The traditional novel — one thousand years old and still alive

clock - traditional novel - Peter Rey

Writing has been invented more than 3000 years ago.

The first novel ever written was written by a woman in the year 1007.

Since then, millions and millions of novels have been written. Indeed, we can say that the traditional novel truly represents a millenarian form of art.

Yet, over the last few years, I heard on more than one occasion someone say that the novel is dead. That no traditional novel can match the immersive power of computer games, of interactive novels, and adventures.

For sure the advent of the digital era has made relatively easy the creation of new forms of art in which different media are mixed to create a rich and multi-layered ambiance, in which contents can be consumed interactively.

However, the rise of these new forms of art–or maybe simply entertainment — doesn’t necessarily mean that older forms have to fade into oblivion.

I think this is particularly true of traditional novels, which are sometimes disparaged by those who are all for the new digital technologies for their lack of interactivity, and the static nature of their content.

In particular, I think that this static aspect isn’t at all a weakness. It’s an asset instead, one of the features that make traditional novels such interesting representations of certain dynamics of life.

In fact, a traditional novel doesn’t give any choice to its readers. They can read it or put it down and forget about it, of course. But if they read it they have to follow the story the author decided to tell. The story the author crafted and brought to life.

In this sense, traditional novels have a sense of finality that forces us to come to terms with reality, even if we’re reading a fantasy. Traditional novels don’t show off any ‘game over’ screen saying insert coins to start a new game.

Traditional novel, intercative novel–a matter of point of view

Instead, any novel offering interactive choices  presents at least two problematic aspects. The first has to do with the mind-gobbling number of words such a novel would require. In fact, even in a novel presenting only three points in which readers can make a choice between, say, three options, we would end up having 39 different sections.

Now, just for the sake of speculation, if  each section represented the 25% of the whole novel in that particular story-line, it’s easy to see how to write even a barely interactive novel, a writer should write the equivalent of almost ten traditional novels. A quantity of words only few very prolific authors could manage.

Sure, maybe in the future the development of software able to produce lengthy stretches of high quality prose will make the creation of such over-sized novels common. But just as proficient machine translation seemed only behind the corner thirty years ago–and we’re still waiting for it– I would say automated novel production is to say the least far from imminent.

The sheer size that any really interactive novel would require is just a technical problem. More important than this is the psychological aspect of reading such extensive works.

In fact, as already noted, in a traditional novel there’s a well defined story. We can love it, or hate it, but when we speak about it we all share the same knowledge about the places, the characters and so on. Besides, if we like the story, when we finish it we often experience a sense of accomplishment.

Instead, the moment we had at our disposal monumental interactive novels made up by hundreds or thousands of possible choices, it’s apparent that there would be no longer any real novel, any story. Rather, we would face just a sort of repository of possible outcomes we can choose from.

In this way every time I finished such a novel, I would be painfully aware of having only read a tiny part of the whole work.

More importantly, I would also be aware of having created a story that has a lot to do with me and my character rather than with the author and what he had to tell—indeed, such an interactive story might serve quite well as a tool for self-discovery.

This is not necessarily a drawback, but it points out quite clearly that traditional novels and new forms of novels should be considered just as complementary offers, and not as opponents fighting for supremacy.

Photo by DncnH


  1. Great article. I totally agree with you. I’m also one of those that when reading a “simple” multiple-choice book, is always curious about other possible choices/ends, but I still do prefer a book with just one end. As you said, this give you a sense of finality that, to me, interactive /multiple-choice novels don’t have.

  2. Hi Claire, thanks for your feedback.

    Yes, finality is what actually makes the trick for me. When reading, I typically want to read a story. Instead when I want to create a story I tend to write it…

    Have a nice day. =)

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