The Iceberg in the Ditch

I intended yesterday to follow up on a tease at the end of this post, but the more I thought about the issue the more I realized it was the tip of a very big iceberg. Apologies for the delay, and apologies in advance for what may seem a bleak assessment.

For several days now I’ve been visiting sites that contain internet fiction of various stripes. I’ve been reading and trying to get my mind around what’s good about internet fiction and what’s not so good. I’ve been trying to come up with a way of comparing apples to apples across different sites and different authors, yet all the while something has been nagging at me so quietly that it took a while to realize what it was.

I don’t like reading fiction on the internet. Assuming that my view represents a non-trivial percentage of the world population, as opposed to the ravings of an ugly American, this would seem to be a problem.  

For me, sitting in a chair and reading fiction on a computer monitor is not fun. I hesitate to attempt to describe my discomfort with an analogy, but I keep thinking it’s akin to being asked to watch a movie standing up. Yes, it can be done, and it’s not an ordeal as would be, say, watching a movie while standing and holding a bucket of water, but it’s still uncomfortable.

There are a lot of potential factors at work here, and that’s what I’ve been wrestling with since I first recognized my discomfort. I’m going to try to address all of them, too, but even as I do that I’m struck by a basic truth: people don’t like being uncomfortable. If something is uncomfortable they generally just don’t do it. Take exercise, for example. You can tell people it’s good for them until you’re blue in the face, but most people are simply not going to act on that knowledge if it makes them physically uncomfortable. They may try it once, but if it’s uncomfortable they’re probably not going to do it again.

If the movie business insisted that audiences stand, people wouldn’t go to the movies. But the movie business could easily respond to this audience gripe by adding chairs — which is probably what happened about a week and a half after the invention of the zoetrope. Reading fiction off a computer screen already involves a chair (or couch), so there’s not a lot that can be done to make it more comfortable. (Insert your own joke about on-demand massage, in-house concierge service, rotated ice packs or high-dose NSAID’s.)

Before panic takes hold, however, I want to take a step back and look at all the possible factors that might be making me uncomfortable while I’m reading. If you think I missed something, let me know.

Years ago, when I was writing screenplays in Los Angeles, I bought myself an ergonomic chair to go with my first new PC. It was red, it had a couple of adjustments, and over time it slowly destroyed my lower back to the point that I could only sleep on the floor. At which point the rest of my body chimed in with various aching protests.

Like Scarlet O’Hara before me, I vowed never to go through something like that again, so when I had the money I bought one of these. That was ten years ago (or more), and prorated over that time it’s been worth every penny and a bunch of nickels besides. It’s the best chair I’ve ever owned, and it’s the chair I’ve been reading internet fiction in these past few days.

Whatever discomfort I’ve been experiencing, trust me: it’s not the chair.

Here I also have to say that this is simply not the problem. I bought my desk from this place at the same time I bought my chair. It’s big, it’s got a lot of room, good support, and it’s rock-solid. I’ve worked long, long hours at that desk, and by now I’d know if it was an issue.

This is a likely candidate, and I know some of you will roll your eyes when I say that I’m still using a CRT. But hold on a minute….

The CRT was not replaced because the LCD is inherently better. The CRT was replaced because the LCD is cheaper to manufacture and much cheaper to distribute. I’ve owned CRT’s that were better than almost every LCD I’ve seen to-date, and that’s not hyperbole. (Having said that, I’m looking forward to a new LCD, primarily for the increased screen real estate.)

The question here is simply whether my monitor is causing me to dislike the experience of reading fiction off the web. And I can’t really say one way or the other until I try using other monitors. What I can say is that there are probably a lot of people out there using old CRT’s, or cheap (meaning bad) LCD’s, and that presents the internet fiction movement with two potential problems. First, if reading online fiction is unpleasant for a large number of people regardless of the display they’re using, it stands to reason that it’s going to be even less enjoyable for people with sub-optimal displays — of which there are certainly plenty in circulation. Second, if it’s only people with sub-optimal displays who find internet fiction difficult to enjoy, how will the online fiction industry motivate people to upgrade or even recalibrate their monitors in order to display clear text?

Either way, the display issue seems to me both critical and impossible to solve: it’s the great hidden bulk of the iceberg lying in the path of the online fiction movement. Unless, of course, you make internet fiction portable via some sort of device that allows people to read fiction apart from their computer display. Such a device could have (and likely would have) a screen specifically designed to render crystal-clear text, while also limiting user configuration options to something simple like brightness or contrast. As a bonus, depending on the size and weight of the device, it would also liberate users from specific terminals or locations while providing a reading experience more like that of a book.

But that’s crazy talk about the distant future. For me, right now, the problem I have with blaming my monitor is that this is the same monitor I work on all day. If I’m on deadline I may work on it intensively for weeks or months at a time, all day, every day, yet I never feel like I’m going blind or having trouble staying focused.

My corrected vision is 20/15. Also, because I’m nearsighted I’m really only using my lenses at full strength for distant viewing. Up close my vision is 20/20 without correction, although I do have some astigmatism so I still wear lenses for long bouts of reading — whether at the computer or propped up on the couch. I don’t think my eyesight is an issue.

I’m 48 years old as I write this. Relative to the bioelectric technogeneration which is currently driving our society headlong into a wireless nirvana, I am dead. Perhaps even completely decayed and forgotten, with a faded headstone. (My headstone has not been vandalized, however, because kids don’t go outside and interact with physical objects any more.) [Note to myself: crank out ‘Smashing Headstones’ iPhone app; use backlash to create buzz.]

It’s entirely possible that I just don’t ‘get’ online fiction, the way old fogies during the 60’s had trouble with rock n’ roll, or, say, civil rights. Maybe if I’d been raised on computer screens and iDevices and socially-networked pseudo relationships things would be different, but it’s too late for that. I missed my evolutionary moment and simply can’t adapt to the idea and reality of fiction on the internet.

Okay, fair enough. But the problem here is that I actually write fiction using a computer. And I use the same computer for that task that I’m using to read fiction: same monitor, graphics card, processor, etc. It could be that I’m just used to reading in a different context — on the couch, in bed before going to sleep, in the bathroom (which, as an aside, seems to me unarguably to be the origin of the word ‘multitasking’, as well as the practical high point of that time-saving philosophy) — but I really have a hard time believing that.

I may not be the most cutting-edge person in the world, but I’m fairly current. I tend to lag the bleeding edge, but that’s a choice born of the wasted time and effort that goes into being an early adopter. I’ve been using computers to write (and read from) for over twenty years. I’ve binge-played games on the PC until my eyes were bleeding. I’ve put in brutal hours meeting deadlines. I know what it’s like to be physically uncomfortable in front of a computer, and the discomfort I have reading fiction on the internet doesn’t seem like anything I’ve felt before.

Most of the time that I spend in front of my computer is spent doing something. Writing, playing, working, clicking, mousing, searching, analyzing, debugging, complaining. There is almost nothing I do on my computer which is passive in any sense. I don’t watch movies on my computer. I don’t even watch video clips very often.

So maybe reading on the computer feels odd because it’s so…easy. Even when I’m reading something for work I’m doing all kinds of other things — making notes, editing, looking things up — so it’s a bit unusual for me to be completely passive in front of my keyboard, using only the scroll wheel on my mouse to change the text on the screen.

In this same vein, I do know that my ability to play a given computer game for way too many hours is a direct function of the decision-making loop that that game creates. Some games are relaxed about this kind of thing, so you can play a while, stop, then play more. Other games, like any title in the Civilization series, are like crack on steroids. Watching dawn break over the top of the monitor while thinking, “Just one more turn…” is an experience every Civilization player has had. The immediacy of the feedback and the wealth of non-stop choices to be made, combined with the vast scope of the game, make it almost impossible to disengage — and online fiction provides none of that.

If you’re not familiar with this term, here’s the definition I used in a doc that I wrote a few years back (which I will be adding to the site in the near future):

The primary aim of the storyteller in any medium is the creation of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. This state of suspended disbelief allows an audience to deny the theater seat they are in or the book they are holding, while at the same time allowing them to accept the fictional accounts being presented in a way that directly accesses their emotions.

The key point here is that suspension of disbelief is a mental state. If you’re not in that state then the words on the page are just words on the page. Because almost all individuals (audiences) are inherently open to stories, it’s up to authors to provide stories that support this mental state as consistently as possible. But authors aren’t the only ones who can destroy suspension of disbelief.

If the book you’re reading has faint or smudged print, you’re going to have a hard time staying with the story it tells no matter how good that story is. If the movie you’re watching is flickering all over the screen it doesn’t matter how comfortable the chairs are. If you’re watching a stage play and someone’s cell phone keeps going off, forget it.

But that’s not the worst of it. Even if everything is going right — even if the author is totally on her game, and there are no outside distractions — there’s still a time limit. If you’re watching a movie, it’s about two hours. Go past that, and no matter how good the movie is people are going to get restless and start thinking about things other than the film — like the fact that they’re stuck in a chair.

And that, I think, is the root of the problem for me. Reading is not like any other entertainment experience, and the difference is of even greater importance for fictional works that require suspension of disbelief. Unlike film, music, stage plays, art galleries, dance, sports, origami, hula hoop, mumblety peg and whatever else you got, reading is not a sensory experience. Text is taken in through the eyes, but meaning must be processed in the brain/mind before it can be understood and experienced.

This additional processing step creates an additional opportunity for distraction, interruption, etc., precisely because the mind must stay focused on text in order to understand what it means. Now add in the requirement of maintaining suspension of disbelief and you can see that what’s happening when someone is reading fiction on the internet (or from a book) is considerably more involved than a sensory experience such as watching a movie or listening to music.

And that’s why I think I don’t like reading fiction on the internet. It’s not any one thing that’s wrecking it, it’s the sum total of things large and small that intrude on my mental space as I’m trying to let go of reality and join the thread of imagination on the screen in front of me. I’m in the chair, I can see the monitor just fine, the text is clear…but I can’t get into the mental gear I need to be in.

Maybe things would be a bit better if I was slumped on a couch with a notebook burning the tops of my thighs. Or maybe I’d have an easier time of it if I listened to some music while I was reading. And if I thought about it long enough I could probably come up with other ways to make the experience more palatable…but no matter what I came up with I think it would still pale in comparison to reading a book, which means there’s little motivation to seek out online fiction in the first place.

The obvious if slightly overwrought conclusion here is that the internet is simply the wrong device for conveying fiction to readers. Yes, some people will have no problem with it. And some people will enjoy it all the more because it’s a niche experience instead of mainstream. But overall I have to say I think this conclusion is right. Reading fiction directly off the internet is going to have limited appeal for most people, which necessarily translates into limited commercial appeal.

Obviously this also explains why so much emphasis is being placed on the development of e-readers, as well as why there has never been a committed effort to scan written works and share them peer-to-peer. There is no pent-up audience for online texts comparable to the tidal wave of people who went looking for MP3’s on Napster.

(Note also how forcefully the MP3 caught on, even though it does not reproduce the full depth and texture of original CD-audio recordings. MP3’s sound worse than CD’s, and even people who say they don’t notice a difference — and I believe them when they say that — can tell the difference when comparing the two. But most people don’t care because MP3’s provide an acceptable sensory experience. Now try to imagine any way in which online fiction could reduce its display quality and still satisfy the reader. There is no technological advance, no codec for online fiction that will make it sexy and easier to embrace.

In the end, publishing fiction to a computer screen is a problem. Whether it’s the quality of the monitor or the clarity of the font or the size of the text or the comfort of the chair or the heat from the laptop or the need for suspension of disbelief there are so many things arrayed against the reader’s need to process the text into an emotional experience that I can’t think of a single parallel in any other medium. And if what you’re trying to do is turn fiction on the internet into a form of mass-market entertainment, that’s about as big an iceberg as you could possibly run into.

So what does this mean?

It means that fiction on the internet is never going to replace books or e-readers. E-readers may in fact replace books, or at least segments of the book market, but I don’t see any way that either freely-available internet fiction or pay-per-whatever internet fiction is going to compete with portable, and more importantly, dedicated print publishing. As a distribution medium I think the internet is clearly the future for the written word, but as a publishing medium it has serious drawbacks.

Does this mean nothing will work? No, that’s emphatically not what it means. All I’ve established in my own mind is that you’re not going to be able to write a novel and put it on the web and have people enjoy it as they might if it was a book. Books and e-readers are still going to have a competitive edge.

Then again, the question of how many online readers a given writer is looking for is an important variable. Some writers might be thrilled with fifty regular readers, and that’s probably doable. Maybe even easily doable.

And there’s the obvious point that some writers might simply be shut out of the book market by current priorities in the book world. A niche writer or a new writer can still use the internet to get their work to market — and may be able to do so even more readily as e-readers and internet content merge into a seamless whole.

It’s also still possible, maybe even likely, that some genres of internet fiction, including forms that have yet to be codified, could work quite well. For example, creating a fictional equivalent of some of the already-successful non-fiction blog forms might work quite well because it would mimic the bite-sized appeal of such sites.

And of course there’s always humor, as The Onion has clearly shown.

The web may also become a great place to roll out the first chapter of a novel for unknowns as well as perennially bestselling authors. As someone noted in the comments yesterday, director James Cameron just put 15 minutes of Avatar, his upcoming 3-D holiday release, on Imax screens all over the world. In an increasingly distracted and competitive marketing environment, it’s probably only a matter of time before those 15 minutes are a download or clickable clip.

For me, I think the best way to avoid the iceberg is to keep expectations in check and eyes on the prize. I’m going to do that first by broadening my definition of internet fiction to something like electronic fiction. Whatever differences currently exist will fade as the internet and devices like e-readers become more integrated. Second, I’m going to try to focus on something I really want to explore from a craft perspective, then do it as well as I can. This is still the time for unbridled experimentation, and sooner or later somebody’s going to do something truly emotionally compelling which will show others the way.

I don’t believe, in general, that people all over the world are going to want to read fiction off web sites. Then again, there are 6.7 billion people as I write this. Maybe there will be enough willing eyeballs that a niche market — maybe even a ‘minor league’ — will take root, just as independent filmmaking has grown over the years. Or maybe online fiction will be concentrated in a few key sites or communities, but those communities will be vibrant, robust and influential.

In any case, there’s no compelling reason not to write fiction for the web. The iceberg that’s out there is only going to sink you if you think internet fiction is the next big thing. It’s not. It’s the next logical expression of a very old and revered craft, and that’s enough for me.

Finally, for those of you who pushed through to the end of this post, I would like to note that you just read 3,500 words, which is about the length of a short story. It probably took you a while to read through it, but assuming I didn’t bore you to tears or confuse your repeatedly your own sense of that experience should tell you whether you like reading online much yourself. I hope you do, but as the author of this little demonstration, I have to say I don’t.

— Mark Barrett

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  1. Ma Joad says

    I agree with your conclusion that the drawback of reading fiction online is the sum of the distractions that each person brings to the table. And many of these reasons even cause me to print long newspaper articles for better reading….she says slumped on the couch with a laptop burning her legs and radiating lord knows what .

    “Just one more turn…” is an experience every Civilization player has had. The immediacy of the feedback and the wealth of non-stop choices to be made, combined with the vast scope of the game, make it almost impossible to disengage — and online fiction provides none of that.”

    Right, which is why those of us who want to write electronic fiction should be coming up with innovative ways to use the advantages of the medium in order to make reading fiction online more interactive with the kind of feedback loops a book cannot provide. (Or adding additional levels of experience to a book experience)

    Now, do I get a prize for making it through 3500 words, even though I have a soap opera on TV?

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