Digital Silence


Arts & Culture

Eli Horowitz is not particularly tech savvy, but he’s spent a lot of time thinking about what consumer technology can do. Until a few months ago, long after most of his friends and colleagues had bought iPhones, the former McSweeney’s editor and publisher was still taking their calls (and text messages) on a frayed LG flip-phone that was too worn down to snap closed completely; he had started to think of it as “more like a flap-phone.” By the time he upgraded, however, he’d already been long at work on The Silent History, a digital, serialized novel containing stories that, with the help of GPS, can only be read at the physical locations where they are set. “We came up with the very clunky shorthand description of a serialized exploratory novel for iPhone. Which just rolls off the tongue,” said Matt Derby, one of the novel’s authors, on a recent weekend on the Lower East Side. “It’s not technically a book. But we do think of it as a novel, as a narrative experience that follows characters over this sort of sweeping arc, with conflict and resolution and all the stuff that any traditional novel has.”

The “field reports,” as the novel’s authors call them, are set in the same universe as the rest of The Silent History, but not only there. While most large e-book publishers continue to argue over how to get the most profit out of basically re-creating a print book on a screen, Horowitz and his partners wanted to make something else: a novel that not only could be explored, but would encourage engagement with the physical world. “One of the tent poles of this project,” Derby explained, “was to skin the real world with this fictional space” and allow readers a more acute sense of stepping into the story.

Along with coauthor Kevin Moffett, Horowitz and Derby came to Manhattan for a walking tour that introduced three field reports from the novel, two of which were presented for the first time. Over the past two years, Derby, Moffett, and Horowitz wrote and edited the story while designer Russell Quinn built the interface, an iPhone and iPad app. In early October they released the app, which included a first chapter and a world map annotated with field reports from five continents, with the full story to be serialized daily over the subsequent six months. Additional field reports will be released as writers and readers contribute them, with Horowitz’s editing.

Horowitz and Quinn, another former McSweeney’s employee, helped direct that company’s focus on print books, magazines, and journals that, Horowitz has explained, are also beautiful objects. Apart from Quinn, the creators of The Silent History approach digital media not as engineers, nor are they even particularly enamored with technology—Moffett, for example, bought a smartphone earlier than Horowitz but has called himself a “total ignoramus” about the code that makes their new novel work. Instead, they made The Silent History as a way to think about what kind of object a digital book could be.

To begin the tour, Horowitz, in jeans, sneakers, and a brown hooded sweatshirt, met about thirty readers and curious onlookers at the western edge of Seward Park. He introduced himself and his project and thanked everyone for showing up “and doing this weird thing.” Then he led the group west on Hester Street.

At the corner of Ludlow, the group found designer Walter Green, who read a short field report introducing the silents, a worldwide epidemic of children born with a strange inability to process language. Tourgoers who had already downloaded The Silent History found the location on its map and read along on their phones. Answering questions as he continued north, Horowitz had to step off the sidewalk and into the street to pass another tour group walking through two worlds connected at a single place, just outside the Tenement Museum. (“The past the and future, colliding!” he exclaimed.)

Outside the shuttered public bathrooms where Allen Street intersects Delancey, Derby read a field report about a future bus accident there, and the role that the one brick painted gold on the structure’s southern wall plays in the story about the silents. After the final reading, a few blocks further north, was cut short by a persistent newcomer yelling news about Hamas and asking for money, Horowitz led the group to Orchard Street’s Mission Chinese Food for questions and snacks.

So far, it seems like the experiment has been going well, though it hasn’t been without its hiccups. “We designed it to be read daily,” Derby explained, but “what we’ve noticed is that the experience of reading it serialized is much different than waiting for the testimonials to queue up over time and reading them in chunks,” especially for readers who are also following the book’s Twitter feed, which posted the following messages one evening last month:

In 36 hours, Theo Greene’s murderer will be revealed.

Oh wait, not everyone’s caught up yet.

Sorry, forget that last tweet. But don’t get left behind—finish Volume One!

PS Theo Greene does not actually get murdered.

Wired called prepublication excerpts “part book, part multiplayer game, part Google map, and entirely revolutionary.” Though this last claim is likely a bit overblown—the computerized novel is pretty much as old as the personal computer itself—it’s true that most of the attention given to The Silent History has so far been directed at its technology rather than its story. Almost no one is asking why a book editor and a couple short-story writers might want to write a novel about silent characters at a time when novels, traditionally tools for expressing interior life, are largely cast aside for leisure time spent online. “It’s understandable,” Derby realizes, “because people love to see the word e-book and all that stuff, but I hope at some point the dialogue can turn to one of these deeper questions that we were trying to tackle.”

Part of the reason may be that Horowitz decided not to send the full text to reviewers “because it would just spoil it,” he said with a chuckle. “You know, for TV reviews, they just send like three episodes. So I might send the whole first volume”—the book is spread across six—“but not more than that.”

“I think there are going to be more things like this,” he continued, “but the systems right now are not making space for them. E-books are everyone competing to be a platform, to make some generic platform and control market share. It’s Apple versus Amazon. So as a result, there hasn’t been enough money or attention toward making these apps of new works that validate the narrative possibilities, the storytelling possibilities of these things. But the possibilities are absolutely there.” In less than two months, The Silent History has been downloaded twenty-five thousand times, and fifteen hundred readers have requested the guidelines for writing and submitting new field reports.

But, Horowitz concluded, he’d like to see the big publishers get into the game. “Publishers are a lot better able to do this than we are. As publishers become ‘obsolete,’” he said, making air quotes with his fingers, “because they’re not printing anymore, they’re not distributing anymore—or, less and less because of e-books, and they already aren’t editing or designing that much, maybe. This is the project that actually needed someone who could pull together a team of people with different skills—editors and designers and technologists and writers and also have some money up front. That’s a way for a publisher to find real new value and relevance.” Instead, most of the experimentation takes place at start-ups and smaller companies. Horowitz and his partners were able to string together the kind of project they wanted, “but only,” he admitted, “because we were crazy.”

As the big publishing companies continue to shrink and consolidate, how should they think about their future? “Here’s a rising market that I can corner,” Horowitz proposed. “And here’s a thing that needs me. If someone’s just doing an e-book, do they need a publisher? That’s a valid thing to wonder. So this seems like a path to relevance, an opportunity to really make themselves necessary. I hope that happens a lot.”

Alex Carp is an editor of the McSweeney’s Voice of Witness book series.