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When books go digital: The Kills and the future of the novel

Digital technology has changed what, when, where and how we read. zandwacht

There is a section early in Richard House’s transmedia novel The Kills – published this year by Pan Macmillan and long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize – in which the protagonist, Ford, is on the run from some seriously shady financial dealings for a large US contractor in Iraq.

The Kills has been described as both a “multimedia thriller” and a “digitally augmented novel” – and it offers a hint as to what the digital future of the book may hold.

Ford is making his way from Iraq to Turkey in a ragged, fraught manner, never sure who is looking for him and moving between multiple false identities. In a rare still moment he observes a young boy waiting for a bus and wonders how this ordinary-looking boy ended up on the edge of a war zone – and directly below this passage is a link to a short video.

The video is a view of Morocco from a bus window overlaid with a male voice documenting the breakdown of his relationship. It is extraordinarily beautiful and perfectly juxtaposed against the text.

The information in the video, such as it is, doesn’t follow on from the preceding passage and it doesn’t directly relate to any of the story thus far – but it provides an insight into Ford.

It is a part of his history I didn’t necessarily need to know. Once I did, though, it added poignancy to his current situation. I can’t now imagine experiencing this scene other than how House presented it.

Do books have to be made of paper?

The Kills presents one of the futures of the book. Digital technology has changed the nature of reading: what, when, where and how we read. Consequently, our understanding of the book has had to shift also. The book as a physical object with paper pages is now only one version of what a book might be.

Digital books offer new modes of storytelling. edans

Innovations in writing go far beyond the e-book, which continues to represent a change in mode of delivery rather than an innovation of form. The e-book has been considered a transitional form for some time. In fact, in the trajectory of change for books and writing it is the compact disc of writing.

It is important to consider the multimedia, transmedia or digital novel as a wholly different form to the traditional novel – in the same way graphic novels are a different form to the prose novel.

Embedding short video or audio clips into text, as House does in The Kills, can reveal character in unexpected ways, or create atmosphere beyond language.

This technology is now available to all writers working on digital platforms.

But viewing other content is not always a seamless process for the reader – in The Kills you still need to leave the book to a web browser. Nonetheless, the multimedia aspects genuinely enrich the experience. As well as video, House also offers his readers digital works of pictures with text superimposed, reminiscent of the art of American feminist artist Barbara Kruger, and phone messages from characters.

Those features provide a back story that creates an emotional landscape around the words. As a story The Kills is deeply unsettling: full of menace, confusion, violence and treachery. The digital aspects are as spare and taut as the writing – but they also bring a welcome trace of humanity.

Why fix something that isn’t broken?

Does the book need fixing? Aren’t words enough for writers? This kind of question is often raised in discussions around digital technology and the futures of the book.

The prose novel has produced profound insights into humans as a species, and already has the capacity to move and entertain us.

The possibilities inherent in the digital book – or whatever name is finally settled on – won’t appeal to a great many writers or readers, but fortunately, innovation is not an an either/or proposition.

The prose novel will always be the best possible way to tell certain stories, and certain writers will always work in this form – what digital technology offers is choices beyond that.

Kate Pullinger’s Flight Paths is another example of the ways in which multimedia additions to text can be thoughtful and sophisticated. Pullinger describes Flight Paths as a networked novel: it incorporates a series of digital works that include images, text and sound that were created by the author and collaborator Chris Joseph.

The short digital pieces are powerful and restrained, and are used to layer the narrative. Pullinger’s first foray into digital writing, Inanimate Alice, is internationally regarded as a benchmark in this space.

Both Pullinger and House have an affinity for conceptualising stories in ways that transcend the written word – and they revel in the collaborative nature of digital writing.

For every successful example of digital writing there are numerous failures – but every new form has teething problems and questions that hang over its legitimacy. The function of any kind of emerging practice is not to perpetuate the status quo.

Watching a new form emerge is thrilling, and witnessing practitioners such as House and Pullinger grapple with it is breathtaking.

It is a time for unruly writers and disorderly readers.

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