What’s a hundred years between friends?
That interview last week – I said the novel was two hundred years old, and a couple of folk pointed out I probably meant three hundred. They’re right of course, mea culpa. Honestly, I still think we’re living in the twentieth century, and the eighteenth century always sounds two hundred years old to me.
Folk also pointed out that there are things more than three hundred years old which are probably or definitely novels… so, here, I did actually have a point to make. As far as I know, the novel hit its stride culturally and commercially in the eighteenth century, and has been top dog as far as fiction’s concerned ever since.
Part of its long primacy is because a novel-sized story is meaty enough to satisfy but short enough to finish in a realistic period of time. But part of it’s technology, right? Production, distribution, economies of scale mean your fictional experience has to be small enough to be portable and large enough to sell. Rather suddenly, that’s no longer the case, which is why chapbooks, novellas, Kindle Singles.
I’m not predicting the death of the novel – I don’t think that’s likely and I don’t know enough about publishing to say that sort of thing anyway. But I do think that digital fiction is porous, transcendently ephemeral, ultraportable, and I think that means that a story doesn’t have to be something you start, consume over a defined period, finish. It can be iterative; it can be micro-episodic; it can be free or semi-free; it can be something that you try before you buy.
Free-to-play has been a tremendous success story in casual gaming over the last couple of years. It just makes sense for something with really small marginal costs. That doesn’t mean all games have become, or will become, F2P. Free-to-read, pay-for-extras in some form will come to fiction in some form and to some degree – that’s not really in question. The question that interests me is to what degree this will be artistically interesting and culturally constructive, and how violent the outrage of readers will be.