Thursday, October 1, 2009

taking a bad idea and adding technology: hybrid books vs. transmedia storytelling

So last night I read this article in the NY Times and it got me thinking about hybrid books and how they are a terrible fucking idea. At least for the present. At least in the way they seem to be currently conceived. Especially since they could be the basis of a new transmedia storytelling.

Hybrid books are books with additional video or web content. Seems simple enough. And I will agree that instructional books and how-to books would clearly benefit from the inclusion of little video demos. Fair enough. But if the demo vid is on the internet and the book is in your hands, how does that make it a hybrid book? Doesn't that make it an instructional book and instructional videos that happen to be about the same thing? How is that new? Or news?

The fact is, technology is behind the times as far as this idea goes. Until I can get the whole deal - text, image, video, music - all seamlessly integrated in one device (and I do mean seamless) I don't see what the value is. Or what the development is. There have been videos on the internet tangentially related to other artistic works for years. Transmedia storytelling may be novel and not yet mainstream but it isn't new.

That said, hybrid novels are a terrible fucking idea. Just plain bad. The concept of a hybrid novel or short story or whatever, is that the text can be meaningfully supplemented by taking a break between chapters to watch a video on the internet. One assbag in the article goes so far as to say that “It really makes a story more real if you know what the characters look like.” Know what they look like? What the shit eating horse fuck is that? What kind of imaginationless fuck can't do that in his own goddamn mind? Hasn't one of the continual criticisms of adapting books to film been that reduction of every reader's unique idea of what a character looks and sounds like to one seemingly canonical claim? That somehow because it is in the film that is the way it is even if there are infinitely more ways of interpreting the text to suit the individuality of each reader? Are we so lazy and pathetic that we can't even wait for a film adaptation to tell us what a character looks and sounds like, now we need a Youtube quality video between chapter 3 and 4 to tell us we have been seeing the wrong guy in our head this whole time?

Now I completely understand the value of film, of short film, of any narrative in any form of media. What I don't get is why they need to be included in the book. Why can't there be unique stories told in unique ways that best fit each medium that build upon each other and inform each other but still manage to stand alone? Take a central story and then have a book, a graphic novel, a series of short films, multiple still images, and a soundtrack or two developed. That is some transmedia storytelling that I could get behind. That is a disruption of linearity that I could be interested in. But short videos on the web that you have to put down the book (even the ebook because your Kindle can't handle this shit) in order to access and that don't even move forward the plot half the time? Are we so worried that our kids aren't reading anymore?

Because really, to me, it seems to come down to two issue: 1. people aren't reading as much as they used to, 2. controlling the brand.

Yes, people are probably reading less that they used to and there are all kinds of studies some of which I have read and some that I have not that prove this and draw all manner of conclusions from it. I though, am of the camp that not all reading is good reading, that if kids are watching good films or good television, or playing well crafted video games, then who cares that they don't like reading the stale books that outdated English departments claim are "classics"? Reading good books is good. Reading bad books is a waste of time and brain cells. And putting videos into books isn't going to make them good and thus worth our time. Videos alone will not save the industry.

And the social networking ideas to allow for collaborative authorship that the article mentions - that is one of the most insulting things to a readers intelligence that a publisher could invent. "Hey kids, guess what? You know how you guys like doing things? Well we are going to let you pick the name of our main character's best friend's puppy!!!" If you are going to go for collaborative authorship that is not the way to go. First off, a collaborative original text just makes for a terrible book. Just look at any story that 20+ people try to write together with no one willing to concede their own great ideas on behalf of the work as a whole. So I understand why publishers think that letting the audience (not community) have a role in "collaborative" projects to "be incorporated into minor characters or subplots". But that is just patronizing. The road to collaboration lies with fan fic (not that I am the biggest fan) and with user generated responses across various media. If you want to involve your readers you can't treat them like second class citizens. At this point they won't be satisfied with minor roles and subplots, they have had too much control over telling the stories of their own lives to settle for scraps from the master's table.

And 2: control. Rare is the case when one individual is a talented enough artist that they can not only write a great novel, but they can pen the story boards for the video segments and direct and star in them, they can compose and perform the musical accompaniment, and so on. Rare is the case indeed. So an effective transmedia story, a work that encompasses text, and video, and sound and so on is likely going to be a collaborative project of many artists working together towards a coherent whole. If this were the case of these hybrid novels perhaps I would not hate them so. But as far as I can tell, it is a case where publishers have gained rights to a novel and they want to make sure that no one else (read: no user generated content) can put out the video segments or the music inspired by the novel. It's a preemptive strike. It is a matter of controlling the brand, the product, and the cash flow. I am opposed to this kind of control in all its forms. Now much user generated content is terrible. Not everyone who likes a particular book and feels compelled to comment and react in some form is equally artistic. But a publisher just looking to cash in on the kids and their Youtube fetish before the boat sinks isn't helping anyone either.

Ideally a work is kept open and open-ended. Published under a creative commons license, derivative works would be legal and a community would thrive around a work producing new story lines, video clips, paintings and digital images, music. Each giving rise to new and more creative output. Much of it might be terrible. But not all of it. And just because it is produced does not mean it has to be accepted as canon. These communities are self-regulating.

And if an author wants more control over canonical works in different media or wants to guarantee professional quality work (the author should be the one to decide not the publisher) then the author should collaborate with the artists able to translate his/her vision into new media. But again, each different media form should be able to stand on its own. No one wants to see a 90 sec video clip that doesn't make any sense on its own and has only the barest relationship to a book that they are reading. Put effort into the video. Make them more than supplemental or tangential or throwaways. Make the videos tell their own story in a way that the text cannot. The are innumerable things that a story on film can show that a story in text cannot (and vice versa). Use each medium to tell a portion of the whole story with overlap and interplay. But don't force video clips into a novel just because it might entice some readers away from the television for a few minutes. That isn't new or novel. That isn't creating a sustainable transmedia storytelling platform. That is just the last gasp of a failing system.

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