There will never, in all likelihood, ever again be a writer like Ken Follett. Not because of his illustrious career in publishing, but because of something entirely extraneous to Follett’s own writing. There is no doubt whatever that Ken Follett enjoys an illustrious career; 130 million copies of his books sold over the course of a career spanning nearly four decades.
Follett is renowned for his thrillers, but in the spring of 1989, he developed an ‘Angra’s Violin’ for himself by finding the drama in the building of a fictive gothic cathedral. Pillars of the Earth was a tour de force. Was it even possible to find the crisis and the thrill in something as mundane to 20th century readers as the building of a medieval cathedral? Follett found exactly that in Pillars of the Earth, and with that gave his career an entirely new lease; he could be as wildly successful at historical novels as he had been at thrillers.
But this is not what makes Follett historically interesting. As literature, sure, Follett is one of those rare writers that seems to deliver each time his name appears on a novel. But historically, Follett finds himself in a situation entirely not of his own making. Historically, Ken Follett might arguably be the last Author. The uppercase Author indicates the idea that one can reenact the career of novelist, achieving at least as much as Follett himself has. So Follett is historically interesting because he stands on the cusp of two eras: one in which the novelist stands as a mass-medium entertainer; the other in which the novel’s grasp on the position of mass medium has been fractured and novels themselves compete with other forms of entertainment like videogames and movies.
It’s a measure of the kind of acumen apparent in his writing that Follett realizes his situation in history. Speaking in a recent Eye to Eye interview with Bloomberg’s Francine Lacqua (wherein she interviews her subjects on a single trip on the London Eye), Follett is charmingly open about his past in learning his craft, diffident to the idea of fame, and honest about challenges facing novels and print.
Is there an almost naturalistic antagonism for many who work in popular culture, and many who work in digital publication against novels and print? Many writers seem to be profiting from describing exactly this kind of antagonism. Digital publishers say their time has come. Print version critics of pop culture argue that they are not staid expressions of a bygone era.
Of course it is at best disingenuous to buy into such dissension-fostering discourse. What’s ultimately invigorating about listening to Follett is his non-jaded grasp on notions of popular culture. He had grown up reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, remembering Live And Let Die as his first foray into Fleming’s work. He learnt his craft as much out of a sense of wanting to do this as a living, as he did out of a sense of wanting to communicate the energy and the anxiety he encountered when reading Bond for that very first time. He wanted to move the world.
And Follett’s take on digital publication is no less formidable. It’s just wonderful that people can walk around with digital tablets and e-readers that can download entire books, he says. Here is a technology that allows unmitigated access to the world of literature. And what of other media? Novelists are entertainers, Follett argues passionately. And novelists need to compete for the audience’s time and attention. Think of the Harry Potter books that had young adults lining up for hours, many of them avoiding Saturday morning cartoon shows and setting aside MP3 libraries and videogame collections for no other reason than simply to wait for a chance to read a good story in old-fashioned book format.
To hear Follett, someone who has mastered the world of literature, speak in honest, realistic and above all generous terms that avoid imposing a dynamic of conflict between digital and print, is deeply rewarding. There is a mind at work here, and one with an assiduous eye on the success of culture in all its forms. This is no longer a question of either/or. This is about value of the content itself. And the higher the value of the ideas, the greater the rewards for the audience, and the greater the success for the authors. Today, as Grant Morrison reminded us, we begin to fight ideas, with better ideas.
Taking a cue from F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s hard to imagine that a writer of Follett’s stature would ever have a second act to his public life. Simply because the first act would last forever. Follett as we read him now is also the Follett who openly admits to having needed his first 11 novels just to learn the discipline of his craft. Follett has the foresight and the courage to brave an entirely new genre on the back of his most lucrative period yet. Follett gazes with an unapologetic eye cast on how the technological shifts of the moment result in cultural shifts. He simply wants to engage the world in the energy in storytelling that he has discovered.
I don’t know much more about Radical’s forthcoming illustrated novel, Jake the Dreaming. It will be available for the iPad (and iPhone) around December 2011. I do know that it’s the story of boyhood, forever tilting at the world, reimagining the world as it adventures its way through. Jake discovers the power to walk into others’ dreams and save them from Nocturnus, the demon that would poison sleep forever. It’s also the story of technological shifts inscribing a new cultural story. And, speculating on 40 years down the line, it seems to be a story that will not need a second act.
Radical will be releasing glimpses of Jake the Dreaming right throughout this year. I can’t wait for ComicCon, when I suspect the first iPad demo will be released. Jake the Dreaming is too important to miss, no matter the form it takes. But for now, Radical offers the entire preview of Jake the Dreaming for Free Comic Book Day, in advance of FCBD. Download it here.