Art: There’s an App for That

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Musings on multimedia storytelling, art, and apps.

 by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

On Monday, publishing house Simon & Schuster, partnered with Paragraph, launched a new campaign to let readers spend time with characters from beloved books. Using actors and technology, such as smart phones, apps, and recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, this new initiative will focus on bringing literature alive and creating a more intimate storytelling experience. “We use to invite readers to enter into a book’s universe,” said Stephen Bedford, Senior Marketing Manager for Simon & Schuster. “With the ‘Meet the Character’ initiative we are inviting the book to enter our universe, forming more personal connections between reader and text. Have coffee with Captain Ahab. Go bowling with Harry Potter. Explore a haunted house with Jane Eyre…”

Okay, okay, the above paragraph isn’t completely true. There’s no ‘Meet the Character’ initiative, no way to tour New York with Holden Caulfield or go to a movie with Jo March—not outside your imagination, at least. That’s what you get for trusting a fiction writer.

But that’s not to say that what I said was completely false, either.

Take a look at the app Crave, for instance. Simon & Schuster, partnered with the company Paragraph, really DID launch Crave back in 2015, and the app’s point is to create a more intimate connection between authors and readers of romantic fiction. In the article “Simon & Schuster Launches Serial Fiction App for Romance Superfans” on bookbusinessmag.com, Crave is described as a subscription service in which “users choose the author they want to subscribe to and receive daily installments of her latest work before that novel is sold to the public. The subscription also comes with extra content that enhances the story, like video featuring the main characters and messages from the author.” In this age of Twitter and algorithms, readers want—dare I say, crave—to be personally connected with authors and texts. Apps that offer exclusive extras, like Crave, or apps that create interactive storytelling experiences are some of the ways in which publishers are adapting to and taking advantage of digital technology to engage readers.

Book apps are also in the business of engaging readers with interactive, multi-modal storytelling, and, at least for picture, coloring, and comic books, business is booming. Picture book apps offer games, sound effects, music, animation, and narration for to hold kids’ attention when mom or dad allows some screen time, as long as it’s educational.

But, when pondering stories told through apps, I’m always reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s lines:

When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

So what, we can entertain kids with picture book apps? Kids are actually pretty easy to entertain. I mean, when I was a kid I played with cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, and tin foil. So we can add animation and sound effects to comic books? Hollywood’s been doing that for years. So we can color in pictures on our phone while waiting in line for coffee or while trying to avoid conversation with a coworker? We’ve always been pretty great at wasting time.

Sure, apps that offer interactive storytelling experiences are interesting, maybe even educational, but are they capital-A Art?

Or, perhaps the more important question is—do they have the potential to be Art?

In the article “Picture Book Apps and the Case of the Vanishing Author,” writer Sandy McDowell bemoans that picture book authors don’t adapt their talents to help app designers tell better stories with apps. She points out three ways in which picture book authors are already primed to help develop apps—picture book authors are already multi-modal writers, they know about user experience and design, and a lot about app development is the same as picture book development.

And, McDowell claims, “even the best animation or the most speedy download can’t save a bad story.”

Reading has always been interactive and personalized, and storytelling has always been multi-modal. A fascinating irony about all this new-fangled technology is that the more we get away from humans doing stuff on their own, the more we learn about ourselves—the more we can’t escape ourselves.

The more we can’t escape our stories.

Therein lies the Art. Yeah, a lot of apps in the publishing world are about bells and whistles. A lot of them exist to make money. A lot of them are escapist video games disguised as books. And a lot of them are going to have their heyday on the AppStore and then disappear. But as long as they are telling stories, there is the potential for an app to give a reader a burst of insight and emotion that forces him/her to look up from his/her digital daydreams and see the world anew.

There’s no telling where digital storytelling is going to take us in the future. Digital technology is blurring the lines between fact and fiction, casting into flux the idea of identity. Already with stuff like Comic-Con and Snapchat filters, we see people shape-shifting into their favorite characters or wearing digital masks. With alternative reality technology, people are finding new ways to escape into video games and the digital world. With apps like Crave, romance readers can now see and interact with their fantasies. So maybe before long you WILL be able to have coffee with Captain Ahab or go bowling with Harry Potter.

But hopefully the farther we escape the more we will come to appreciate reality, life, the human experience.

And perhaps that appreciation will come from a small voice whispering: “It’s fun, but is it Art?”


Cassie Hayes is a fiction writer and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program and interns at the Oxford American.
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