This week I’ve been reading novels at obooko. There are some fine, fine books on offer there.
It intrigues me, though, that something can niggle away in the back of your mind; you notice it a few times and even grumble about it. Still, it doesn’t quite assume a clear definition until you tell someone else what you’ve seen. They can say then, from the brilliant perspective of the third party, just exactly what it is that is bothering you.
Some, if not all, novels that appear online have proven unsalable.
That does not mean for a single moment that they are bad; the three books I am particularly thinking about are well written. The authors have an ease with words and a fluid style. There is nothing to fault in their ability to write.
However, the publishing industry only deals with two kinds of books: those that speak a universal or important truth in beautifully crafted language, and those that tell a story that readers will enjoy.
The first category is contentious. The second is genre. Publishers publish work within the bounds of certain genres, even to formula, because readers can then easily identify the kind of story they enjoy and assume the reward they are likely to get from reading. They might choose the informative detail of history, or thrill-a-minute action, or the emotional resonances of romance.
What I am finding, over and over in web novels, are works that do not follow genre guidelines. Top hole, I hear you say. Good! About time. Freedom. No artificial restrictions on a damn fine story. I agree.
But what I am seeing is not work with the freedom to range beyond and become sublime; simply work that is not focussed on any goal and fails to become anything in particular. Not all, but some.
If you tell me a story about a couple who rode their bikes, it had better be less than one thousand words – or Literature. I don’t have hours to devote to their progress. I don’t care about their journey.
So you tell me about an historical couple who escape on their horses instead, and I’m interested. How did the stone of the windowsill feel under their fingers? Why was this keep built in stone and not wood? Where would the building have been positioned, that he might leap from a window to clear the pickets of the castle wall?
But we’ve rushed the story past those details now and they have escaped - a couple riding off into danger together. They’ve given each other the eye, perhaps they are a love match. How does she feel, raised as an illegitimate daughter? What are her hopes and fears? How does she feel when she sees him? What emotions are stirred; does she hope, does adrenaline rush, does she fear his dark strength, does he value her courage and beauty?
Well, yes to all of those we are told in summary, but we’ve rushed past those details now, because he has some nonspecific magical powers and they’re caught up in some skirmishes. Every bit as inconsequential as the first pair on their treadlies, and it should not be. The author uses words with skill, so why am I skimming and looking for the story?
Some set off to be one thing, a romance perhaps, and with that resolved and dissolved mid-book they become something else altogether. Some trudge along as a history without any apparent conflict and resolution – just some historical characters going from A to B. Why?
When I first began reading webfiction I asked the community if the removal of editorial dictates would mean the freedom to expand and develop new forms of expression, or if we would simply descend into the blah grey morass of melting pot gruel where the lowest common denominator was the only standard. Opinion then was sharply divided.
I’ve seen both. I’ve been astonished by clear original brilliance and petulant because no one else has done the footwork for me and filed things in the neat boxes I’m used to complaining about.
In the end I suppose that freedom is the freedom to choose what I want to read and to write. Perhaps the dissolution of editorial boundaries will result in a whole new system for defining written work.
However it happens, something will happen. Human beings do not do well when inundated with choices. We are easily overwhelmed. Ad agencies make millions finding new ways to hold their products up front and centre.
If we treasure this new freedom to express words as Art and to walk freely into the marketplace without having to show our resume at the gate, we need to develop an inclusive system which can still assist readers in making an informed choice.
Definition without discrimination. Ha! Has that ever been done in human history?