On fiction and interactivity

October 9, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Even as a child, I was distrustful of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of novels, which allowed young readers to decide the outcome of the stories by selecting one of a group of preset options. (If you want the hero to jump off the cliff, go to page 98. If you want the hero to bite the head off the bat, go to page 66.) From the time I started reading fiction, I understood intuitively that one of the reasons I gleaned so much enjoyment from the practice had to do with relinquishing control: for the duration of my reading experience, I put my own desires and predilections aside and allowed the author to take me on a journey. Perhaps the journey would not lead to the expected destination, and perhaps I’d be disappointed with where I ended up, but this too was part of the magic. In a very few cases, the author would see to it that by taking me somewhere I didn’t expect – or possibly even want – to go, my own narrow horizons were expanded, even just a little.

Times have changed since I read those Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. Society has become more narcissistic, more demanding of instant gratification, more needy. People insist that their own needs and desires be met, and on their own terms, in virtually all transactions – social, professional, even artistic. The rise of the focus group has ensured that the mainstream movies coming out of Hollywood in the past three decades have cleaved to a boring middle ground, and the rise of first-person video games has solidified the idea that the viewer should be at the centre of the story and should be able to actively participate in determining the story’s outcome.

Channelling this über-individualistic strain of the zeitgeist, The Walrus magazine is launching a Choose Your Own Adventure–type novel in its November issue. Written by Stephen Marche, the novel, Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period, will appear a section at a time, and readers will be allowed to determine the trajectory of the story by clicking their preference online.

The first part of the novel is online at The Walrus website. The rubric around the project reads as follows:

Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period is an interactive novel with hundreds of possible storylines and multiple outcomes. It uses a Web format to capture the reality of a young woman in Toronto in the early 2000s, allowing the reader to explore different aspects of Lucy’s life and times and the city in which she lives, while following her through the labyrinth of her various futures. Lucy’s fate, like our own, is up in the air, open to negotiation and sudden change.

The reader is then invited to read the story’s opening paragraphs, which find a woman and man in bed together, naked, apparently having just had sex. The writing here is supple and erotically charged, reminiscent of Marche’s debut novel, Raymond and Hannah. Much time is spent describing the man’s penis, which is first presented “sapping ultra-fine strands of liquid crystal onto a patch of coarse hair at his thigh” and is then compared to a “retreating snail mocking shamefacedly with its white lash of tongue.” Observing this, the woman’s “obscene mind” recalls her dead father, a startling and unexpected juxtaposition. We are then informed that the woman’s period is late.

The extract ends with the reader being directed to make the following decision: “Back down into the deepest sleep ever” or “Rise to greet the glorious new day.” Depending upon which choice the reader makes, a different passage, dramatizing a different set of circumstances, follows.

A press release sent out yesterday quotes Marche as saying: “This novel began with a simple idea, that in novels the future is predetermined, but the future in real life isn’t. I wanted a way of capturing how life splits apart and how people have many possibilities inside them.” This is an intriguing premise from an author who has dedicated his writing career to expanding the scope and the form of the conventional novel. However, the interactive aspect of the novel still puts too much control in the hands of the reader, who gets to determine the fates of the characters. Granted, this is done on a limited scale: Marche is still in control of the writing, and the reader’s decisions can only direct them toward one story strand or another. Still, the reader’s decisions will be based on his or her own preferences about storytelling and narrative; these preferences may yet be subverted, but there is nonetheless a relinquishing of control on the part of the author and a handing over of power to the reader. Don’t like where one story stream takes you? Never mind: you can always backtrack and make a different choice until you find one more to your liking.

Flannery O’Connor, who knew something about how fiction works, once said that the writer is only really free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. O’Connor knew that not every reader would like the way a novel or a story unfolded; she also knew that that was none of her concern as a writer. Fiction is already interactive: the interactivity comes from a reader actively engaging with a text. Anyone who has ever reread a novel after several years have elapsed since her first encounter with it will be familiar with the experience of feeling that the novel has changed somehow, even though the words on the pages are exactly the same. It is not the novel that has changed, of course, it is the reader. This, too, is one of the things fiction can do for us. It can illuminate our own maturation, our own evolving responses to the world, and to an individual text.

Marche’s experiment is an interesting one, and perhaps the evolution of the novel online will open my own eyes to the new possibilities of a Web-based interactive form of fiction. At this point, however, I’m still fairly convinced that Flannery O’Connor was right.


3 Responses to “On fiction and interactivity”
  1. I’m with you on this one, Steven. Choose Your Own Adventure is too much like a video game. I remember, as a child, sticking my fingers in all the routes not taken, going back and choosing other paths, and being disappointed with them all. I much prefer being swept up in the author’s world, as you said, and having my own ideas about what should or should not happen in the story come out in discussions with other readers, rather than in determining where the story itself should actually go. Imitating a Choose Your Own Adventure story seems a bit like the author doesn’t have enough willpower to decide on one story of his own. Yes, the multiplicities are interesting, but so are the choices the character must make to move the story to its ultimate destination.

  2. Finn Harvor says:

    Various points:
    “in novels the future is predetermined, but the future in real life isn’t.”

    The future isn’t predetermined … at least, often not when the novel is being written. Ask a writer.

    And the lack of determinacy that real life has is in a different league altogether; that is, two or three novel-existent choices do not equate the number of choices that exist in life.

    2. “Flannery O’Connor, who knew something about how fiction works, once said that the writer is only really free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake.”

    Yes, agreed. But writers who are willing to tell the reader to jump in a lake are, these days, often told to jump in a lake themselves by AngCanLit’s Selecting Class (which operates rather differently, BTW, than QueLit’s Selecting Class).


    3. “perhaps the evolution of the novel online will open my own eyes to the new possibilities of a Web-based interactive form of fiction”.

    Well taken. But feel uncomfortable with the conflation of e-books and “interactive fiction”.

  3. Finn Harvor says:

    p.s. When citing the Marche quote, I don’t mean the “ask a writer” remark cattily. I just mean the creative process is generally agreed to be unpredictable.