Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why Read Fiction Online?

By Lawrence Reeve
It is fitting that the inaugural article for this blog appears during Read An eBook Week (March 8-14), an admittedly self-serving invention of the eBook business counting on your willingness to buy their eBook related products. In subsequent articles we intend to review online fiction, but thought it might be worthwhile to first lay out the rational for why you should supplement your (paper) book and magazine fiction sources with online work.

My first experience reading fiction online came in the early days of the Internet when I stumbled upon an erotic short story. Stumble being the online equivalent of typing ‘bush’ into a primitive search engine (AltaVista) and seeing what random sites appeared.

For those of you too young to know, the first search engine results were based on the quaint notion that site owners should identify their site with the appropriate key words. Porn sites quickly abused this by listing the most popular search terms 7000 times, thus guaranteeing a porn site would pop up when you typed in the name of a recent president (Yes, the first George Bush).

It was a story so contrived I could feel the clich├ęd situations being assembled in each paragraph like Tinker-Toys. It was replete with zero dimensional characters, purple prose, bad grammar, misspelled words, and single entendres that could only aspire to double.

This, and my occasional forays into erotica since, clarified my complaint about erotic stories in general. All that artifice strips away the mystery, since we know that the fundamental plot components we were all taught; rising action, climax, and falling action, will simply be the physical sensations of the protagonists.

I did recognize the one redeeming value of such online stories though, and that was the titillation I felt at the use of such explicit language. Here was a library of stories where one could read about any perversity described in the most perverse terms possible, without the shame of a co-worker discovering a dirty book in your briefcase. Erotica was the reason to read fiction online.

Such was the state of online fiction circa 1995. Some would argue that it has not progressed much since then. This blog, however, is an attempt to dispel that notion.

Much has changed since those years; principally, the ubiquity of internet access, a revolution (read decline) of the traditional book publishing business, the release of every popular book in the public domain as an eBook, better online display technology, and a new crop of writers who feel comfortable releasing their work online. All of which suggests that the world of online fiction should be a rich one in the future. Particularly, new online fiction.

Authors have long complained that good work is overlooked by publishers in favor of that with marketing potential, and that established authors can get any quality of work published. New authors, it is said, are quickly dismissed unless the first paragraph of their work is so deftly written it stimulates all three plot components.

I believe this perception to be correct, and it has doubtlessly prevented many an excellent author's work from seeing the light of day. If you doubt this, recall the Steps Experiment, in which an unknown author submitted the text of Jerzy Kosinski’s award-winning and best-selling novel Steps to fourteen top publishing houses, including the original publisher of the novel, and it was rejected by all of them.

Self-publishing, previously the last resort of the desperate (and wealthy) author grown tired of rejection, has re-invented itself on the Internet. It is now possible for an unknown author to publish an eBook online at minimal cost, bypassing the not so discerning eyes of an agent or publisher, and be read by the Internet public. Success stories are few so far, but the promise is there.

One previous obstacle, display technology, meant work was formatted inconsistently and unattractively, lacked portability, and lacked electronic equivalents to bookmarks, highlighting and page browsing, capabilities we have all come to expect while reading. A variety of new platforms are now available for reading which have eliminated these obstacles. I am currently reading H.G Wells' The Time Machine on my iPhone. There are others, equally attractive in their ability to make the reader feel comfortable reading online, and more and better to come. But why should you read fiction online now? Here are my reasons.

You don't need any special hardware to read online. Special platforms are available if you want it, but if you're reading this online, you're ready to go for most eBooks.

eBooks are cheap. Compared to paper there are significant savings in purchasing online work.

eBooks will reduce your carbon footprint. Saturday Night Live didn't call the seventh book 'Harry Potter and the End of All Trees' for nothing.

Feel good about clearing out your bookshelves.  Great readers like to see the books they have read to remind them of the good times. Get with it. List everything you have read on your Facebook page for the world to see how literate you are. Then donate your paper books to the Internetless masses and increase literacy.

Indulge your technology fetish. There is spectacularly grand and expensive display hardware for eBooks if you have to have it. Google 'eInk'.

Enjoy snubbing traditional publishers and online retailers. Only buy work that is Digital Rights Management (DRM) free. The industry would like nothing better than to consolidate on a platform and DRM software so they can control distribution. If you let them handle eBooks they same way they did music, sooner or later publishers will arrest you for illegal reading.

Refresh your fondness for a favorite book. There are over 27,000 free eBooks (all your favorites) in the Project Gutenberg Online Book Catalog.

You can still read the dirty stuff. I recommend The Naughty Bits: The Steamiest and Most Scandalous Sex Scenes from the World's Great Books by Jack Murnighan, and now available as an eBook.

Discover a new author. If you're one of those people competing for the most friends on Facebook, you could single-handedly create a buzz with a few judicious posts.

It only takes one good read. We love books because we have a lifetime of heightened emotions associated with the visual and tactile characteristics of those musty paperweights. One good read online and the pleasant associations will begin. I can hardly wait until an image of a silverfish crawls across my iPhone, just like it did the first time I read my dad's copy of The Time Machine.

The good fiction is out there. It will take some digging, but use the links on this blog to start, and refine your sources until they feel like a city's worth of old bookshops.

In subsequent articles we intend to review the best new fiction available online in order to point you to fun and interesting work. Give them a read, and let us know if we have made the effort worthwhile.

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