Harlen Campbell

"A writer of fiction has just one obligation -- to entertain the reader.
Only if he has done that superbly can he deal with his personal concerns in a story."

Out of my revised Mind. . . .

Welcome to one of the first author websites on the internet. When I started writing these pages in 1994, the web was only a few tens of millions of sites, and top speed was 56kbs for most folks. I wrote with a lot of faith in technology and with more faith in our human ability to change for the better. Well....

Hindsight is clearer than foresight even if it doesn't pay as well, and it turns out that the web has a couple of unanticipated qualities that, zenlike, are both mutually exclusive and equally true. First, Nothing is lost. Every word I've posted, the brilliant as well as the foolish, is archived somewhere. On the other hand, nothing is permanent. Every thought can be edited, every misguided opinion corrected.

We live only a few tomorrows away from the 21st century. We will all be strangers in that strange land, and getting from now to then will be difficult. We have to create the destination as we approach it (granted, as writers we're all used to that, right?) but the scary thing is that we get one chance. No rewrites, and no one has creative control. How hard will the transition be? Let's look at one piece of it. Our piece, writing . . . .

Gutenberg is finally dying. After nearly seven hundred years of moveable type, we stand on the verge of a new era in the communication of ideas. Thoughts and dreams once transmitted by paper and ink are now coded electronically and passed from mind to mind in seconds over the internet. The change, which began with the invention of the computer, is on-going and accelerating. What does this mean to writers?

I'd like to nail the following theses to the figurative church door of the internet for consideration and comment. Let me know what you think.

Good news, bad news

The novel is dead.
It is linear where the new world will be holographic. It is static where the world will be dynamic. It is a single-medium in a multimedia world.

The book is dead.
Paper -- the print medium -- may continue to exist as a specialty item, but it will no longer be used as an instrument of mass communication. A hardcover book costs only a few dollars to print, and yet publishers have to sell it at twenty or twenty-five dollars to make a thin profit. A CDROM disk, on the other hand, costs a dollar and can hold a hundred MOBY DICK's.

Most large publishers won't survive.
...at least in their present form. Their business centers on shipping paper around the country, between editors and authors, between printers and booksellers. Paper is heavier than electrons. It costs more, and for most purposes, all the value of it is locked in the pattern of ink on it's surface. Patterns are cheap and light. They can be sent around the world almost instantly.

The royalty statement is dead.
Royalties are paid based on copies of a product sold, but the product is the information on a book. Everything else is merely packaging, and no matter how attractive the packaging, the fact is that the information is infinitely reproducible. Anyone who buys the book of the future can make as many copies of the important thing--the words, sounds and pictures--as he or she cares to. So what are we gonna get royalties on? And who's going to control them?

No market for writers is safe.
Motion pictures? They'll soon be on CD-ROM. The VCR market is already as large (in terms of viewings) as the theater presentations, tapes can be copied as easily any other medium, and soon the telephone companies will be able to transmit video in real time. That means anyone with a little technical and business expertise will be able to sell movies on demand to anyone with a telephone. Worse, growing bandwidth and compression technologies will soon put them on the internet. What about magazines? Sorry--they're moving onto the internet now and tomorrow the phone company will be the preferred distribution medium. Newspapers? Music? See above.

The communications world is growing.
There are more channels into the average home today than there have ever been. A hundred years ago, there was one. Print. Fifty years ago, we had only four: radio, television, telephone and print. Since then we have added cable TV (how many channels? 150? 300?), CD-ROM game and music discs, the internet....

The novel will survive. . . .
. . . but you and I won't recognize it. People need stories to take them out of the mundane, make the humdrum bearable, and offer an occasional insight while doing it. Each generation, however, comes to the novel for something different, and the novel not only evolves to offer them what they need but changes shape to provide it in a suitable form.

The 21st century novel will be a 21st century experience.
It won't be enough to put one well-chosen word after another. The novel will have to be full of color and movement, sound and everything else the tech-gnomes will come up with. Smell? Taste?

Authors are more important than ever.
One of the biggest complaints about all the new channels of communication is that there's nothing new on them. Everything is clones and reruns. The future will need more writers, not fewer.

The business of writing will change drastically.
Emphasis will be on the concept, the vision. Creation will move from the garret to the production studio. Graphics and sound, at least, will supplement the written word. That means creativity will become even more limited, constrained, by group-think and economic judgement.

Linearity is passe.
Hypertext means the audience will create its own path through the author's work, and even hypertext is passe. Read that again. Even hypertext is passe. VRML is coming up. Huh? (Virtual Reality Modeling Language.) Okay, they can't do that now, but wait ten years. The box on your desk (or in the phone) will run at gigaflop speed, the screen will hang on the wall, and your audience won't live your stories; they'll interact with them and maybe even change them. And how are you going to hide a plot in that?

Writers are architects. We craft a story by putting this sort of a character next to that sort, sticking them somewhere unpleasant, and then using the mix for a foundation. We nail incidents together, higher and higher, until we've got a resolution. Sometime in the next ten or twenty years, we've got to solve a big problem. How are we going to build a novel if the reader can just wander around our structure any damned way he wants. Suppose he skips the sixth floor and never learns who the hero really loves? How is he going to make sense of all our hard work? Imagine trying to write a mystery or a gothic when the reader can start with the resolution, say "Oh, so that's it!" and throw our work aside. How can we control, not the reader, but the experience?

I'd dearly love to hear opinions or ideas, contrary or not, on how to solve the control problem. I've got an idea or ten, and I'm going to work on them as I have time.

Some ramblings . . . on mysteries:

Before my fellow citizens kindly gave me an opportunity to round out my education with a tour in Southeast Asia, I read nothing but science fiction. I loved it! When members of the English Department at New Mexico State University complained that the characters in SF never changed, never grew, I argued that the authors explored the human condition by holding character fixed and changing the environment, while mainstream fiction examined the way character evolved in a relatively static environment.

But by the time my part in America's Asian adventure was over, I couldn't read the stuff. A story needed a killing to interest me, and that's probably why I settled on the mystery/suspense genre when I decided to write a book. The result -- Monkey, my first -- had a respectable number of corpses strewn through the pages. I thought at the time that they were there to give the protagonist something to do -- figure out who killed them. That isn't true. The dead guys are necessary because of what mysteries are about. The violation and restoration of the natural order.

Murder is the ultimate taboo in our tribe. We may violate it frequently and with gusto, but it is a taboo nonetheless. Whenever some pathetic bozo wastes his ex and her boyfriend, we reach for a newspaper or tune in the actors who read the news to us. The natural order has been violated and we want to see it restored. When the violation is real, we follow the trial with fascination, and if reality disappoints us, proves a bit too bland or provides an ambiguous ending, we pick up a mystery and let the author restore our faith in the natural order.

In the book, the bad guy will be discovered and punished. We count on it. The publishers know that and oblige us by printing stories where justice is done, where good triumphs, and the way the world should be becomes the way the world is.

Are these the most interesting stories? Not any more. They still sell reliably, but our faith in a perfectable world was shaken in the sixties, and the detective/PIs we read about now are more like us. They drink, screw up, fight the good fight against interior demons as well as the devils on the street, and occasionally a killer walks. The important element remains, however. The violation of order and the struggle to restore it. The odds are tougher, that's all.

Later, friends....

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Copyright ©1995-2015 Harlen Campbell — Last updated August 21, 2015.