, an orthogonal warren of content subdivisions: news, Sunday Book Review, “Books of the Times,” Papercuts… (I know we don’t really have a web-design leg to stand on here at The Millions, but still.)
As a first principle, the Times‘ books editors should accept that their book coverage, in the future, will be consumed largely online. This may seem like a downer, but in fact it opens up the section to previously unavailable advertising revenue. The print section may be sustained by book ads, but online, NYTBR can theoretically learn much more about its readers, and can pitch space to advertisers beyond the world of publishing. And, almost immediately, the editorial distinction between the weekly and daily book coverage begins to look both redundant and counterintuitive, in that it creates a weekly rather than a daily traffic pattern for the Books page. The Times might profitably subsume all of its coverage, from every section, under the NYTBR umbrella.
Such a re-branding, we can imagine, might shake up the currently moribund tabloid-supplement format. Rather than a predictable weekly slog through fifteen reviews in a peripheral grid of book-chat, a web-driven NYTBR might lead, for example, with Wyatt Mason’s terrific Times magazine profile of Frederick Seidel, or with an article on AIA Guide guru Norval White. It was refreshing, recently, to see Bret Anthony Johnston reviewing the new Cheever biography… on a Friday! A weekday review by someone other than Kakutani or Maslin signals urgency, rather than obligation. Why not do something similar with Jonathan Lethem’s 2666 review, or David Gates’ take on The Kindly Ones, and give poor Michiko a break?
Nor should video and audio content and blogs be tucked away like ugly stepchildren. Instead, they should be treated with the same editorial rigor and attention to quality that any other content is… and should be accorded the same dignity. Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation has offered this advice before, persuasively. Nextbook would be an example of a site that puts it into action.
Another, related, refinement might be (counterintuitively), for the NYTBR to review less. As Scott Esposito has noted, The New Yorker’s decision to dispatch with the two aforementioned doorstoppers in short capsule reviews was its own kind of critical gesture; one that redounded to the authority of the publication. To eliminate the daily/weekly divide is to eliminate redundancies. Readers expect The Times to cover Jonathan Littell… but two take-downs is one too many, and axing the second review might give the Times room to surprise us with a long treatment of a less-hyped book.
There is also an opportunity for the NYTBR to fulfill one of the most valued functions of an online book site: to aggregate. Readers are still waiting for the must-read site that will authoritatively collect the best writing about books from across the Internet – a kind of quantum version of The Complete Review. The job is still open, but won’t be much longer, and the NYTBR, with its resources of time and personnel, should jump in.
Finally, no reimagining of the NYTBR will succeed without more rigorous attention to the quality of the writing. With its privileging of print, the NYTBR has tended to assign books to authors rather than to critics; if the NBCC is to be believed, however, there’s now a great untapped pool of the latter out there, just waiting for the next call to arms.
These are by no means the only solutions to the dwindling potency of newspaper-based book reviewing. They may not even be the best. However, they represent a willingness to reimagine the enterprise that papers have thus far resisted. Barring such efforts, newspaper book coverage will doom itself to failure, on one hand, or irrelevance, on the other; the loss of the NYTBR, when it comes, will be largely sentimental. Web-based literary outlets face their own structural and economic challenges, as Max will discuss later this week. But, with apologies to the National Book Critics Circle, the die has been cast. The future of book reviewing is online.
Over at the Vroman’s Bookstore blog, Millions contributor emeritus Patrick Brownweighs in on Oprah’s endorsement of the Kindle, saying, “I never thought Oprah was anything more than she is — a corporate shill.” Vroman’s president Allison Hill (a beloved and admired figure in the bookselling industry) also shares her thoughts:Oprah, if you’re reading this, forget about cashmere pashimas, spa-like shampoo, and new technology this holiday season, remind your fans what’s really important:A sense of community. Time honored traditions. Human contact. A neighborhood gathering place. Keeping money in the community. Passionate, personal book recommendations. Putting the right book in the right person’s hands to help change their life. The smell and feel of books. A destination where ideas and information and people’s stories are valued and honored.Your endorsement of a “gadget” has a ripple effect far greater than you may realize. Book lovers buying Kindles and digital content exclusively through Amazon means the further erosion of our sales, and a precarious future for many independent bookstores.Independent bookstores are protectors of freedom of speech, financial support for local charities, generators of tax dollars for communities, resources for entertainment and education, and insurance against the chainification of Main Street America. These contributions should not be taken for granted, and certainly not put in jeopardy.When you endorse this new “gadget”, what are you really endorsing? and is it worth it?What do you think of the Kindle? Is it the future of reading, or will it go the way of the oxygen bar?
As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.
I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.
When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.
My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.
In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.
There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.
By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.
In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.
What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.
The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.
The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.
Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.
When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”
Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”
At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.
“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.
Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”
“Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”
I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.
“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”
Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.
Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.
Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.
We should try to write some novels for them.
Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.
We should try to make games for them.
We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.
Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.
At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.
Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.
In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.
Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.
In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.
While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.
When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.
“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”
With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.
Image Credit: LPW