From The Daily Beast
Do Literary Gimmicks Work?
by Caryn James
From Steve Martin’s art world games to a novel constructed like a dictionary, there’s a slew of gimmicky new novels. Caryn James wonders if they equal good fiction.
Those live-action newspapers from the Harry Potter books and films—with moving and talking images on the page instead of old-fangled still photographs—don’t seem like a stretch today. They’re more like a prototype for the near future. Soon we’re likely to see a first-rate literary novel written expressly for the iPad or whatever higher-tech device comes next. We already have video books, cross-bred from e-books, and extra features. How can plain ink-on-paper compete with reading as an action sport?
We have entered the Age of the Stunt Novel, literary fiction that relies on gimmicks: photos splashed throughout the text, codes for your smartphone, stand-on-your-head structures, anything that screams “Look, this isn’t a boring old book.”
From Joyce and Beckett through Georges Perec, playing with form is nothing new, of course. The experimental novels of the 1970s turned stunts into a new genre. In Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, for one, all the words in the first chapter begin with the letter A, expanding in chapter two to include words beginning with B, and so on. What we’re seeing now doesn’t come with the same rigorous artistic principles.
The impulse behind today’s shift is partly commercial. You can’t blame frantic authors, stranded in the land of tumbling sales, closing bookstores, and miniscule e-book royalties. But the dynamic also flows, perhaps unconsciously, from the powerful influence of the Web and the way we juggle several things at once, watching online video or TV while texting or checking email and talking on the phone. That multiplicity is creeping into novels.
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