‘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!

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

LibraryLily June 10, 2009 at 10:39 am

Ack.

I don’t like that thought at all. For me, the fun of being a part of Harry Potter and Twilight fandom lies in the non-conglomerate aspects. I stay off the film websites except to watch a new trailer, and though I don’t obsessively follow the big fan sites, I value what Melissa and Emerson and the like have done and would ten times rather put time and energy into commenting on a site run by a fan than on a site run by corporate.

Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I couldn’t look around on the Level 26 website; it looked frightening and disgusting. I’ll wait till they come out with something happy to make a final judgment call. :D

The literary medium makes me think of video games like Final Fantasy, things with game interaction built into stories. I liked the three hours I once played of Final Fantasy X tolerably well, though I never could get into the whole video game thing. Combined experience doesn’t bother me entirely … in this case it just smacks too much of control. And I do like having some things left to my imagination.

As a writer, I cringe a bit at the thought … interaction and all, it still seems like making the reader more passive and not less.

Learning to write screenplay seems like a very small problem to overcome in comparison to being even more a pawn in the hands of big companies. I like the indie movement.

Arabella Figg June 10, 2009 at 3:42 pm

And thus the great steed of literature becomes a conglomerate camel creating bread and circuses for…whom?

revgeorge June 10, 2009 at 5:20 pm

I’ll just be happy when I can get all of John’s books in ebook format. He doesn’t have to film any additional content for me. :)

athena June 11, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Hmmm, that sounds a lot like the novel Skeleton Creek published February by Scholastic.

I don’t know if Scholastic used the term digi-novel, but it sounds like similar technology.

I bought Skeleton Creek for my son after hearing about it on Publisher’s Lunch. Once he started reading it, he devoured it in a single night.

Part of the story is told in the book and part of it is watched online.

The premise is that two teenaged friends are trying to solve a mystery, but one is homebound (Ryan) and his friend Sarah cannot visit him in his house. Sarah sends him coded messages with passwords that link to her webcam images she has uploaded for him showing her research in finding clues.

It was a scary story and my son had trouble sleeping, but it is nothing like what you are describing for the video of Level 26

Doris Herrmann June 13, 2009 at 5:58 am

John,

Thanks for your thoughts on the Diginovel. I’ve been reading much about them from the teacher’s perspective, and of course anything that helps our children read and interpret literature can’t be bad. Especially knowing that modern learners are more visual then those of us from another generation.

I understand your thoughts on how this might change the way writers craft their novels, I’ve wondered if a new and budding group of artists who only work on digi-novels will evolve to help new writers.

From my point-of-view, I can’t help wonder how this new phase of reading will change the way my students read and decipher text. Reading has become more interactive, with online forums, discussion blogs such as this and of course some really clever author websites, but it’s my understand that this new evolution of text will bring us a book that can’t stand alone without it’s digital counterpart.

Do you have any opinion on how this new form of text will engage students?

Doris

John June 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Hi, Doris! Have you and the other Leaky All Stars recovered from Leaky Con yet? Thank you for all you did to make that show the hit that it was!

Do I have an opinion? Of course, I have an opinion! I think the Digi-Novel is (1) a packaging of the three ways postmodern people now experience story, namely, printed text, screened image, and interactive media, into one immediate package controlled by one corporate team, and (2) one more step towards total corporate control of story venues and readers being increasingly confined to a shocking surface meaning of story.

What are you thinking? I’m especially curious if you think film, teevee, and computer forums (sic) have increased your students’ appreciation of writer artistry and depths of meaning. In my experience as a teacher (1983 to the present), I think the trend is downward, i.e., less appreciative, and I think the cause is visual and reactive media that undermine reflection and ‘deep mining.’

Doris Herrmann June 15, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Hi John,

I don’t think I’ll ever recover from missing everyone. Really, we need a “let’s just get together and hang out” con. Then we could all stay caught up.

As to what am I thinking? I always think like a teacher, it’s a curse! LOL I was thinking more about those lower readers, or students trying to learn new languages. I see a benefit in allowing them to create their own interpretation, and then seeing a professionally developed interpretation of characters or scenery. In the same way I’ll often take a picture book and have a student draw what they visualize from the story, then show them another illustrators view.

The goal is always to help a student think critically and make their own informed choices. Many teachers will us available forms of media as scaffolding in the language acquisition process ’till the student can master text on their own. I’m curious how this new reading process will change the way teachers use media in the classroom.

Of course Level 26 would not be appropriate material for a student.

Thanks again John, hopefully we’ll get to sit and chat soon.

Doris

John June 15, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Level 26, as you say, isn’t for younger readers but I really like your idea of using this kind of packaging (the ‘Digi-Novel’) for hesitant readers. I suspect like picture books and comics, readers move on to other stuff as well as continue to read what they broke their reading-teeth in on.

John, hoping you’ll sign me up for the “let’s just together” Con

Arabella Figg June 15, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Or it could be like the HP and Twilight films, the very condensed (and changed) versions of the books. How many are content with the films and won’t read the books because they “know” the story? So will digi-book readers be less patient with longer continuous reading material that doesn’t entertain other senses? Even comic books and picture books can still be considered a reading experience. Just a thought.

Dave the Longwinded June 17, 2009 at 6:00 am

John, sorry I missed this post earlier. Now, you’re wandering into territory I know a little about. I don’t know much about Level 26, but the experience you’re describing has an academic name: “transmedia storytelling”. And it’s best known critical proponent is MIT Comparative Media scholar Henry Jenkins. You can check his blog at http://www.henryjenkins.org. He’s also a huge Potter-phile, BTW.

Jenkins explores in his book Convergence Culture what he believes is the quintessential transmedia narrative: The Matrix. Graphic novels, anime, feature films, and videogames all come together to create a cross-media experience that reward fans.

It’s different from something like HP because the movies and games are largely adaptations from the books. In something like Level 26 or The Matrix, the idea is that each media piece is a separate element that helps create the larger story. A videogame, for example, isn’t a simple recap/adaptation of a movie. Instead, it explores another part of the narrative, or of the fictional world. For Jenkins, each piece should be understandable for an audience without a full need to reference the other media. But pursuing the other media will add a richer, deeper story-experience. I don’t need to play Enter the Matrix to understand what happens in the films. But, I will pick up on deeper character developments and in-film references by exploring other aspects of the Wachowski’s creation and integrating them into my experience.

And, yes, if you’re a literary purist, it does smack of uber-marketed pop culture. Without question, money is a key motive — Jenkins acknowledges this.

Doris is absolutely right about media convergence experiences and their use in the classroom. I taught a course in the spring on media convergence called “Graphic and Interactive Culture” — the syllabus is on my blog: http://ohioriverutopia.wordpress.com/104/.

In that course, one of the things we pursued were ways in which modern conflicts are represented in different media streams, and how they might inform an audience’s perspective (and each other). We checked out the book Generation Kill (Evan Wright) and the HBO miniseries adapted from it — about a group of Marines who fought in the 2003 Iraq invasion. And then we compared those representations with a videogame experience, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which allows the gamer to play as a Marine embroiled in a large-scale war in the Middle-East. In addition, we looked at some of the very real (and disturbing) combat footage that reporters and troops have posted to YouTube.

The idea was to get a handle on how these different media both reinforce and contradict the experiences they are creating.

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