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[BKARTS] "popcorn" or a "new e-book genre?"

I thought this might fit in nicely with the "what makes a book" conversation.

Source URL:$2547

Everything Old Is New Again: the Digital Epistolary Novel

by J. Knight
posted January 7, 2004

The Flash-animated intro to Intimacies hails it as "A New Way of
Telling a Story." The author calls it "popcorn." Wired News considers
it a "new e-book genre." What is it? It's a DEN, a "Digital
Epistolary Novel."

Intimacies, a DEN by Eric Brown, takes an old idea and wraps it in
new ribbon for the digital age.

The old idea is the epistolary novel, a story told through letters
exchanged by two or more persons. One classic example is Dracula by
Bram Stoker. A more recent epistolary novel, adapted to a film
starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, is Helene Hanff's 84
Charing Cross Road.

The new ribbon is that Intimacies is told through a series of emails,
one transcript of an IM (Instant Messenger) chat, and a few online
pages from newspapers, and you read it on your computer. You'll need
a Windows-based computer to download and run Intimacies (an .exe
file) from the website at http://www.greatamericannovel.com.

Once the DEN software is installed, a computer screen appears
sporting frames for email, IM, a "browser" and a "pager." You read
through the emails and click on links to open up the pertinent web
pages in the "browser." At one point, the two main characters engage
in an IM chat and the transcription appears in the "IM" frame. The
"pager" shows us a BlackBerry page. (A BlackBerry is a PDA/mobile
phone/wireless email device.)

The story begins with an email sent to the wrong person. Flirtation
ensues. A dinner date is set via IM, and then a crime occurs: The
heroine is brutally assaulted outside her house as she's leaving for
the dinner date. Fortunately, because otherwise there would be no
mystery, she does not get a clear look at her assailant, and her
internet, would-be lover becomes the prime suspect.

Intimacies is indeed popcorn, even by murder mystery standards. The
opening flirtations progress in a deliberate manner that is less than
engaging, as are the characters. And yet, the voyeuristic nature of
seeming to eavesdrop on someone else's email kept me reading if not
fascinated. Once the plot kicked in, I found myself caught up in the
story and was resolved to sitting in front of the screen long enough
to see how it all came out. Reading the whole story took about an

In the feedback section at greatamericannovel.com, some delighted
Intimacies fans declare that such a book could not exist on the
printed page. They're full of beans. The two examples I mentioned
above present better stories, and Dracula draws from more types of
epistolary matter than Intimacies does, telling its story through
journals, diaries, letters, newspaper clippings and ship's logs.
Intimacies is strictly linear in its storytelling and would translate
perfectly to the printed page or to a conventional eBook format.

Ultimately, what would keep Intimacies from being published as a
print book isn't the technology behind it, but the fact that it isn't
really good enough to warrant print publication. The characters are
standard issue, the plot is simple, and the ending is abrupt and

The author's estimation of his work as "popcorn" seems about right.
The grander claims for the story and for the DEN as a literary form,
however, seem hard to justify. Intimacies isn't, as the Flash intro
states, a new way to tell a story, and it isn't likely to find favor
with mainstream readers. Epistolary novels as a whole aren't a wildly
popular form because of their inherent limitations, just as
point-of-view films have never really hit it big with movie
audiences. There's nothing about the DEN as a literary form to
elevate it above its predecessors.

I'm not sure, really, why people put so much time and effort into
trying to make eBooks something different and better than print
books. The much-ballyhooed "interactivity" is a case in point.
Engineers keep trying to foist it on us, and we keep running back to
our plain-vanilla television and plain-vanilla print books because,
most of the time, we want the authors and producers to do the work
and entertain us rather than having to do their job ourselves. We
want our Christmas bicycles assembled, Dad, not lying in parts under
the tree.

Sometimes innovation smells like desperation. We're desperate to
create a new form because we've failed, so far, to adequately
replicate the old one. No one has yet succeeded in making eBooks as
readable, affordable or easy to use as print books, so they employ
sleight of hand and toss something like Intimacies into the air,
crying out, "Look at this! Look at this! (And never mind that pile of
abandoned reading devices and rejected formats behind the curtain.)"

I still believe in the future of eBooks, but only if manufacturers
and publishers concentrate on the basics: a large, clear screen; long
battery life; affordable reading devices; low-priced content;
reasonable, not intrusive, copy protection.

Before we take the kid to tap dancing class, shouldn't we make sure
he can walk?

J. Knight's linear and non-interactive novel Risen is available from bookstores. A free eBook of stories based on the novel, The (almost) Complete Risen Short Stories, can be downloaded from his site at AtomBrain.com. -- "Oh boy, sleep! That's where I'm a Viking!"

       - Ralph


Campbell-Logan Bindery, Inc.
Minneapolis, MN

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