Are We Subjected To Literary Skeuomorphism?

Media, Observatory


Skeuomorphic design, from the Greek words for a tool (skeuos) and shape (morph), means designing a tool in a new medium that incorporates some of the features of its antecedents. These no long perform any necessary function but forge an intuitive link with the past.

On phones and computers skeuomorphism is everywhere, from the fake leather edging of calendars to yellow Post-It notes and clocks with hands. It was needed to ease the transition from physical objects to symbols on screen that represented those objects, but now that we’re all used to clicking on an icon of a dictionary to open a dictionary app, the argument is that we can do away with symbolic props.

The next Apple operating system will do away with them, and as the world copied Apple’s iconic designs, we’re about to see a fundamental change in the way things look online. But does skeuomorphism run deeper than that? Have we been lulled into accepting it in other forms?

While we can easily differentiate art styles, separating out old masters from Saatchi Gallery YA installations, literature is not so clear cut. Lately the detective genre has become especially deceptive. Once crime novels involved a plan of a country house, a body in a library, a roster of six suspects, a smart consulting detective and a dim sidekick.

Now they involve real-life characters who act as detectives (Josephine Tey, Oscar Wilde) or have alternative timelines (Stephen Baxter, Robert Harris) or books in which characters may not have committed crimes at all and are suffering existential crises (The Thief, Snowdrops). The crutch of something known and familiar is being used to ease us into a new form.

Sometimes this is achieved through cover design – Iain Banks’ books existed in two separate strands that allowed us to pick which type of his fictions suited us best. Sometimes an old idea is repacked into a safe new form – Stephanie Meyer’s novels use True Romance symbology to retell the kind of old horror film and SF stories that went out with the pulps.

And there’s a reverse skeuomorphic effect too, wherein dated old ideas are repackaged as something supposedly edgy and fresh – this has been happening for years in the superhero genre. Superman is 70, and now amount of dark toning will convince us that he’s anything more than a stern patrician espousing traditional family values.

So perhaps Apple’s redesign will herald a larger break and encourage us to chuck away the iconography of the past in literature too – many writers would tackle more experimental subject matter if they knew they didn’t have to squeeze it into a more familiar format.

4 comments on “Are We Subjected To Literary Skeuomorphism?”

  1. Ken says:

    Apple’s innovative redesign is up for debate. Most in tech find it derivative from Windows Phone, Android and WebOS.

    The problem is the innovator’s dilemma. They can’t risk killing the cash cow that is the iPhone, the iPad is under siege from Android tablets, and they can’t afford to cut prices to serve developing markets as that kills the premium people in the west are willing to pay.

    Will be interesting to see if the mythical iWatch and iTV are able to change things

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    A forgotten word refreshed, excellent.
    Skeuomorphs appear all over the robotic development field and are particularly prominent in SiFi tales. I can’t recall the term Skeuomprph being used in a SiFi story or film, however, at least not one I’ve spent time with. Maybe it should be. Its variations sound great.
    Did Dick use it? Can’t remember. “I like a replicant to have a bit of Skeuomorph to them. That way you know what you’re getting without a big surprise.”

  3. james says:

    “many writers would tackle more experimental subject matter if they knew they didn’t have to squeeze it into a more familiar format.”

    Definitely. The problem is that most publishers are reluctant to publish experimental subject matter within established formats, or even hybrids of more familiar material that doesn’t neatly slot into an existing marketing category such as Plastic. I read very little crime fiction, so I’m unsure to what extent new forms are emerging within the genre, but with the exception of a few independent Houses, it still seems unlikely that publishers will loosen these formats to accommodate material that is harder to sell.

    I think it was the Australian director Phillip Noyce who said that Hollywood isn’t interested in new ideas or creating new genres, they just want writers who can freshen up established ones. Unfortunately, as the huge success of the Twilight series and Fifty Shades of Gunk indicate, this mind-set is becoming standard with books as well. The problem is only compounded when writers approach their books as potential movies, and tailor the writing accordingly.

  4. Cat Eldridge says:

    The only firm that Apple ‘stole’ from was Xerox and they licensed the look and feel so it was really wasn’t stealing though critics keep claiming it was. The present look and feel of the iOs and Mac OS was developed by zjobs while in exile at NeXT Computers; his return to Apple would result in their adoption of that OS. See Randall Stross’ Steve Jobs and The NeXT Big Thing for more details.

    The iPad represents 50% of the table market by sales and a staggering 85% of the revenues. Likewise the iPhone is the single best selling mobile phone by market share and pulls in some 80% of the revenues.

    Think of Our Admin dominating the mystery market in the same manner — he’d be very, very happy!

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