German bestselling author Frank Schätzing is currently touring to present his latest book, the sci-fi thriller Limit, in a live reading. I had read and liked Schätzing’s best-known novel The Swarm – Uma Thurman bought the rights in 2006, Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs) wrote the script, Dino DeLaurentiis is producing, the film is scheduled for 2011 – but in general I am not a fan of his rather loud and sensational style, not to mention the length of his oeuvres (even the paperbacks are too heavy to hold up in bed). However, I was intrigued by the advertising: “Limit Live – a multimedia book show!” So I went to check it out at Frankfurt’s finest event venue, the Alte Oper.
Pep up a traditional recipe…
Spot on a dark, empty stage, a huge screen as a backdrop. Loud, dramatic music accompanies pictures of the Earth seen from space, a myriad stars morph into the logo “Limit”. Enter Schätzing in the semi-darkness, equipped with an illuminated e-reader and headset mic. He starts reading the opening chapter, doing a reasonably good job considering he’s not a trained actor. (That changes later when he talks freely at a speed which, especially when his native Cologne accent comes through, is often hard to understand.)
I am just beginning to get a little bored by his droning when the chapter ends with a bang – death in space. The lights come up and the huge screen switches from dark universe to brightly lit TV studio, date: 25 March 2025. A complete change in tone. Weather forecast: 26°C, perfect for a trip to the Dutch Lakeland – a map shows most of the Netherlands and much of South England submerged. There are news about the mysterious death in space: it just might have something to do with the stand-off between the US and China on the moon. The two superpowers are quarrelling over access to large fields of Helium 3, the “clean”, environmentally friendly energy source found in abundance on the moon.
… by throwing in whatever the pantry holds
After a few minutes of news, Schätzing starts interacting with the presenter on the screen, then switches her off and takes over the stage again, but not to continue reading. No, what follows is a mix of stand-up comedy, pseudo-philosophical musings about everyone’s fear of the future (his advice: don’t whinge but do something about it) and explanations of the story’s scientific background, aided by video footage from National Geographic and a public broadcaster (ZDF).
Then he takes live interaction with film one step further: one of the protagonists, played by popular German actor Jan-Josef Liefers, shows up on the screen and complains about all the stuff his author puts him through in the book. Schätzing placates him by calling a second – rather sexy – book character up on the screen, and the three do a “live” reading of an action-packed chapter (excellent timing in the reading, hat tipped). Then the author shoos his “children” off and continues with the mix of reading and joking, going into the details of sex in space (not that easy, it seems) and in general presenting himself and his brand.
All this went on for almost two hours non-stop, but it did not feel that long. It was loud, it spelled the message out in bold letters, it lacked depth – but it was entertaining. It was different, mixing various elements – not exactly great literature but “literatainment” instead.
Brilliant concept or major ego trip?
Much ado about nothing? Yes, to a degree. A new way to reach a wider audience? Perhaps. My guess is that most people in the audience were Schätzing fans anyway, and I doubt the show actually converted anyone who wasn’t. I for one am still not really tempted to have a go at the 1382 pages of Limit – but I went to see the show, didn’t I?
Schätzing, who I suspect sees himself as the German Michael Crichton, is not afflicted by a weak ego, and the show reflects this. But is this bad? His background is in marketing and advertising, and he knows how to market himself. He certainly pepped up the traditional concept of a book reading – while those dramatic pictures from space washed over me I half expected to hear a booming voice from offstage: “Let there be a blockbuster!”
Is this where we’re heading?
Watching Schätzing strut across the stage, I thought of last year’s book fair in Frankfurt and the launch of Open Road Integrated Media, a digital content company that publishes and markets e-books by creating connections between authors and their audiences across multiple platforms. Their strategy includes promotional videos and websites where the reader can browse and click to know the author (access to interviews and unpublished material etc).
Limit Live was not geared specifically towards the e-book – although I would recommend using an e-reader for Schätzing’s books if only because of the weight – but it was going in a similar direction: way beyond the book. And while it smacked of dumbing down for the masses, it was certainly cleverly done. It could not be done with just any book, but some genres – sci-fi, thriller, crime, anything that calls for a bit of action and a complex story background – would probably work quite well. Is this where 21st-century writers are heading?
Julian Friedmann always encourages screenwriters to write novels too. Now I’m not saying that when we do that, we should write with a multi-media presentation in mind. But given that we have a very specific approach to story-telling, one that is visual and strongly geared towards emotional involvement of a large audience packed together in a dark cinema – or the Alte Oper – who knows… perhaps there’s something in this for us.