The future of the book shouldn’t be skeuomorphic

We should replace books with something different and better, writes Tom Abba.

The future of publishing has been on its way for a while.

Yet with notable exceptions like The Silent History on iPad, the knee-jerk reaction of the publishing industry has been to copy the form of a physical book, skeuomorphically, creating something that bears a resemblance to print but doesn’t do much else besides.

This is a huge missed opportunity, because the digital medium itself is full of opportunities for literary content. Tablet computers can provide much more than a flat surface on which to read typed words. They afford a whole new platform that draws on the contract between the author and the reader, but needn’t restrict itself to physical analogues. The possibilities aren't bound to the book.

Some authors have already begun addressing this. Nick Harkaway explored networked collaboration in his writing allowing readers to be instrumental in developing a story. While as offline readers we interact with the book as a physical object, as digital readers we are able to explore the relationship between form and content, such that each can become implicit in the creation of the other. Reading a narrative encased in a physical object, our input to the story is limited by its very physicality, but as digital readers, we can comment, note, question and add within a network, changing the nature of the written text.

There is a programme based at Watershed in Bristol and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council called REACT: Books & Print, which explores the future of publishing in a way that allows for real experimentation with digital platforms, without the pressure to sell a commercial product in the short term. As part of the programme, I am working with the artists collective Circumstance and authors Nick Harkaway and Neil Gaiman on a project called These Pages Fall Like Ash, wherein an audience based in Bristol will be invited to participate in a narrative experience: accessing, altering and constructing a story that will demonstrate the possibilities of the form and challenge traditional publishing norms.

Try this at home: watch an episode of The Bridge—with subtitles—and try to browse Facebook, or send a tweet during the broadcast. What you're likely to find (unless you're a native Danish speaker) is that conventional second screen engagement doesn’t operate very well. On the one hand, it’s the subtitles; they demand we look as well as listen, that our eyeballs don’t flicker between device and screen and our attention fixes on one thing rather than two, but another, more subtle change, is in architecture and the lighting, in mise-en-scène. The sky is different and the city looks strange. These people aren’t speaking our language and something exotic is happening.

That’s the sensation we’re aiming to achieve in These Pages Fall Like Ash. The experience begins with the sudden appearance of another city alongside the one our 300 participants live in. They can’t see it, but they can feel its presence, hear the voices of its citizens and read their words. Two populations start to communicate and exchange ideas, stories, gifts, and then something happens. And something happening is how stories start.

Story is at the heart of this project. REACT’s Books and Print programme asks us to consider what happens when digital technology meets reading and writing. Our response is to define a grammar for writing in a digital space, where attention is a commodity and interaction is an anticipated mode of engagement. We chose to work with two writers who have each, in their own way, explored the grammar of writing platforms—be that television, comics, novels or radio—and whose voices we can add to our own, and those of our audience to create something singularly new.

The city and its twin isn’t a new idea though. Whether you look for recent examples - China Mieville's The City and The City, and Nick’s experiments with Urm, Neil's Neverwhere, or head back a little further for Michal Ajvaz' The Other City and M John Harrison’s In Viriconium, Moorcock’s Tanelorn or Borges’ Uqbar, the notion that something else, something uncanny, lurks at the corners of our attention is a provocative one and as a framework for a distributed, exploded story form, it practically demands other voices to add to the canon, to world-build. Our readers will experience another city, alongside their own, and will be asked to bring it into being by their own writing and contributions.

Running through These Pages Fall Like Ash though, are a set of questions about writing and digital spaces. Writing is a craft, one that’s learned over time and honed by experience and profligate use of words, sentences, dialogue and character to build story and ground narrative. We’ve asked our writers to help us scaffold the story and provide a substrate by which we write, design and develop the content through interaction. Our audience are going to engage with digital content alongside physical books, artefacts that cross the boundaries between two worlds and two technologies. They’re going to learn to write for an unfamiliar medium, and their writing will impact the way they view the narrative at its completion.

It could be the start of an astonishing journey, the story of the evolution of the written word in the digital age.

Tom Abba is taking part in the Books & Print Sandbox, part of REACT, one of four UK Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy. It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). REACT Books & Print

An iBooks book.

Tom Abba has worked with the materiality of interactive narrative since 2001. His PhD addressed interactive story as an author-determined construction and his manifesto publication, This is Not a Book (Macmillan, 2013), is forthcoming.

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How The Mare throws gender, race and even language into flux

Mary Gaitskill's new novel presents an agonising world of "nice" and "nasty", where moral choice is always constrained.

I never loved pony books. Like many girls, I briefly tried to direct my longing for contact – primal and protosexual – into a dream of fusion with something more beautiful, more powerful than me: a horse. But then I found that riding was less sensual than political; it was to do with what you could afford to ride, and how often, and how you could afford to look while doing it. So far, so much like other teen courting rituals.

The Mare, like many of Mary Gaitskill’s works, is the story of a teenage girl. The Dominican-American Velveteen Vargas leaves her home in Brooklyn for “Friendly Town”, where a white couple – the childless Ginger and Paul – offer her a holiday under the Fresh Air Fund. “I’ve spent the last ten years nurturing myself and looking at my own shit,” Ginger says. “It’s time to nurture somebody else now.” She is attempting that most dangerous of things: to do good. She pays for Velvet to have riding lessons, which become an obsession, revealing society in miniature, or perhaps humanity itself.

Like other works by Gaitskill, The Mare is told polyphonically by means of interior monologues. Velvet is superbly articulate, especially about moments when she is not: “I felt, but not a normal feeling that you can say what it is.” She is also dyslexic: “although she could sound the words out perfectly and sometimes even understand their meanings individually, she could not really understand sentences put together”. No surprise; words are less than reliable. When Ginger talks to her contemporaries – biological mothers – she feels their “friendly unfriendliness” and wonders, “How do people make this simple sound into a mixture of real and false, the false mocking the real for the two seconds they rub together?”

Words are also to do with nurturing: “mare”, as Gaitskill notes, resembles the French “mère”, and motherhood is central here. “I am going down . . . like every woman in particular,” Ginger says, as if women crumbled more easily than men. She means menopause, the end of potential childbirth. As Velvet becomes a woman, her birth mother finds her to be “like a stupid animal”. Parallels are drawn between women and horses through the body: “She kicks because of hormones, because – well, basically, she’s just being a girl,” says Pat the trainer about Velvet’s horse.

Naming is a powerful force. The abused horse Funny Girl is rechristened “Fugly Girl” by the bitchy stable girls, then “Fiery Girl” by Velvet, who both identifies with her and wants to save her, just as Ginger wants to save Velvet.

Ginger at first sees Velvet as a cute animal: “Her skin was a rich brown; her lips were full, her cheekbones strong. She had a broad, gentle forehead, a broad nose, and enormous heavy-lashed eyes with intense brows . . . She was ours!” As Silvia Vargas says of her daughter, “some fool woman has made her into a pet”, yet neither people nor animals are easily petted.

“Human love”, says Ginger, “is the vilest thing” and “the most powerful drug in the world”. Paul says of Velvet: “I was beginning to feel we were doing some strange violence to her.” S&M has long been Gaitskill’s paradigm and in The Mare it sits in the ethics of the horse/rider relationship. Why do they care if you hit them with a whip?” Velvet asks. “It’s all psychological,” answers Beverly the sadistic trainer. “You control them from inside their heads. The physical is back-up. Mostly.” While Velvet uses horse behaviour to excuse her participation in bullying (“We ran together”), Ginger holds on to the distinction: “You are not a horse. You are a person.” Horses remain amoral: “one thousand pounds of unpredictable power”.

The Mare is a book about “nice” and “nasty” – words Gaitskill’s characters use to fumble at concepts of good and evil. Silvia finds Ginger “nice like a little girl is nice”. Velvet’s boyfriend, Shawn, says that “Ginger could be nice because people like her got other people to do the violence for them”. The difference is one of race. “Why is it that white people can walk their path in a way that black people – and people of my colour – cannot?” Velvet asks. At her lowest point (and Velvet’s), Ginger finds herself wondering if non-whites are “just different”, and discovers, “I’m racist. At least now I know.”

Gaitskill’s world is agonising because moral choice exists but is constrained by cruel circumstance. Silvia once had the privilege of riding a horse. Up there she saw “my life, going in different directions”. Thrown off, she has a vision of hell. “I was there, with the shit people.” Hell is a constant option. “I don’t think God would have to send people there, I think they would go there by themselves,” says Ginger who, like Velvet, has a vision of visiting it by “a door in our backyard”.

It is easy to question a white artist addressing dilemmas of white privilege. Yet not only does Gaitskill take this as her subject, but the act of writing The Mare is a direct challenge to what Justine in Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), noticing her white mother’s careful relationship with her black maid, calls the “bloodless world of decency and politeness”.

The Mare has little of the gleeful disgust of Gaitskill’s previous books but this makes it pricklier than her most outrageous sexual tragicomedies. I loved Gaitskill before The Mare because, with brutal hilarity, she gave humanity to bullies and mean girls. But here, like Ginger, she is telling me, relentlessly, painfully, that “any good thing might happen, anything”.

Joanna Walsh’s books include the collection “Vertigo” (And Other Stories) and “Hotel” (Bloomsbury Academic)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill is published by Serpent’s Tail (441pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt