Storytelling in the Digital Age

From the early twentieth century to the present, people have speculated on the death of the novel. Nonetheless, the novel as a literary form has grown, with tens of thousands of new titles every year in the United States alone. The problem isn’t that there are fewer novels over time but fewer readers. Has it finally come to pass that our lack of time, our shorter attention spans, and our own hyper-literacy that generates endless texts and emails mean that the novel as a platform for storytelling is finally—truly—in decline?

Perhaps. But the fate of the novel is not the same as the fate of storytelling, an art form that has persisted since prehistory. If we are saying no to traditional short stories and novels, we are not saying no to stories generally. It is only that the media through which these stories are told have transformed, and continue to transform. While this situation may sound threatening to novelists like me, I cannot help but be excited about the new platforms arising in the art of storytelling. Let’s have a look at a few.

Staying with the printed word for a minute, some platforms are big, in part, because they are so small. Ioanna Mavrou, the inventor and editor of the Matchbook Series published by Books Ex Machina, says her magazine is the “tiniest literary magazine in the world.” The exquisitely designed Matchbook Series might succeed as objet d’art even without the beautiful stories, but the stories are essential. Inside each “matchbox” are stories of a maximum of 150 words printed on the pages inside a small matchbook cover. The experience of this three-dimensional magazine adds to the experience of reading, itself. The length of each piece, digestible in the time it takes a single match to burn out, ensures that readers’ time commitment is limited, their experience of the stories part of a larger aesthetic. If you pick up the box and shake it, it even sounds like a box of matches. Matchbook stories promise an unusual experience if only because of the design, but Ioanna’s commitment to literature comes before visual considerations. “Books as objects should be beautiful, a joy to look at and to hold as well as to read. But design is always there to add to content, never the other way around,” she says.

Even when the written word isn’t so pretty, it is still sought after, though increasingly through phone applications. I spoke to Andrew Hayward at Ether Books, a fascinating mixture of traditional and digital publishing that operates wholly through a smartphone. Ether started life as a short story site with the shout line: “Short stories and mobile phones are made for each other.” They are now developing the site so that a reader can download a novel’s first chapter for free. If you wish to continue with the book, you press an icon, and the money is taken and paid back to the publisher and writer. Reading on our phones is a major trend. In 2012 the share of people reading part of a book on a smartphone was 24% and a whole book was 9%. In 2014, this had risen to 54% and 14%. 

But other than the phone platform, is Ether’s model truly a new idea? “Not at all,” says Hayward, whose background in publishing includes major positions with Penguin Books and Constable Robinson. “We used to print run-ons from the first chapters of books and give them out free at train stations and tube stops. We’d hope those who took the chapters would then go into buy the book in a bookshop, because in those days we only sold books through bookshops. Now we can be more efficient. Phones are the fastest-growing digital reading device on the planet and we put those chapters straight onto them.”

Of course, there have been innovators in our manner of reading for some time now. One of the most famous was the brainchild of Eli Horowitz, managing editor and publisher of the indie publishing company McSweeney’s from 2002 to 2010. At McSweeney’s, he edited and designed books and magazines that included some of the world’s most famous authors—Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon, Stephen King, and Nick Hornby, to name a few. A Robert Coover Story was printed on what looked like a deck of cards. An Ann Beattie story slotted like a passport into what might have been a travel kit. Books had belly-bands and offset print and covers that looked like trifold screen paintings.

The books are pieces of art in every sense, and Horowitz has not slowed down since leaving McSweeney’s. His current projects are all about expanding the experience of reading through different platforms. According to its website, Horowitz’s novel, The Pickle Experience, can be read from outside in, by way of “two lavishly illustrated hardcovers nestled together in a gold-encrusted slipcase, plus an unprecedented feat of interactive book design.” Or from the inside out, through a smartphone application. I learned about this from the Future of Story Telling Summit which takes place annually in New York, and at which Horowitz offered copies of his book along with actual pickles, for anyone wanted the full pickle experience.

The future of Story Telling (FoST) is an organization that “brings together leaders from the worlds of media, technology, and communications to explore how stories are changing in the digital age.” FoST is interested in innovation, in science, in technology, in art.  Cutting-edge thinkers gather every year to share ideas that range from traditional storytelling to the newest in games and digital platforms. Ideas have to be new, hot, reimagined. The next summit takes October 5 and 6, but don’t pack your bags just yet. The annual FoST Summit is by invitation only, though a small number of spots is reserved for application-based participants. You can apply to be added to their waiting list by visiting FoST’s website:

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