How will writers make a living in the future?

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2011

That’s Damien G Walter’s question:

It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.

In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…

I can see where Walter is going here, but the flaw in his logic is easy enough to spot… even more so now that I’ve underlined it, I hope. (*ahem*) I can think of loads of people who still make a living from talking and reading: lecturers, lawyers, performance poets and actors, to name but a few.

And as such I suspect that there will still be people making a living from writing for as long as we still have alphabets to write with. While I can imagine a post-text future for humanity, I think it’s a very long way off from now, and until the day when we all communicate in hyperdense ideoplasts that can compress entire schools of thought into a small yet intricate 4-dimensional shape, people who make widgets are still going to need to hire people with the skill to explain to potential customers why their widgets are (supposedly) better than all the other widgets available.

I’m being a little disingenuous here, of course, as Walter is more specifically thinking about the demise of the writer of fictions rather than the churners-out of ad copy. [The difference between most ad copy and ‘proper’ fiction is left as an exercise of the reader’s cynicism.] But as much as the novel or short story forms we know today may become impossible to monetise in a fully-digital cultural sphere, I still hold that the human desire for story will not vanish until the human itself vanishes… and even then, our posthuman descendents will probably want to tell tales about their simian meatbag forebears in order to understand (or mythologise, or both) themselves, and their place and purpose in the universe.

Walter’s distress – like that of many other writers, my own included – is understandable, but it is also rooted in the very limiting conception of story being something that is printed on thin sheets of compressed and dried wood pulp… which rather overlooks cinema, television, machinima and computer games as storyable media, not to mention the spoken word form that he mentions, and the media we still have yet to discover, invent or adopt. That said, my callously future-focussed big-picture attitude here probably isn’t very comforting for folk trying to pay the rent with the one skill they’ve honed over a lifelong career, and I wish there was a magic wand I could wave that would sort that particular problem out.

But it’s equally disingenuous to wring hands over the Sad and Inevitable Fate of Story: to be led, limping, out to the barn like Old Yeller. That’s a little like lamenting the demise of the buggy whip while completely overlooking the opportunities opening up for whip-makers to redeploy their leatherworking skills on luxurious car interiors… storytelling ain’t going nowhere soon. While there are still people with the drive to tell stories, there’ll be new ways of making the talent pay. Mark my words.

Looking a little less deeply into the future of fiction, however, here’s a piece from The Guardian‘s Robert McCrum in which he looks at the way publishing houses are finally getting to grips with the digital age… and not so much in terms of new technologies or platforms, but in terms of the sort of books they’re printing. The internet and social media may have their faults, but there’s no denying they’ve made it easier to find out what your audience wants… or at least what it thinks it wants, which – as the saying goes – is close enough for government work, though the government don’t seem very keen on using it. Naturally enough, McCrum arrives in closing at the same question as Walter above, but with notably less angst – how’s the economics gonna work out?

I don’t have the answer, more’s the pity, or I’d be raking in big bucks from publishers as a futures consultant (in which capacity, I might add, I am most certainly available for hire at this moment in time – all enquiries and downpayments to the usual address, KTHXBAI). But it’s certainly an important question, and – if you ask me – one best addressed with positivity.

Although, of course, End Times storm clouds on the horizon do make for a more dramatic hook for a story… 😉


Interactive Storytelling

Brenda Cooper @ 04-05-2011

Last month I wrote about talks. This month I’m back on content, looking into interactive books. We have usable tablet PCs and e-readers scattered across almost every household (we have four!), but most of the fiction that I read on them is exactly like the fiction I read in a book. I want more. Continue reading “Interactive Storytelling”


The story of ourselves

Paul Raven @ 17-11-2010

The New Scientist CultureLab blog is running an interesting set of pieces about storytelling in the (post-)modern world (for which there is, regrettably, no single unifying tag or category to which I can link you); it’s probably due to a global swelling of interest in such matters coinciding with my own self-education curve, but in the last few years it’s felt like everything has started to boil down to narratives – the stories we graft on to our experiences so that we can make sense of the world.

Of course, by the terms of the theory, that is a narrative in and of itself… but before we get caught in an infinite loop of meta, let’s skip to this article that wonders how the changing structure of the narratives we produce in our art and culture will affect the ones we produce in our heads.

Gazzaniga […] thinks that this left-hemisphere “interpreter” creates the unified feeling of an autobiographical, personal, unique self. “The interpreter sustains a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. The interpreter is the glue that keeps our story unified, and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent. To our bag of individual instincts it brings theories about our lives. These narratives of our past behaviour seep into our awareness and give us an autobiography,” he writes. The language areas of the left hemisphere are well placed to carry out these tasks. They draw on information in memory (amygdalo-hippocampal circuits, dorsolateral prefrontal cortices) and planning regions (orbitofrontal cortices). As neurologist Jeffrey Saver has shown, damage to these regions disrupts narration in a variety of ways, ranging from unbounded narration, in which a person generates narratives unconstrained by reality, to denarration, the inability to generate any narratives, external or internal.

[…]

If we create our selves through narratives, whether external or internal, they are traditional ones, with protagonists and antagonists and a prescribed relationship between narrators, characters and listeners. They have linear plots with a fixed past, a present built coherently on it, and a horizon of possibilities projected coherently into the future. Digital technologies, on the other hand, are producing narratives that stray from this classic structure. New communicative interfaces allow for novel narrative interactions and constructions. Multi-user domains (MUDs), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), hypertext and cybertext all loosen traditional narrative structure. Digital narratives, in their extremes, are co-creations of the authors, users and media. Multiple entry points into continuously developing narratives are available, often for multiple co-constructors.

These recent developments seem to make possible limitless narratives lacking the defining features of the traditional structures. What kinds of selves will digital narratives generate? Multi-linear? Non-fixed? Collaborative? Would such products still be the selves we’ve come to know and love?

As heady as these implications seem, we should not get carried away. From a literary perspective, digital narrative’s break with tradition will either be so radical that the products no longer count as narrative – and so no longer will be capable of generating narrative selves – or they will still incorporate basic narrative structure, perhaps attenuated, and continue to produce recognisable narrative selves.

Or, to put it another way, “we just don’t know, so we’ll have to wait and see”. But it’s fascinating stuff, if only for the tantalising offer of a place where literary theory, anthropology and hard neuroscience might one day all meet up… and that would be an awesome place to spend one’s life theorising, don’t you think? 🙂


Tell Your Own Damn Stories! Games, Overreading and Emergent Narrative

Jonathan McCalmont @ 10-11-2010

In a move that is somewhat unusual for a videogame column, I would like to ask you to consider not a game or a development in the gaming industry but a film… and not just any film, but an obscure art house film.

Poster for Las Horas del DiaJaime Rosales’ The Hours of the Day (2003) (a.k.a. Las Horas Del Dia) tells the story of Abel.  Abel lives with his mother and operates a decidedly unglamorous clothing shop in a run-down part of town.  He has a low-intensity relationship with his girlfriend who wants them to move in together, he has a passive-aggressive relationship with his shop assistant who wants more severance pay than Abel can afford and he has a rather tense friendship with another man who wants him to invest in a marketing project.

Though these relationships dominate Abel’s life, he is distant from all of them; he bickers with his mother, he sabotages his girlfriend’s attempts to find them a flat and he ruins his best friend’s wedding day by casually revealing that the bride once made a pass at him.  In all of his dealings, Abel comes across as weirdly detached and disconnected, as though the human world is somehow beyond his comprehension.  This disconnection from every-day social reality makes Abel almost impossible to understand.  We do not understand why he sabotages his relationships and we certainly do not understand the savage murders that Abel carries out seemingly at random throughout the film.  Because Abel’s motivations are so completely impenetrable, it is remarkably difficult to extract anything resembling a human drama from the events depicted in The Hours of the Day.  The film does not appear to be a comment upon unhealthy relationships or the absurdity of existence or even a portrait of one man’s descent into madness.  It is simply a series of events presented in chronological order.  Stuff happens. Continue reading “Tell Your Own Damn Stories! Games, Overreading and Emergent Narrative”


Heavy metal spec fic

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2010

Every now and again, my two great loves – loud guitar music and speculative fiction – collide in interesting ways. Witness io9’s piece on the latest album by Texan retro-metallers The Sword, which is a concept album of the old school, based on an unpublished story written by frontman J D Cronise. (The Sword, incidentally, are a superb live act; if you’ve any love for heavy metal whatsoever, be sure to go see them play if you get the chance.)

Science fiction and rock music have always been connected to some degree, but in my experience people tend to assume that their explicit linkage died off around the same time as the dinosaurs of the original Seventies progressive movement. (The heavier types of metal, largely due to the formative work of the mighty Black Sabbath, have tended to cleave to imagery that is more easily classified as horror or “dark fantasy”… always assuming that one can come to any sort of universally-agreeable definition of what either of those terms actually mean.) As mentioned a while ago, Jason Heller had a great essay at Clarkesworld that considered a whole batch of rock albums as science fiction texts, and it neatly puts the lie to the notion of an epoch of disconnection between the two spheres (though I’d argue that Heller ventures way outside the confines of what I’d define as “rock”, though that’s far less a judgement of value than one of aesthetics on my part.)

And out in the musical hinterlands, science fiction and rock music are still finding ways to connect to each other – something I’m fortunate enough to be well-placed to observe in my capacity as an independent reviewer of (often extremely) marginal musics. For example, only a few days back I was listening to a band called Constants, whose final song on their second album was entitled “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” (PKD titles are one of the most consistent reference points for modern bands, in my experience).

Then there’s the mighty Clutch, whose bluesy roadhouse-rawk references sf ideas and texts with almost frivolous abandon when the mood takes them (try “Escape From The Prison Planet“, or “The Rapture of Riddley Walker“, if you can cope with the horrible bandwidth and quality of live footage on YouTube). And I never tire of extolling the virtues of Manchester’s very own Amplifier, who have the rare knack of catching the epic scale and sensawunda of space opera in their sprawling and slightly proggy compositions – in fact, when I guested at Philip Palmer’s blog a while ago, I plucked out their majestic “UFOs” for appreciation by a wider audience. Go have a listen.

Music, after all, is another form of storytelling (and arguably a much older one than the novel and short story), so it should come as no surprise that the ideas and imagery of science fiction appear there, too. What sf-nal musics are lurking on your Generic Digital Music Playback Device, rock or otherwise? Call ’em out in the comments; maybe we’ll all find something fresh to listen to. 🙂


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