Futures of Fiction and Fictional Futures

*R black Book of Kells cropped edit 100p-hNarrative written fictions are being propelled toward the economic future along three trajectories:

Corporate commercial publishing. While revenues and profits are stagnant, the industry isn’t on the verge of collapse. The flattened demand for novels reflects a widespread public shift to visual and interactive media. There might also be less enthusiasm among committed fiction readers for the bland mediocrity of offerings being presented to them by the publishers and bookstores. Consolidation, greater investment in established authors, and more accurate models for predicting sales combine to reduce the variability in newly released books, with fewer companies willing to take a financial risk on excellent and unusual books that lack a clearly defined market niche. While readership remains flat, the number of new novels being written is growing rapidly. As a  result, fewer manuscripts are being accepted for publication, while payments to published authors as advances and royalties is decreasing, so that only the few novelists who write best sellers can expect to earn a living as fiction writers.

Self-publishing. With burgeoning widespread enthusiasm for self-expression, perhaps coupled with uninspiring employment options available in the larger economy, the number of novels being written has been increasing rapidly. Ready access to online editing, formatting, and distribution has enabled authors to create and distribute professional-quality e-books with little or no expenditure, circumventing the traditional publishing industry. While self-publishers earn a much higher percentage of revenues than do commercially published authors, the vast majority of self-published books generate minimal sales. Lack of access to wholesale and retail distributors keeps self publishers from reaching a larger audience; circumventing the vetting process exercised by the publishing industry means that readers have no assurance that self-published books have merit or appeal.

Platform distribution. The primary beneficiaries of the boom in self-publishing have been the distribution platforms. Small returns on high volume while incurring minimal costs result in substantial ROI. Although it hasn’t happened yet on a large scale, the vast quantity of content coupled with zero marginal costs for online distribution sets the stage for major book distribution platforms to adopt a business model like the one that has reshaped the music industry. Readers will have virtually unlimited free online access to e-books, with authors compensated at minimal levels based on numbers of downloads, while ever-increasing traffic on the platform generates large revenues from big-data analytics and customized micro-advertising at minimal expense to the platform.

All three of these trajectories are simultaneously propelling fiction into the future and, while individuals and organizations attempt to exploit, to resist, even to shape their movement, the vectors leading toward those futures are gouged into the contours of time with the inevitability of fate. Still, the future isn’t here yet. Could any of those trajectories be altered intentionally? In principle, yes: developments can be projected, what-if scenarios simulated, strategies developed, action plans formulated, coordinated endeavors organized and managed. It all sounds so old-school though, so top-down. Unplanned emergence is the order of the day; even those with money and power can divert the flows only slightly, installing tollbooths at the floodgates. For everyone else: enter the Tao, cultivate mindfulness of its currents and contours, go with the flow.

Postcapitalist fictions. Writers assemble themselves into a syndicated network of publishing houses. Readers assemble themselves into a network of anarchist replicating libraries, their members freely downloading e-books from the curated collection. Books are transformed from commodities into cultural resources; the book industry, into a public utility.

It’s an alternate reality, this fourth trajectory – a fiction. What happens to an idea once it’s been acknowledged as a fiction? First it will be dismissed as unreal, irrelevant to practical concerns. Then, maybe, the fiction will acquire entertainment value as a made-up story, to be read or watched as a temporary diversion from the day-to-day ordeal of grappling with the real world. Even serious fiction, so-called literary fiction, serves real-world functions: as a non-threatening way to practice empathy, for example, or as a means of gaining insight into the world, into the people who populate it and, perhaps especially, into oneself.

This partitioning off of fiction from reality is a death trap, not only for fiction but for reality as well. Fictions are transformed into coping mechanisms, like weekends and happy hours and self-help groups. Sometimes fictions operate as pressure valves to keep people from exploding, at other times as stimulants to help them avoid sagging into inertia. Fiction becomes incorporated into reality, assigned its proper subservient role in keeping things moving along smoothly. And with fictions partitioned off as entertainments, the what-is of actually existing reality becomes reified, immunized from the what-is-nots – the vast and depthless expanse of possibilities and improbabilities and impossibilities on which the actual floats like a rowboat on the ocean.

Automobiles aren’t natural geological formations; they didn’t evolve from oxcarts: they were invented, designed, and built. A car is a physical object to be sure, but it isn’t only that. Its material substance is shaped with intent, imbued with meaning and purpose. Is it a stretch to propose that an automobile is partly a fictional object, and that driving a car through the city streets is kind of like being an actor in a play or a dancer in a ballet? Fiction is typically regarded as a category of writing or performance, an entertaining work of fantasy contrasted with the serious business of nonfiction. But that’s not the intrinsic meaning of the word. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “fiction” first appeared in the 15th century as ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” derived from 13th century Old French ficcion, “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication,” from the Latin fictionem, “a fashioning or feigning,” originally “to knead, form out of clay.”

The Greek philosophers made a big deal out of the distinction between invention and real creation. Fashioning something out of clay isn’t the same as creating the clay in the first place, ex nihilo. Making something merely by fashioning, by giving shape to the stuff of the world, is a kind of deception, a false creation. (“Fashion”: there’s another word that’s been trivialized over the centuries.) The Romans, who loved shaping clay into things like sculptures and buildings and aqueducts, probably held fictionem in high esteem. Somewhere along the Roman road the shaping of words veered off from the shaping of clay, of roads, of cars. Inventors of stories became artists and entertainers, assigned to the other side of town from the engineers and inventors who shape the world. But the shared meaning element remains: altering reality is accomplished not just by the hands but also by the head. Reality is matter infused with meaning and purpose; invention is labor imbued with imagination.

Fiction writers, their path having forked off from the highway traversed by the shapers of the physical world, might regard themselves as the real creators, imagining characters, situations, whole worlds out of thin air. But are those fictional worlds real?

A world with humans driving down the highway at seventy miles an hour – was that world real before automobiles became real? Imagining such a world, fashioning imaginary devices rolling along the ground at unprecedented speed: was that fiction an escape from reality, a dissimulation and a ruse? Or did imagining guide the hands of the inventors and engineers as they shaped the clay into horseless carriages, as they organized people into assembly lines and auto showrooms and traffic flows? A world with autonomous cars driving down the highway at a hundred miles an hour — is that future world real already?

Traffic jams and car crashes, air pollution and global warming, auto loan defaults, union busting and automation, government bailouts of the auto industry: these aren’t just byproducts of invention. Collateral damage is itself a kind of invention, and destruction is a kind of creation. Even if the consequences are unintended, they remain consequences. Adverse consequences can be anticipated, sometimes even before they first happen; their present and future impact on environment and lives and money can be simulated, calculated, factored into cost-benefit calculations. Risk management becomes a profession of imaginative engineering.

There are opportunities afforded by the three dominant trajectories propelling fiction into the future; there are also risks and losses. There may be leverage points at which those trajectories can be diverted, or where alternative side routes can be traced. These diversions and alternatives can be imagined; can they be realized?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s