Stealth fiction

man sneaking up graffiti'd stairwayOK, thought experiment – imagine a world where the printed word is prohibitively expensive, and where people don’t have time set aside for the pleasures of reading fiction.

Where are fiction writers going to get published, if they want to get noticed, to get their work read?

Stealth fiction

Some might say we’re nearly in that world already, but that’s a different argument. What’s been bugging me as a concept for a few days is the idea of stealth fiction – fiction that doesn’t advertise itself as being such.

When we say ‘fiction’, we mean stories – a form of entertainment where we form a contract with the text, ignoring the fact we know it to be untrue for the sake of the thrill of immersion.

But there are a great many fictions in our media that aren’t what we think of as ‘fiction’ in that way. Adverts are a form of fiction, for example.

Wizard’s First Rule*

And in our wired-for-memes world, adverts are not only ubiquitous, but an accepted part of the furniture, and increasingly indistinguishable from official corporate announcements and ‘free’ information. Even so, people are very trusting, and it’s easy enough to pull the wool over their eyes if you know the sort of story they want to hear.

Point in case – the fake website that claimed to be announcing the release date and title of the new Weezer album. This spoof was taken hook line and sinker, not only by Weezer fans but by members of the music press (who should have known better, or at least dug a little deeper).

That website was a work of fiction.

Classified flash – fiction on Craigslist

Scalzi pointed out the growing trend of fictional pieces appearing in Craigslist.** As he observes, this isn’t going to be an effective route to fame and fortune (and I expect that the quality is probably very poor), but those people have realised something important – fiction doesn’t have to be in a book, magazine, or PDF. It can be in any or all of those places, or anywhere else – but it’s easier to get it in front of Joe Average by not slapping a big sticker saying “hey, work of fiction, right here!”

Interstitial experiments

I can see other people working towards a realisation (conscious or unconscious) of something similar – which doesn’t surprise me at all, as they’re at least equally as smart as I am, if not more so (and almost certainly less prone to meandering thought-trains such as this one).

Some of these experiments are knowingly post-modern about the whole thing, like Jeremiah Tolbert’s Dr Julius Roundbottom site – the format is new, but the implicit disbelief-suspension contract with the reader still remains.

But this strikes me as the true definition of interstitial fiction – not fiction that doesn’t fit into accepted genres (though that may be a part of it), but fiction that doesn’t fit into the standard containers we expect to find fiction in.

I’m sure we all know what happened when Orson Welles broadcast War Of The Worlds as a radio drama, don’t we?

Memetic fiction

Fellow Friday Flash Fictioneer Gareth D Jones tried an experiment last week that illuminated the other side of the problem – how to raise the chance of Joe Average stumbling across your piece of stealth fiction?

What Gareth did was to seed his story with popular search terms for the day, the theory being that they’d raise the chance of the piece appearing in search returns.

Results were inconclusive, but it was the idea that really made me think – it’s like SEO for fiction! If you know what people are looking for, why not deliver it, and slip your fictional medicine in with the sugar coating? If it goes viral, your story is everywhere – you just found yourself an audience!

Fictioneer or marketeer?

OK, I can hear you saying “Well, that’s a bit crass, isn’t it? A bit sneaky and underhanded?” And yes, it is. Certainly from our point of view, right here right now.

But give it five, ten years – and I’m not so sure. After all, any aspiring writer with savvy has a website these days – that’s a form of self-marketing, albeit a less deceitful one. So marketing your own work isn’t inherently morally repulsive (at least, not to most authors).

So it must be the deceit element, the stealth of the fiction, that we find objectionable. But once it’s happened more often, and people are more aware that these deceits and spoofs occur on the wild uncharted waves of the internet, will they not develop a certain expectation? An implicit contract with everything they read, an admission that any and all media may be trying to trick them?

Everybody loves ninjas, right?

And once people have that implicit contract with the web, wouldn’t that make it quite the ideal place to put your fiction? To sneak it out under people’s radar? Furthermore, wouldn’t this reinstate works of fiction as a way of inoculating people against the more vicious deceits of advertising and politics? Or am I just overtired with a major structural screw loose?

[* Yeah, sorry, Terry Goodkind reference. I was reading from the bookshelves of friends during my wilderness years, and a Goodkind would kill an afternoon in the same way as daytime TV or a bag of grass – eight hours of cliche with a few tiny gems of food for thought. For those that don’t know, the Wizard’s First Rule is something along the lines of “people will believe anything you tell them, provided they wish it to be true, or they fear that it already is”.]

[** This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon either; back in the nineties I encountered a strange emergent subculture of people who were essentially playing role-playing games through the medium of the ‘Miscellaneous’ section of the free classified ads papers, which strikes me as being similar in essence – if not in form – to the Craigslist writers.]

[Image by GypsyRock]

[tags]stealth, fiction, markets, media, future, internet[/tags]

3 thoughts on “Stealth fiction”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more about the idea of stealth fiction. That’s why I chose as my domain a few years back. Right now it’s just me but I would love to open it up and add a few more writers that can contribute to the site.

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