I have continued to wander the wrong side of the literary tracks with an exploration of choose-your-own-adventure e-books. I first discovered this genre in a Wall Street Journal article about e-book data collection. I was simultaneously thrilled and creeped out by the data that Amazon can now collect on the reading habits of its customers – on my reading habits.
More frightening than the loss of privacy (which is really inevitable at this point) was the potential influence of that data on the creative process. It’s not at all challenging to imagine a future world where books are focus-grouped in a process that would have prevented most of literature’s greatest works from ever seeing the light of day had they been subjected to it.
But some people are taking that very scary proposition and turning it into a form of crowd-sourced creativity in its own right. I was particularly intrigued by digital publisher Coliloquy’s choose-your-own-adventure experiment, in which readers are given choices within the book that are then used by the author to determine the course of events in a sequel. The WSJ example:
Tawna Fenske’s romantic caper “Getting Dumped”—which centers on a young woman who finds work at a landfill after getting laid off from her high-profile job at the county’s public relations office—readers can choose which of three suitors they want the heroine to pursue.
Well hell, how could I resist? A story about a woman who writes press releases for the county working at the landfill? The landfill is even in the Pacific Northwest. I half expected Tawna Fenske to be a pen name for one of my day job coworkers.
The recent article attributing the success of the insufferable Fifty Shades of Grey to its origins in fan fiction gave me serious doubts about Coliloquy’s experiment, no matter how much I admired the collaborative populist concept. But I did love me some choose-your-own-adventures when I was a kid, so I had to check it out.
And how was it?
It was fun! Fenske is funny, and that goes a long way. She never sacrifices a good joke for anything as bland as consistency or character development, but she obviously does so as a conscious choice. I laughed out loud at the protagonist’s suggestive inner monologue, even if the story suggested more than it delivered. Of course I am partial to the premise – I actually know a woman with a pink hard hat, and I do run a column on the weird things that show up in the landfill – but I think that Fenske’s roughly drawn cast of characters would be appealing even if the contrast of county bureaucracy and landfill earthiness wasn’t so familiar.
I also love that a book its own author describes as “funny smut” still manages to work in a theme of sweatshop labor, presented from a feminist angle (women’s demand for cheap fashion perpetuates conditions of slavery for other women). That she does so seamlessly, without getting preachy or even altering the humorous tone of the book is something that writers in any genre could learn from.
The jury is still out on the interactive element, though. It was fun every time I reached ‘an inflection point’ and got to pick which handsome suitor would come to the rescue in the next scene (and loved the inclusion of the choice ‘the women rescue themselves’). But the introduction to book implied that these choices were the equivalent of casting a vote for who gets the girl in the end, and I couldn’t always bring myself to vote for my favorite. The first inflection point came at a point in the story when our heroine J.J. needed to call her boyfriend. He hadn’t appeared in several chapters, while each of the other suitors had just completed plot-progressing scenes. In the context of the story, she would have called the boyfriend.
As far as love interest preferences go, the boyfriend really seemed to be there just to fill out the, um, headcount; but as a story choice, I had to pick him. According to the WSJ article, Fenske never meant to keep the boyfriend around for the second act, but when she saw the user stats, she reworked the second section. I can’t help but wonder – how many other readers picked the boyfriend to maintain the flow of the story, and not because they liked him best?
While the data interpretation methods may still be in development, I have to admit, both the story and the character were more interesting as a result of the twist Fenske developed to make the boyfriend a viable element in the second installment. So maybe there’s something to the collective intelligence of the readership after all.
I can’t wait for part three.