Obscurity And The Written Word – A Ramble

A few days before I wrote this article, I was reminded of one of the major differences between film/TV/videogames and novels. The novel that I’m (still) re-reading at the moment is a spin-off novel based on the “Final Destination” horror movie series. This was a novel that I first read in 2005/6 and, when I first found my old copy of it, I thought “I remember this! I’ll look online for other books in the series“.

It was quite an eye-opener. Whilst DVDs of the films from this series were reasonably cheap, most of the spin-off novels (all less than two decades old!) were surprisingly expensive out-of-print copies. Whilst I was pretty amazed that I unwittingly owned a book that had become a collector’s item, it also crystallised one of the major differences between prose fiction and other mediums.

Namely that it is much easier for books to be obscure than it is for stuff in other genres. After all, if you see an interesting film or play an interesting game, then there’s a good chance that quite a few people have heard of it. There will be Youtube videos about it, fan art about it and maybe even mainstream press coverage too. On the other hand, if you find a really interesting novel, then there’s a fairly good chance that most people haven’t even heard of it.

There are, of course, a lot of reasons for this. Books take more time and effort to enjoy than other mediums. Publishers’ advertising budgets are lower, so only a few big name authors tend to get promoted. The experience of reading a book is slightly different for every reader. It costs less to produce a book, so there are many more of them. Reading is an inherently solitary activity. I could go on for quite a while, but there are a lot of reasons why books will often be more obscure than things in other mediums.

And, yes, this can be somewhat off-putting at times. I mean, when I got back into reading regularly a few months ago, I soon felt the familiar feeling of disconnection that comes from enjoying a medium that really doesn’t have a mainstream fan culture in the way that games, films, TV shows etc.. do. Or, rather, one that has a very limited mainstream fan culture. Seriously, aside from classic literature and a few big name authors, books really don’t get the kind of press that games, films etc.. do.

And, yes, this can make being a reader, rather than a gamer or a film/TV buff, feel somewhat lonely. But, it isn’t all bad news. For starters, the obscurity of most novels means that there is a whole culture that is “hiding in plain sight” in the modern world. Whilst film franchises might be well-known about, there are loads of even better book franchises that no-one has heard of. And discovering one of these is like finding hidden treasure or joining a secret society or something like that.

Likewise, this obscurity also gives books a level of freedom that other mediums can only dream of. After all, the more mainstream something is, the more it has to appeal to a mainstream audience. Because most novels won’t become well-known, this gives authors a lot more creative freedom. This includes everything from the choice of main characters to the types of stories told to things like censorship-related issues (seriously, read a 1980s splatterpunk horror novel. It’ll make even the most gruesome modern horror movies look tame by comparison.)

Plus, because books don’t require things like special effects, teams of programmers etc… books can do things that films, TV shows and games can’t do. Or, to put it another way, even the cheesiest and most “low budget” novel can be considerably more impressive than even a mid-budget film, game or TV show.

This obscurity also means that books can be years ahead of other mediums too. For example, this horror novel from the mid-2000s actually seems like it’s from the mid-2000s, rather than the “1990s in disguise” that films from the time often inhabited. This sci-fi novel from 1992 reminded me a bit of a sci-fi movie from 1995-99 (like “The Matrix” or “Ghost In The Shell”). I could go on, but because books don’t have to fit into mainstream expectations, they can often be years ahead of more popular storytelling mediums.

The obscurity of books also means that, if a genre that you aren’t a fan of becomes popular, then there are still loads of other good books out there. I mean, whilst superhero films and online multiplayer games might be all the rage these days, lots of new books in all genres are still being published all the time.

So, yes, books being the most overlooked and obscure storytelling medium out there these days isn’t an entirely bad thing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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