Beyond the page

An iPad app for A Clockwork Orange points to an exciting future for fiction, even if it threatens the authority of the writer
October 17, 2012

The poster for Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film

A Clockwork Orange: 50th Anniversary Edition and iPad app

by Anthony Burgess (William Heinemann, £20)

Perhaps the most poignant kind of failure for a writer, among many strong contenders, is being remembered for the wrong book. It was a fate that Anthony Burgess felt coming. A Clockwork Orange was just “a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks” he said, calling it “too didactic to be artistic.” Yet today the idea of Burgess as a major novelist is rarely even mentioned, while his violent fable on free will persists, a weathered landmark of our culture, his name still on it somewhere underneath the moss.

Burgess was too hard on himself, of course, if he was being serious. The plot of A Clockwork Orange, in which a thug and rapist is forcibly reprogrammed to mend his ways, may lack sophistication, but this is no defect, as it allows us to focus on the novel’s language. It is “nadsat,” the glorious Russo-Joycean slang that the narrator Alex speaks in—all those “droogs” and their “horrorshow tolchocking”—that lingers longest with most readers. For its wild distinctiveness, A Clockwork Orange absolutely merits this reissuing in hardback, and, most intriguingly, as an iPad app, on its 50th birthday.

For Burgess fans, or lapsed fans like me, the app especially is a delight to nose through. On opening it, you can read the book straightforwardly on the screen, or choose a facsimile of the original typescript with all his notes and doodles, or have the book read to you by Tom Hollander, who handles the nadsat with conviction. Or you can root around in a wealth of other oddments. There are video clips of diverse experts and famous fans, such as Martin Amis, who discuss the novel and read excerpts from it. There are articles, essays and reviews. There are rare radio recordings of Burgess himself. You can even trace the history of the novel’s first appearance through the scribbled memos of its original publishers at William Heinemann.

Taken together, this creates the furtive pleasure of being given an hour alone in Burgess’s attic. There’s a buzz when you notice him type, “A Clockwork Orange is very far from being my favourite book,” then cross out “very far from being” and instead add “not” in pen. At the end of the penultimate chapter, we even catch him calling the last one an “optional epilogue,” in plain contradiction of what he always insisted—that this chapter was removed against his wishes by his American editor—but then Burgess was always rather cavalier, let’s say, with his remembering. “When book buyers buy books,” he declared in his memoirs, “they look for sex, violence and hard information.” To a novel already famous for the first two, this app adds the third.

But it is not the first app of its kind. The past 16 months have seen similar, if rather glossier, treatments given to The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets by developers Touch Press, with Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse soon to join the list. Last summer, Penguin published a comparable edition of On The Road. In all of them, readings, video interviews, facsimile manuscripts and expert commentary are the standard frills. “Bringing together a portable museum,” is the description of Dan Franklin, digital publisher at Random House, which produced A Clockwork Orange.

You might think that this is just a new way to present scholarly editions of classic texts. And it is that, of course, but it is also rather a big moment for “enhanced e-books,” as these apps are often known. In a fledgling industry, the Clockwork Orange app and its predecessors are what everybody wants to hear: the first trickles of a mainstream.

To many readers, book apps look pointless. Ipads and other tablet computers make it possible to embed internet links, sound clips, videos, animation—anything—into the page of a book. But why do it, when paper is already capable of wonders? Children’s books have provided one answer. The Cat in the Hat app, for example, allows children to read the story, or hear it read to them, in the usual way but when they touch an individual word it also glows red and is spoken aloud. Touching an object in the picture makes its name and sound appear as well.

The advantages of electronic reference books are also obvious. They are easily searchable, they can be updated automatically and they offer new features that are truly useful. Besides the usual pictures and descriptions, for instance, the Bird Guide Britain app can play its readers actual birdsong.

Yet the electronic novel remains a largely uncracked nut. And the reason is just as obvious: most fiction depends for its success on readers forgetting that they’re reading fiction—and interacting with a responsive screen is a good way to be reminded. If you have not previously read A Clockwork Orange you will get a far richer experience from a tatty old paperback than from this distractingly snazzy app.

As other types of books reach out into new domains, however, the novel is going to seem ever more parochial and quaint if it stays put. Print, which is slowly disappearing, helps novelists to establish their authority with readers by implying, in its fixedness, that a certain arrangement of 81,294 words must be correct. The costliness of paper books, and the limitations on their distribution, has also elevated authors into an elite group on a stage, as it were, above their audience. Non-fiction loses less in the transition from print to digital because much of its authority comes from a truthfulness that can be ascertained. The truth of novels, however, is a naked lie, clothed only its audience’s respect. And now that anyone can be a published novelist online, this is weakened.

Visit the website, however, and you’ll get a strong feeling that this need not matter. Here, authors, most of whom are teenage amateurs but one of whom is Margaret Atwood, post stories for anyone to read, often chapter by chapter, as they’re written. Readers contribute comments, make requests, design covers, and vote for favourites. To some extent, this ends up being interactive fiction—stories influenced by their readers, who consume them online—even if the finished books could just as easily be read on paper. The site’s most popular books have already accumulated millions of “reads.” Fifty Shades of Grey, of course, had similar origins on the website

You might think that watching a novelist’s fretful path towards completion would reduce a finished novel’s power. For more serious novels, it probably does. Yet WattPad certainly proves teenagers’ enthusiasm for participatory reading—even if, for the moment, they have mostly teenage tastes.

In a superb talk at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in August, the novelist China Miéville predicted a future for the novel that would look quite like this. Dismissing game-like choose-your-own-adventure stories as only “interesting,” and calling soundtracked or animated stories “a banal abomination,” he welcomed instead the coming belittlement of novelists.

Self-publishing, “the blurring of boundaries between writers, books, and readers,” as he described it, “doesn’t mean some people won’t be better than others at the whole writing thing,” he said. “It should, though, undermine that patina of specialness [of the novelist]… That is a good thing; the start of a great future. In which we can maybe focus more on the books. Which might even rarely be special.”

Specifically, Miéville’s dream is that we’ll learn to embrace the idea of authors without authority, with copies of their novels being freely exchanged and edited (or, in his word, “remixed”) by a more engaged population of readers.

But Miéville has things backwards, I think. Instead of embracing a lower status—which will reduce the power of fiction—novelists will just have to work harder to keep it high. The better novelists already use a very old tool to do this: prose style, which gives novels much of their power, by making them seem to come from somewhere definite and confident. Talent, I think, is going to have to get more obvious in this way.

Here’s my remix of Miéville’s prediction for the novel’s future: it’s going to be the 18th century again. The printing press was the disruptive technology then. From print grew the genres of non-fiction storytelling—and from those the novel emerged. Robinson Crusoe (memoir), Gulliver’s Travels (travel book), Pamela (collection of letters): all were fake, but all were presented as real, and widely believed. What we are witnessing now is the explosion of new non-fiction genres—on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, iPad apps and elsewhere. Soon we will be ready for made-up versions.

And we already have a few. Last year, the popular “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog chronicled the experiences of a young Syrian lesbian called Amina during the uprising. Then in June it emerged that the whole thing had been written in Edinburgh by a married 40-year-old American postgraduate called Tom McMaster. “Gay Girl in Damascus,” in short, turned out to be a novella. It makes you wonder how many other unknown novels are right now being written, and read, on the internet.

Despite his lukewarm feelings towards A Clockwork Orange, Burgess came to loathe Stanley Kubrick for overshadowing him with the 1971 film. But what a writer wants and what he gets have never had much more than wisps of a relationship. Today we find his text fissured with uncertainty and shadowed by foreign images, just as technology is making all novels seem less certain of themselves.

Yet this was always coming. Having thrived for centuries as masters of a small print island, novelists were always vulnerable to the appearance of a bridge. Bridges can be crossed both ways, however. And once the shock has passed, we’ll have a wider world of fiction to explore.