Imagining the future of literature

What will literature be like 30 years from now? Writer Ewan Morrison looks into his crystal ball and finds it is bad news for ebooks, the West — and anyone who cares about verifiable history

By Ewan Morrison  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Sat, Aug 24, 2013 - Page 9

When China became the world’s leading economy in 2024, the West was forced to admit it was now the frontrunner in debt accumulation and little else. The yuan became the global reserve currency in 2032, leaving the West with no say in determining the form of the planet’s economy, the Internet, publishing and fiction. The world of 2043 is a place of state-enforced paywalls and firewalls, state censorship and surveillance through the net — the reverse of the carefree life we knew in 2013, when we all threw away our rights to privacy in the name of “sharing.”

People are now wary of all social media, fearing they are largely tools for surveillance, propaganda and behavioral manipulation. In this, the “useful idiots” in the US played no small part, by legitimizing snooping through the activities of US National Security Agency, Facebook and so on.

In 2043, the Internet is no liberator sweeping away authoritarian regimes. Rather, it offers “bread and circuses” to the masses, distracting them from the time-consuming task of political organization with pirated movies, free porn and LOLcats.

CHINESE TAKEOVER

China entered the digital revolution late and, as a result, had a chance to learn from the mistakes of the West. It witnessed the demise of the bookshop, the shrinking of publishing houses to three vast monopolies, and the freefall of ebook prices. It saw how zombie mashups had cannibalized the Western canon and realized that Marx was right: Capitalism, left to its own devices, would devour itself.

While the West frittered and Twittered its time away, China became the only hope for the survival of literature, with its state-enforced literacy programs, its veneration of high literature and lifelong learning, its vast guaranteed audience, its government-funded five-year cultural development plans, its 500 state-owned publishing houses and bookshops, and its writers’ unions. Writers, musicians and film makers scrambled to “break into the Chinese market” as they once strove to “make it in the US.”

There was once a utopian Internet belief that thousands of fledgling writers would be able to forge a brave new future in digital publishing, shaking the foundations of the old elitist media corporations. However, warning bells first sounded in 2012, when it emerged that half of self-e-published authors earned less than £300 (US$470) per imprint per year. Devastating confirmation came in 2013, when it was revealed that J.K. Rowling had written a book under the name Robert Galbraith. Rejected by many mainstream publishers, this book lurked unseen among the hundreds of thousands of books by unknowns on the Internet. As soon as it was revealed that Rowling was the real author, it became a global bestseller.

The message was clear: If you do not have a name already, you will not get seen, let alone read.

At the turn of the millennium, 80 percent of a publisher’s profits would come from 20 percent of its authors, encouraging imprints to invest across a spread of writers.

By 2013, the ratio had shifted, according to Jonny Geller, joint head of UK literary and talent agency Curtis Brown: “Now it’s more like 96 to four,” he said.

This meant that reinvestment in authors also shrank proportionally.

While the Internet was good at selling discounted culture, cheap goods and used furniture, it could not create and monetize new culture.

In 2020, writers decided to get out of short-selling themselves, echoing the likes of Radiohead and Atoms for Peace, who decided back in 2013 that streaming services such as Spotify were “bad for new music” and withdrew their work.

Or as Nigel Godrich, the sometimes sixth member of Radiohead, put it: “New artists get paid fuck all with this model. It’s an equation that just doesn’t work.”

THE GREAT BETRAYAL

Again and again, the few lucky outliers within self-publishing who managed to build a reader base jumped ship into the arms of mainstream publishers, accepting big-money, multi-platform publishing deals in a process that came to be called the Great Betrayal. This caused a storm among digital diehards who had believed that writers could (and should) survive through online sales, shunning big corporations.

As each successful Kindle author jumped ship, self e-

publishing was further demonetized, as everyone who could abandon the system did so in favor of global deals with mainstream publishers. These “traitors” effectively turned self-e-publishing into a self-sifting slush pile for big publishers. The net became a means of free market research for corporations: If you could make sales through self-e-publishing, you already had a following that could be built on. The opposite was also true: If you could not build a paying audience online, clearly you would never succeed.

So, to be a cyberhit in the 2020s, you had to undercut all competition: The subsequent race to the bottom saw hundreds of thousands of authors starting to give their books away free. With consumers expecting ebooks to cost at most a handful of change, it became impossible for anyone to make any money from self-e-publishing.

Between 2020 and 2030 — the lost decade — the number of ebooks multiplied by a factor of three. However, not only did authors rack up debts, they also found it impossible to dedicate enough time to their craft to become skilled, or even proficient, let alone to experiment and make new discoveries. Time is money, and this generation was unable to put in the 10,000 hours required to perfect their talent and become professional novelists. The result was an entire generation who lacked the skills to generate new fiction, who at the best could re-mash the story franchises from the past — a lost generation.

THE CRASH OF 2032-2034

The powers that be in the new world economy are in possession of the exact facts about the crash of 2032 and 2034, but no one else is permitted to know or share this information. And fictionalizing it is not allowed. However, it is said that global economic meltdown was narrowly averted. Everyone in 2043 is very pleased that this did not transpire — and very grateful to the People’s Republic of China for coming to the aid of the West. No more is said. Or if it is, it is censored by the Great Firewall of China.

LITERATURE GOES META

After the collapse came the new peace, according to Chinese rules. However, where and how could the canon be rebuilt? For over 20 years, no “new fiction” had been generated. The last generation of “professional writers” had passed away in the 2030s. Chinese ownership of the Internet — with its copyright protection, state censorship and imprisonment of free-information activists — ensured that the West could not revert to its old ways of file-sharing cannibalism. So it was forced to write fiction again.

In about 2038, the first of the new generation of Western fictions appeared. These did not feature invented characters as was once the case, but real people — authors from the 20th century, in fact.

Among the top 20 titles of 2043, no fewer than eight were fictionalized accounts of authors’ lives. This brought to mind books from around the early 2000s, such as Colm Toibin’s reimagining of Henry James in The Master, the repicturing of Virginia Woolf in The Hours by Michael Cunningham, or the films about Sylvia Plath.

In 2043, this phenomenon reached its zenith with fictional reimaginings of the lives of Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, and even Toibin himself.

The rewriting of great authors’ lives was done in earnest, as an act of reverse amnesia and willed learning. Because so much real history had been lost in the digital revolution, the only way to bring these authors back to life was to invent their lives. Other great rebirths included Sartre, Camus, Orwell, Christie, Kafka, Joyce and E.L. James. One popular title was Hilary’s Mantle, an alternative-universe depiction of the author time-traveling within the era of Thomas Cromwell.

The problem was that, as A.L. Kennedy had pointed out decades before (and I paraphrase): “The lives of writers, if they are any good as writers and committed to spending their lives at a desk, should not really be worth writing about.”

RETURN OF A LOST FORM

Another form that re-emerged under Chinese guidance was serialized fiction, funded through subscription. Most consumers in 2043 have got out of the habit of paying for one-off cultural products, but a serial that unfolds over time can hook them (and their money) in. Here, the “freemium” business model first developed in China — with computer games offering free samples, but requiring payment to get the whole package — proved sustainable and marginally profitable. Such schemes had humble origins: Back in 2013, there were the subscriptions to Netflix or JK Rowling’s Pottermore; and before that, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Herman Melville, Alexandre Dumas and Leo Tolstoy published novels in newspapers and magazines.

TOXIC MAN

In 2043, the largest fictional forms in the world are multimedia, multi-platform titles based on what we knew as “comics.” These are called “e-mooks”: a form somewhere between a comic, a book and an enhanced ebook that was first created in Japan, then popularized in China.

The leading global work of fiction is a comic/e-mook/TV/game/film series produced in China called Toxic Man, the first “new” superhero to have been invented since 1989. It is no coincidence that this was the year the Berlin wall fell, communism was pronounced “dead” and the Web was “invented.” There is also great irony in the fact that when the West lost its cold war enemy, it was unable to invent any new superheroes for itself.

Back in 2013, we realized that Western superheroes were in the terminal stages of recycling, but we failed to fully understand the implications. This first “new superhero” in half a century was invented in China in 2032 and coincided with the country’s rise to power. The tale of Toxic Man, or Toxi, is seen by many as a parable of the fall of Western capitalism; this is a hero who is a victim of his own superpowers and is cursed to kill all that he touches (they melt to death in toxic slime).

‘LIVE’ FEED

Fiction in 2043 is leaner, but more alive than ever. Through careful use of digital technology, it is now part of the fabric of life. In 2043, people no longer see titles as individual products (free or otherwise): They see fiction as a stream of content, as an alternative living world that unfolds in many media alongside their own lives. They check in to see how a story is developing. Characters are well maintained, original and credible — and authored by teams of specialists raised and nurtured by state-run publishing houses.

Fiction exists in 2043 as a series of alternative realities: Fictional characters “live” and go about daily activities, with updates available by the minute. While the reusing of characters from previous eras is frowned upon (due to the rapid burn-up of content), it is not uncommon to still find a stray Winston Smith or Madame Bovary passing through the same virtual village, alongside new characters who have, for the first time in half a century, been allowed to live and grow in the years of hope and progress that followed the dark days of the digital revolution.

HISTORY ERASED

There is, however, one major problem in the new post-digital peace: the verification of historical facts. To rescue true history from the digital morass of mashed-up facts, humankind must sift through trillions of files of textual mess created by the digital revolution (and by those who attempted to make money from corrupting the lives of historical figures). In 2043, there are no professional critics or specialists left to judge what is real history: Academia has had to change to become profitable and serious journalism, sadly, did not survive.

The digital revolutionaries burned books in the last days of their battle, seeing historians as dated and elitist, and replacing dusty paperbook tomes with what they thought were exciting, constantly updated, hive-mind Wiki-texts.

Thus the people of 2043 will never know if it is true that the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima a century ago. The facts have been changed too many times by pranksters, the politically motivated, and those who sought to create scandal so they could be “liked” and “shared.”