In 1858 Wilkie Collins published an essay in Dickens’ Household Words. The Unknown Reader can be read on-line at this link. The essay starts with a thought which almost anybody in today’s book publishing world might have: “Do the subscribers to this journal, the customers at the eminent publishing-houses, the members of book-clubs and circulating libraries, and the purchasers and borrowers of newspapers and reviews, compose altogether the great bulk of the reading public of England? There was a time when, if anybody had put this question to me, I, for one, should certainly have answered, Yes.” He goes on to discuss the penny-novel journals which he has discovered everywhere in cheap stores. These cheap publications sold in the millions attesting to an immense readership beyond the reach of the established publishing industry — although the stories they contained were not very “good” by conventional standards. We in book publishing tend to assume that quality counts, and when we inveigh against the generation which seems to us reluctant to read, we really mean reluctant to read the sorts of books which we regard as worthwhile. Collins reports on the reduction in sale of the penny-novel journals whenever they tried to slip in some “quality” writer’s work, and ends up “having, inferentially, arrived at the two conclusions that the Unknown Public reads for amusement, and that it looks to quantity in its reading, rather than to quality”.

When we rabbit on about how awful it is that kids today don’t read, we ignore all the on-line reading that actually goes on. Social media writing does provide narrative, and promotes a lot of “reading”. It’s not War and Peace, but it’s not nothing either, and certainly cannot be regarded as not forming a reading habit. Will this or that child move from Instagram or texting to War and Peace? Who knows? Did this or that reader of penny-novel journals move on to The Moonstone? Probably not many of them did or will, but is that really a problem?

Another huge source of narrative reading which we established adults tend to ignore is the world of video games*. I know we all think kids figure out everything on the computer by playing around with trial and error, but games serve up a lot of reading which the millions of serious gamers will devour. Here’s a fascinating account of a gaming life from The Millions. Isn’t it just snobbery to regard this kind of narrative as less valuable than a story of love during the Napoleonic wars? Of course War and Peace is “better” than other stories of love during the Napoleonic wars, but that’s not just because it’s written as a book rather than as on-line background to a video game. It could be a video game, and might be rather a good one. You wouldn’t think someone who had played the War and Peace Game as having read the novel, just as Game of Thrones players have not by playing the game read George R. R. Martin’s books — but I bet there’s a lot more cross-over than we’d imagine.

Up until now we have been floundering around trying to figure out how to gussy up our books to attract this non-mainstream audience. Taking War and Peace and turning it into an enhanced e-book is not however the way to go. Adding maps, pictures, music, video clips, annotations of 19th century military tactics, etc., etc. is turning out to provide a worse experience than nothing at all, because the extra material ends up just being a distraction from the main event, the narrative.  The Millions article suggests we need to get writers involved in creating copy for the games developers, and also suggests books which lend themselves to gaming. I think the real point is that we need to get beyond the idea of adapting x for purpose y. We are on the brink of “discovering” a new form of fiction telling. It won’t extend the range of the novel; it won’t adapt the energy of the video game; it will be an entirely new format, invented to take advantage of the technological innovations which have been coming at us so fast. This Guardian story about the future of the book hints at possible directions. I did a post on virtual reality last month in which I said I’d sign up for such a version of Middlemarch, but of course a virtual reality wouldn’t be a replacement for the book — you can’t get the author’s ironic sidelights in a “real” version (just as you can’t know the inner thoughts of the person you are talking to in real life) — so you’d end up wanting to have both versions. How fiction will rework itself to incorporate the new media will be a fascinating thing to watch over the next 5(?) years.

* A report from the London Book Fair about how to get working with game developers was carried on Publishing Perspectives on 16 April. Another update: this one from the London Book Fair pointing out problems in such collaboration, written by Publishing Perspectives again.