When I’m online, almost everything I read is either non-fiction, or supposed to be. I don’t think my lack of interest in online fiction is particularly unusual, but just to check, I had a look at Alexa’s most visited sites from the UK. After skimming through 300 of them, I still couldn’t find a single website that specialises in publishing online fiction. DeviantArt (#139) is probably the one that comes closest; it has a section for fiction, but that isn’t really its main purpose (as the name suggests, it’s more of an art website, to the extent that manga illustrations of scantily clad women constitute art). The overall impression I got from Alexa’s list was that the most popular websites are ones that help people get something done. Other popular websites that fall outside of this category generally operate in the field of social media, news, video, and content aggregation. That is, you’re just as likely to be using them to kill time as opposed to using them to accomplish a task.
Compare that with books: 34 of the UK’s 50 best-selling books in 2013 were fiction.
That’s an interesting disparity, I think. Here are some possible reasons for it:
1. Fiction is hard to read on a screen
While it’s true that reading from a screen strains your eyes, this doesn’t seem to stop us reading from screens. “Ah,” you say, “But fiction usually involves long periods of reading.” True again, but there’s no necessity for this. You could read short stories. You could read longer stories in a serialised form, à la Charles Dickens. At the same time, we know that people are prepared to read long-form journalism online: just look at the popularity of Longreads, a site which recommends long articles from sources like the New Yorker and has 151,000 Twitter followers. But when you look at Longreads’ best stories of 2014, you can see that they generally steer clear of fiction.
I don’t think the difficulty of reading from a screen tells the whole story of why we don’t read fiction on the web.
2. People who write good fiction don’t want to give it away
Journalists can make a living while giving away the fruits of their labour for nothing. Or rather, the news organisation they work for gives it away on their behalf. So I can read articles by professionals working for the BBC, the Guardian and the Telegraph, and I don’t have to pay a thing. Thanks to these organisations’ various funding arrangements, the journalists still get paid. Alternatively, I can access the work of other journalists by paying a subscription to the Times or the FT.
Maybe if structures like these existed for fiction writers, that would increase fiction’s popularity on the web.
3. Fiction is hard
Possibly harder than writing about real life? Creating a believable world, with believable characters who talk in a believable way, is undoubtedly a difficult thing to do. In contrast, I’m happy to read blogs written by people who aren’t professional writers. Bloggers don’t have to create a believable world with believable characters; they just need to write honestly about the real world, and that in itself is usually interesting enough.
4. Fiction requires more of an investment from the reader
It can take time to get into a novel. You need to get a feel for the fictional world that the writer is talking about, and the people who exist within it. As you read, you gradually build up a set of reference points that give the story its internal cohesion. With a news article, on the other hand, you already have a good sense of the characters and the world they live in. We all know a bit about the comedy character “Nigel Farage” and his charmingly racist foibles. The journalist doesn’t have to carefully construct him and place him in a context like an author would; all that work’s been done already by the rest of the media. The flip side of this is that the reader doesn’t have to closely follow this character construction either. This situation favours people who dip in and out of a news website. It’s a lot less effort.
I have to say, I don’t completely buy this argument. For one thing, a long-form news article frequently introduces a cast of characters who the reader doesn’t know at the start. For another thing, a skilfully written piece of fiction can give you a sense of the characters and their relationships very quickly. It doesn’t always require much of an investment from the reader. A few paragraphs, maybe.
5. We think of the web as an information source
In the early days of the web, the web was referred to as the “information superhighway”, and I wonder if this is a key to fiction’s lack of success in this medium. We equate information with facts. Information is good if it’s true. At the same time, the public-access nature of the web means we have a hard time knowing if the facts we’re getting are trustworthy. As Howard Rheingold puts it,
“It’s up to you to sort the accurate bits from the misinfo, disinfo, spam, scams, urban legends, and hoaxes.”
In this environment, maybe fiction comes in from leftfield. Fiction has a whole range of purposes, but informing us about the truth is not generally one of them. On a web where people care deeply about the authenticity of what they’re seeing or reading, fiction starts from a completely different premise. It doesn’t make sense to someone who’s busy filtering the truth from the scams.
I don’t feel like I’ve explained the unpopularity of online fiction, but I’ve made a start. The truth is, I still find it puzzling why I’m happy to read a long article about a real story, but am far less likely to read a made-up story of the same length.
Scarfolk Council – this is a brilliant blog which describes life in a fictional northern town stuck in the 1970s.
Tor.com – this is a fairly popular place to find online fiction of the science fiction / fantasy variety.
Why cybersoaps don’t clean up – a 1997 article from Forbes that tells the story of a failed attempt to launch a web serial
Web fiction – Wikipedia article which, contrary to my assertions, states that web fiction is incredibly popular and has been since 2008.