The Pickle: A Conversation About Making Digital Books
6: The Many Futures of Storytelling
I agree with Robin that plenty of people are capable of these projects. And I agree with Craig that there’s a self-selecting element involved, a certain kind of weirdness required to leap into something like this. But, of course, lots of beloved human activities require a certain kind of weirdness, right? Model airplanes. Ski jumping. Duck hunting. Inventing a board game. Writing a novel. Claymation.
The question, I think, is whether there’s something about the current tech environment that inhibits this kind of weirdness or experimentation. (Of course, there are still plenty of fun, strange things out there — I’m thinking of Darius Kazemi’s Twitter bots, or a million other nutty projects. But maybe these tend to be smaller and more spontaneous, rather than the crafted, detailed worlds we look for in books.) One obvious answer is money — i.e., the large amounts of it people like Russell can get optimizing server allocation (I just made up those words, no idea what they mean, plz replace with a sick Uber burn!), compared to the relatively small amounts for fermentation-based storyscapes.
But I also wonder if there’s a factor beyond straight economics — a way in which the currently ascendant Startup Narrative can get applied where it doesn’t quite belong. Robin, you brought up the question of platforms vs one-off, artisanal apps. I think the answer has got to be somewhere in between — an assortment of platforms, plus an accrual of code libraries and lessons learned. But I also think that question itself can be inhibiting to the creative process — this drive to anticipate the future, to guess correctly, to fit optimally within larger trends. To me, maybe that’s the true reality-distortion field — the blurring of “worthwhile” and “scalable,” the idea that valuation will tell us whether something’s a good idea. That standard might work well for, say, grocery-delivery startups, but is it how we want to think about our novels, our stories, our art-whatevers? Publishing has grappled with these tensions for centuries, but they might be less familiar in the tech world.
Sorry to sound like an elderly hippie! I guess what I’m trying to say is this: If every novel is an implicit declaration of a definitive Future of Publishing, we’ll miss out on a lot of great novels — and, what’s more, we might miss out on some great futures of publishing too. I don’t know if these answers can really be found without rolling up our sleeves and just Making Stuff — seeing what works, what doesn’t, what’s annoying, what’s fun, how many dumb pickle jokes are too many, etc. Having a strange idea and then bringing it into reality, regardless of efficiency or scalability.
This comes back to Russell’s description of the process — meandering, playful, with lots of back-and-forth between the two of us and between the various demands of the project. What he describes is typical of many creative endeavors, but it might be a bit unusual for a traditional programming job. Pickle could never have resulted from me handing Russell a finished text and a list of specs — I mean, we thought we had a decent idea about what we were making two years ago, but we were very wrong. The project had to find itself, and that required actual collaboration, not just outsourcing — fluidity and looseness, experimentation and fun.
As for whether “eight years of ebooks” is a blink or an eternity, I have no idea. But I do know that there’s no guarantee that we’ll end up in a place that serves us as individuals, as readers and writers. I mean, look at television — finally flowering after, what, sixty years? And not as a result of any fundamental change to the medium, but just a bunch of smaller evolutions that opened the door to new creators and new audiences. I’m hoping we won’t have to wait til 2068 for ebooks to do the same (though I’m sure Russell is itching to whip up a multiplatform rendering of 91-year-old Eli’s epic poem, Incontinence on Mars).
Note to readers: This is (going to be) a long, loopy conversation. The Pickle Index is crisp and compact. Consider sampling its tangy delights.
The Indexed Pickle
- Opening Salvo [Robin Sloan]
- Blank Slates![Craig Mod]
- Opportunity Cost [Robin Sloan]
- The Struggle (Sorry) [Russell Quinn]
- Self Selection & The Jaws of Venture Valley [Craig Mod]
- ➡︎ The Many Futures of Storytelling [Eli Horowitz]
- Recruitment [Robin Sloan]
- Blarp [Eli Horowitz]
- That Oracular Feeling [Robin Sloan]
- Benevolent Leaders of the Frothy Kingdom [Craig Mod]
- The Left-on-the-Floor Weirdness [Russell Quinn]
- Territory of the Book [Eli Horowitz]
- At This Moment [Robin Sloan]
- Make a Book, Even Just One [Craig Mod]