‘Level 26′ Digi-Novel: The Future of Literature?

by John on June 10, 2009

I was told by my marketing handler at Penguin/Berkley to visit the Penguin Books Booth when I was on the trade floor at Book Expo America last month. She wanted me to introduce myself to the sales and promotional people there so they had a face with the name in case Harry Potter’s Bookshelf ever takes off. That turned out to be a fool’s errand — the sales people were there to make sales with the gazillion booksellers present, not make face time with wanna-bes — but I did catch a glimpse of what may be the future of popular literature. Or is it just a repackaging of the present?

Penguin/Dutton was promoting heavily via hard displays, advance copies, and video terminals a book titled Level 26, “the first Digi-Novel,” “from the creator of the hit show CSI.” If you go to the web site for the book, you’ll read this description of the “Digi-Novel” experience:

Read, watch, log-in, and inter-act. Level 26 breaks all boundaries of traditional publishing by combining motion picture quality film and an interactive community website with a thriller novel.

I was given a copy of the book, and, frankly, thought little of it. I read the first chapter on the bus ride home, though, and was curious enough to go to the press web site to check out the “motion picture quality film” that serves as a bridge between chapters. You can read the book straight through, it turns out, without checking out the video bridges and still follow the story — but the video segments are incredible.

[Username level26press, password 35ab4p] I say “incredible” in the sense of “jarring,” literally “unbelievable” but only in the sense of being much too close to the edge of and maybe over the line of pornography. Weak stomached as I am, I couldn’t watch much more than the opening minute of the first bridge (a naked woman being tortured and, I assume from the follow-on chapter, murdered). Dropping in on several other film bridges, they weren’t much better.

But the film quality was, indeed, up to high television, even “motion picture” grade A standards.

So what?

I think this idea is simply the much tighter packaging of what already exists for Harry Potter and Twilight fandoms. You have a book, a blockbuster movie that is more or less faithful to the book, and a glut of interactive web sites on which fans and serious readers can become more involved with and extend or deepen their experience of the story. ‘Level 26,’ a boiler plate thriller about a maniacal killer, however, puts the three elements into the author/producer/publisher’s hands and, this is the thing, delivers them simultaneously and, consequently, that much more powerfully(?).

It’s an acknowledgment of what readers seem to want that had to have been put together after observation of the biggest book successes of our time (Harry and Bella, most obviously) with film tie-in franchises and internet followings. Now that this bundling of book-movie-and-interactive-site is with us, I’m only surprised that it hasn’t been done before — and very suspicious that this is the next step in 21st Century packaging of imaginative experience.

‘Everything that has a front has a back, the Bigger the Front, the Bigger the Back’ my Japanese friends always told me. What are the huge front and back of Level 26?

The front is a high tech integration of how postmodern people experience things imaginatively. We’re a very long way from shepherds or rhapsodes singing epic poems around a camp fire. This bundling, I think, changes how we enter into a story as much as the printed novel did in the late 18th century. Just as that sea change diminished the social quality and shared experience of a story into an essentially individual event and exchange between author and reader (with the benefits of many more people being able to experience the author’s words) so the simultaneous release of website, film-bridges, and book breaks with the past release of novels in just the form of words on a printed page.

What we get out of it is greater auctorial control of a book’s film representation; the story requires the film portions be written into the work and that experience, with its several differences, being reflected in the writing of consequent chapters. Level 26 wouldn’t work except for the author’s experience as a writer and producer of ‘CSI’ and I’m betting we’ll see new story tellers come to the fore who are similarly ambidextrous, if you will.

The back, I think, is fairly obvious. The virtues of the novel’s form, most notably, the individual’s imaginative experience and private understanding and relationship with the author is about to be very much diminished. The imagination of what the author wants you to “see” with your mind’s eye is going to be given to you, pre-chewed and digested, in visual images that are necessarily making a more forceful impression on your memory.

And, if this bundling practice becomes anything like an industry norm, there will be very little room for aspiring artists that don’t own or have access to film making companies to gain a foothold in the marketplace. I said before the bundling promises greater ‘auctorial control;’ as likely, it means only greater conglomerate and corporate control of story production and experience. Publishers and movie producers are joined at the hip in this simultaneous presentation of film and print media — and the little guy story teller, however talented and inspired, won’t have much more than a committee member’s role in shaping the story.

No more Jo Rowlings or Stephenie Meyers, in effect, until the Jo Rowlings of the world become film savvy or the Stephenie Meyers accept the bit player role that screen writers now have.

Your comments and corrections, as always, are coveted!

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