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Novels just got digital

Iain Pears’ latest novel, Arcadia, was released earlier this week. As an app. In equal measures intrigued and sceptical, Wyl took the plunge to find out if it could live up to its promises.


I’m an addict (don’t sneer, the likelihood is you are too). I love my tech just a little too much. I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many times I’ve checked my email/ Facebook/ Twitter accounts this morning alone (you’re still sneering a little – how often do you check yours? Honestly?). And it’s for that reason alone that, until now, I’ve kept reading novels as an entirely offline experience.

I love the fact novels (pretty much) have one use. They’re there simply to dive into, to be entirely immersed and engrossed in until you come out the other side, breathless and bemused that the world is not quite as it was when you entered the story. No email, no tweets, no distractions. Just a walk into the fictional woods and back out again. What more could you want?

I have dipped my toe into the waters of digital reading before. Back in 2008, I remember being underwhelmed by experiments such as The 21 Steps, which retold a classic narrative using new technology. And more recently, gamified narrative, Device 6, intrigued me at the time, but essentially left me frustrated. I love puzzles and cyphers, but in Device 6 the reader is continually interrupted to solve problems in order to continue reading. Despite its beautiful design, anything that detracts from the story isn’t welcome. And if you asked me now what the story was, I could give you a rough idea at best.


I’ve borrowed e-readers too, but I find the constant prompts from my inner addict for me to check my feeds too overwhelming to make it a good reading experience. There are a hundred other reasons I’m not a fan of e-readers, but I won’t go into them here (thanks, ed.). Despite having been around for years now, e-readers don’t offer the reader anything new (stop it, ed.).

So when Iain Pears, author of the excellent Instance of the Fingerpost and Stone’s Fall, released his latest novel, Arcadia as an app, I was fascinated (I’m a huge fan of Pears’ complex, interconnected narratives) but also wary (would it be anything more than a well-written choose your own adventure story?).

What distinguishes Arcadia from any other narrative I’ve read online is two things. Firstly, the quality of writing. Too often, what I’ve read in app form puts the narrative secondary to the form (as in Device 6). I was immersed in Pears’ fictional worlds from the first few paragraphs, partly because the reading experience wasn’t interrupted by video, audio, graphics and clever formatting (though the formatting is rather lovely).

Move the technologists to one side and let the storytellers take the lead.

Secondly, Pears uses the app form to solve a narrative problem – how to interconnect several complex narrative strands to create an interesting, satisfying reading experience. This interplay between the technology and the narrative structure immediately puts Arcadia at the head of the field. Pears offers the reader a compelling reason to read this on a device rather than in book form. What he was doing in writing the novel for the screen rather than the page, as he said in a recent Guardian interview, was “making the technology the servant of the story rather than its master”. And it works. It’s simple – not the narrative, the technology. The story is the driver, and while it would be well worth reading as a paper novel, Pears makes the complexity of the narrative simple for the reader. But then, he’s a masterful storyteller.

Was I immersed? Yes, utterly. I still felt the addictive forces at work each time I reached a junction in the narrative, and found myself wondering what I was missing out on (the same compulsion that drives me to check my email/ Facebook/ Twitter every five minutes) by taking a particular path. But, I was carried along by the story enough to make that worthwhile. It’s a novel worth reading. And re-reading. I can see myself getting just as engrossed reading it a second or third time, each time following a different path and using my previous reading to inform the journey (I hope).

It feels as though, with Arcadia, after what’s been an incredibly slow start for novels written for the screen, it might just be the time to start paying attention to what’s going on in digital publishing. I’d love to see David Mitchell’s follow-up to The Bone Clocks published like this. And the next Murakami. It’s time to move the technologists to one side and let the storytellers take the lead.

One Response Subscribe to comments

  1. Richard

    As a dinosaur from the paper era who hitherto has eschewed the
    e-reader, I may be ever-so, slightly, almost tempted to dip a toe in the digital stream following this review. Intriguing!

    Aug 27, 2015 @ 3:33 pm


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