Skip to main content

Literary fiction writers are often a staid, boring lot. (I should know, I’ve written in this ‘genre’ for about 5 years now, and have been reading it for decades.) But as I read in the Guardian yesterday, top novelists are now looking to ebooks to challenge the rules of fiction!

Updating Literary Fiction

Updating Literary Fiction

“Online fiction is a remote world, peopled by elves, dragons and whey-faced vampires. At least that is the view shared by millions of devoted readers of the printed novel. But now serious British literary talent is aiming to colonise territory occupied until now by fantasy authors and amateur fan-fiction writers.

In the vanguard is Iain Pears, the best-selling historical novelist and author of An Instance of the Fingerpost and Stone’s Fall. Pears will offer readers the chance to go back to check detailed elements of his narrative and will even flag up sections they do not have to read. “I am trying to find a new way of telling stories, and once you start thinking about it, there are almost too many possibilities,” said the Oxford-based writer, who is completing an interactive ebook for Faber that will stretch the form to its current limits. “There is no reason to think the printed book will be the defining literary format. I don’t want to be cautious any more. This is about changing the fundamentals. The worst that can happen is that it won’t work.”

It is a challenge that also intrigues acclaimed authors Blake Morrison and Will Self, although they detect some obstacles. As professor of creative writing at Goldsmiths College, at the University of London, Morrison has just launched a £10,000 prize for innovative new writing and argues that the success of experimental ebooks will depend on making interactivity more than just a feature. “Reading by its very nature is interactive – whether you do it on an iPad or with a printed book, you participate,” he said. “The novelist creates a world and the reader brings something to it. Reading is not a passive process. Literary interactivity means more than computer games. Or should do.”

I don’t like the prevalent dismissive attitude towards genre fiction, and I’m happy the ‘serious’ writers are waking up to the possibility of ebooks, and interactivity. I wouldn’t mind the ability to choose a different ending, or any other stunt the stalwarts of literary writing think up. If it is gimmicky, so what? It can be fun!

What do you think of Interactive Literary Fiction? Would you read it? Are you an ebook fan or a paper-book fan, or like, me, a bit of both?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  • Peter Nena says:

    A bit of both.

  • 1WriteWay says:

    Interactive fiction makes me think of the “director’s cut” of movies. Take Blade Runner, one of my favorite movies. It was released to theaters with an ending different from the original intent, a “happy” ending that felt strangely odd. Then came the Director’s Cut, and the ending was quite different (and in my mind) much more realistic. I’ve never read the novel so I don’t know if either movie version was close to the novel. Still, it would be an interesting experience to see/read differences in a book based on your reaction to a story. And I love both ebooks and printed books, although I am partial to printed books. Ebook technology has improved a lot over the years, but it still doesn’t compare with the simplicity of reading a printed book.

  • lorwynd says:

    Interactive stories can be cool, but they aren’t for everyone. The writer gets to explore the “what ifs” they sometimes reach in stories. Like in the Indian Jones movies…in Temple of Doom, Indy pulls a gun and shoots the swordsman, but in the fourth movie, his gun isn’t there and he has to use his whip. The interactive story isn’t just about changing ‘an’ ending. It’s about giving the reader choices throughout the story…many different paths that may ultimately end up with the same outcome, or something totally different.

    Aside from reader buy-in, another big challenge is the potential conversion to film. A screen writer would have to pick one path through the story, which would make the story much different than many readers’ versions.

    The interactive story is rather gimmicky, though, and can easily lose much of what draws readers into stories, such as character development, the relationship between characters, and mulch-dimensional antagonists. Most interactive stories are going to be first-person POV and that’s the character whose choices the reader will guide. It would be challenging, indeed, to write an interactive story with multiple characters the reader had to guide, without plotlines getting lost or just completely hokey.

    I’d love to see a well-written, interactive story. I don’t think it would ever become my preference, but it would be a nice change of pace now and then.

  • Interactive fiction has been around for awhile. Has no one read those choose your own adventure books? I loved those, and with the advent of Ebooks you can go much farther with the medium. Not only that but a small genre of computer games called ‘Visual Novels’ function in the exact way interactive fiction is being described here, without the ‘winning’ mentality that Anthony Dobranski mentioned earlier in regards to videogames. Granted they are a niche genre and mostly confined to Japan, but for all those who wish to experience them I highly recommend three. Fate/Stay NIght, Ever17, and Katawa Shoujo. The last one being free to download from the developers from their website and in several languages. All of these Visual Novels are both interactive and have strong enough stories that they are not just ‘gimmicks’. They stand on their own feet.

  • celenagaia33 says:

    There is of course the possibility of conflicting attitudes / egos, but no one ever said writing or reading should be an easy process 😉 It’s about challenge, and redefining boundaries. Pushing them out, making the audience – each individual – feel something they’ve not felt before, or indeed, something they have and want back. I rather like this idea of interactivity. It pushes said boundaries, gives ever-expanding opportunities, and means that fresh ideas can be bounced off an author and around his/her audience, hopefully inspiring others; so even if an idea doesn’t take off, it might well elsewhere.
    It reminds me of those wonderful Famous Five adventure books 🙂

  • lynnsbooks says:

    I’m split with this one. I think I have probably more cons than pros though. I would probably find myself always going for a typical ‘happy’ ending and that’s not always what is needed. I like to be challenged by the author really, plus I can’t help thinking that the author has a story in mind and this somehow undermines it. That being said, and also because I like to argue with myself, I suppose it could give the author the chance to have almost a Sliding Doors effect and take the plot back to a certain point where if instead of action (a) the protagonist chooses action (b) etc, etc. But, then again, if the author wants that effect – then why not simply write the story like that in the first place?
    But, the major down side for me is that when I love a book and I discuss it with someone else who loves it – we could have completely different ideas of what actually happened.
    Lynn 😀

  • I don’t mean to be dismissive but I have my doubts. If it’s not good fiction, people get bored fast — and if it’s good fiction, it has to take a character to a new place, not just rewrite an ending. I’ll be patient with a journeyman talent, but I won’t judge work by lower or kinder standards because it’s meant to be a lark. If a person writes good fan-fic, then it’s good fiction and they probably worked hard at it. If it’s just a nifty idea expressed in bad language and plotted with no tension, I won’t find it fun. I’m also not sure people have as much tolerance for radical reforms of narrative structure as bored (or jealous) writers hope they might. Hypertext novels never caught on in the 1990s. For all the production values of a videogame, people don’t play them to dive deep into the human condition; they play them to win. What you learn about power and hunger from Grand Theft Auto is very different from what you learn from Michael Corleone becoming the Godfather.

  • I have to say I prefer my genre fiction, so perhaps interactive literary fiction could be fun. I do love my ebooks. 🙂

  • umashankar says:

    A book is like a beautiful flower – a daffodil, a nightingale’s song in the wild, a beauteous evening calm and free. Start dissecting it and the magic vanishes forever. Call me a Luddite, but I haven’t even started reading ebooks. Come to think of it, i have had to buy the physical volumes even though I have the electronic edition so that I could read them!

    I am sure that is great idea for academic exposure. But I’d put a full stop just there.

    • Damyanti says:

      I love how you wax poetic about books :). I do too, not very often, but I do — I adore books.

      I find interactivity is a basic feature of human learning — a kid could learn more from an iPad book than a real book simply because the iPad could have music, with clicks leading to new stories or features. So of course, your suggestion of academic use is very viable.

      The same can be true of serious fiction, as well. For me the concept of parallel stories, interconnected stories is much too inviting, much like Cloud Atlas — which is a different beast as a book and a film. In an interactive ebook, which would be somewhere in between a book and a film, I could read a linear story, if I wanted that option, or I could jump from one thing and one world to another, still remaining within the book. I find that exciting.

  • I’m not sure “stunts” and “gimmicks” work as literary devices. I probably would not consider “interactive” literature as literary fiction, as much as fiction. While I believe that reading is active, and the reader contributes to the writing of the story, I don’t think being able to change endings, or any other gimmicky trick, is the same thing as reader response, as in the theoretical reader response.

    • Damyanti says:

      While one part of me agrees with you, the other doesn’t. I’m not averse to stunt or gimmicks if the story is fascinating, and the book has something new to say or think about. The gimmick might not necessarily be a cheap thrill, but something profound, if only we think about it.

  • Pete Denton says:

    Dungeons and dragon fans will say that interactive fiction has been around for decades. I think the ebook revolution brings about more possibilities. So why not have scope for all types of books. The marketplace will determine whether they have longevity or not.

  • Tim Chambers says:

    I have always thought it would be interesting to write a detective novel in which the reader becomes the detective and has to make decisions about what leads to follow and and what inferences to draw from them, then write out each thread of the story. This could easily be done as an ibook, but would be difficult in a printed one.

    • Damyanti says:

      Tim, that’s the sort of thing they’ve been doing in the game world — I, for one, would be happy if it comes to the literary world 🙂

  • Now that sounds like an interesting concept.

  • Anirban Das says:

    The genre which I tend to read, Crime fiction, i dont know whether there is much scope of Interactive Fiction. I mean, how can it be, except if the writer is intending to give the reader a totally different antagonist. But then the whole book must be re-written as clues must be put to suit the crime, the motive must be suitably changed, alibis to be provided for etc etc.

    The only INTERACTIVE fiction, if it can be called so, I have read is a short story by Jefferey Archer called ONE MAN’S MEAT, where the writer offered four different endings for the reader to chose. But the endings were provided by him, we were not asked to create an ending, we were only asked to chose.

    So, although many a times I do feel that an alternative ending would have done more justice to the book, as in case of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, I would still be satisfied with the ending the author provided us with.

    So, Interactive Fiction is not my cup of tea.

    • Damyanti says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Anirban!
      Interactive fiction may not always be about creating endings, but also about perhaps linking to back stories, or even short stories about the characters in that particular world. The possibilities are endless, imho, but you are right, it would require a lot of extra work from the writer.

  • Lady Bren says:

    I really like the idea of this however I am only able to :read” books on audio/cd so not sure how this would work

    • Damyanti says:

      A lot of devices respond to spoken commands nowadays, so I don’t think that should be a problem — interactive audio books would be so cool!

  • DoingDewey says:

    I would at least give it a try, although I’m not sure I would like it. It seems like it could disrupt the flow of the narrative if not done very well.

  • Arlee Bird says:

    Another comment lost in the digital spam dump.

    • Damyanti says:

      I rescued it, Lee, and hopefully future ones won’t go to spam. I check spam daily, cos sometimes Akismet does send my friends into spam.

  • Arlee Bird says:

    I’m all for experimenting with new technologies and styles, but I fear for the paper books if we go too far in the digital direction. Books can survive many things that digital cannot. If a book is only in digital form then there is a greater potential of being lost to future generations.

    • Damyanti says:

      I know. I have a book, and a few stories in books that are only available digitally. A book in hand does seem more secure in those cases. But then, books, are not indestructible either. I’ve lost more than my fair share to flooding, mold, silverfish.

  • I’m an eBook fan, but not so much the interactive. Magazines yes, books no.

    • Damyanti says:

      Interactive magazines would be fun, Alex. I might like interactive books, cos I sometimes feel like I want to change the plot or the ending — and maybe an author can provide those options in the interactive version?

  • johncoyote says:

    Yes I would.