I've just finished reading The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. I'm not going to write a review of the novel, so if you're looking for book reviews, check out the 355 reviews already on Amazon (as of the date this post was written). You'll see that the reviews fall roughly into three categories:
1. OMG!!! This is NOT AT ALL like Harry Potter, and so it sucks!!!
2. OMG!!! This is SO MUCH BETTER than Harry Potter, and so it's awesome!!!
3. Meh. It had some good parts, and it had some bad parts (most these reviews were quite dull-polarizing comments are more interesting).
Although I liked the book quite a bit, I'm not going to do a standard review. If you want a reasonable proximation of how I felt about the book, take the enthusiastically positive Amazon reviews, strip out the praise that says it's superior to the Potter books, leave in the praise about how fun it was to see the author playing with genre tropes, and there you have it.
What I do want to talk about in this post is the book's internet marketing. I have no idea who came up with the idea for the marketing, and who built the marketing websites, so I'm not sure who I'm critiquing, but it doesn't matter. If the author writes to me with a broken heart, I will invite him to my house for tea, and gladly have a talk about marketing I *do* like, and I will cook him a moan-worthy meal that will rock his socks. (Lev, you're invited over. Or you can send the marketing team. But I'd rather meet you, because I think your writing is awesome.) What I would say to whomever showed up, in this infantile dream scenario is the following:
You tried to do something cool. I see where you were going with it. But it could be so much better. Actually, I think it could be incredible.
Back to my reading experience. When I finished the book, the first thing I did was Google "Fillory" on my Android phone to see what would come up. You never know what you'll find these days, what the marketing will be, and what the fans are doing. The first thing I thought when I read the last page was that it was possible for the book (and the author) to develop a cult following. Fillory and Further is the name of the series of novels within the novel. Fillory is Grossman's magical land that parallels C.S. Lewis's Narnia. Instead of the five familiar Pevenseys (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy), there are five Chatwins (Martin, Fiona, Rupert, Helen, and Jane). Instead of a wardrobe, there is a grandfather clock. The Chatwin children are not the stars of the story. The protagonist is Quentin Coldwater, a teenager summoned to attend a magic school whose environment is more suitable to a Holden Caulfield than a Harry Potter. Quentin has been obsessed with the Fillory books since he was a young and neglected boy growing up in the outskirts of Boston. The conceit of the books is that the story within the story, authored by a man named Christopher Plover, is real (not really real, real within the context of the novel, real). The first five books of Fillory of Further (The World in the Walls, The Girl Who Told Time, The Flying Forest, The Secret Sea, and The Wandering Dune), which roughly parallel the Narnia books, describe events that really happened (again, within the context of the novel). The sixth book was never published, and within the context of the novel is a major plot point. Quentin discovers that Plover was writing embroidered non-fiction about the "real" Chatwin children having "real" adventures in a "real" parallel world called Fillory. Got all that? Good.
Back to the critique of the "Internet Special Features."
Here, you have the "author's website": http://christopherplover.com/
Here, you have a "fan site": http://www.emberstomb.com/
Here, you have the wizard school's website: http://www.brakebills.com/index_real.html
Here, you have the marketing website for The Magicians: http://www.themagiciansbook.com/
And, here, you have the author's website: http://www.levgrossman.com/
At very first glance, it all looks pretty neat. But then you step into what looks like a majestic lake and find yourself standing a shiny puddle about an inch deep. The author's website has some decent graphics, but a little clicking around shows that it's a thin veneer. The best features are the map of Fillory, and the link to the "first chapter" of the novel within the novel The World in the Walls. I didn't discover until later that this is pretty much the crown jewel of the Internet marketing plan, and I doubt other chapters will appear, as the writing would merely be an entertaining exercise in channeling C.S. Lewis. If you click on the book covers thumbnails, all you get is an enlargement of the book covers. If you click on the "Contact" button, it takes you to the marketing website (really disappointing). Two tiny links will take you to the "fan site," and the "college" website for Brakebills, the magical institution of higher learning Quentin attends. The fan site is fun for a little bit, with its attempts at mimicking other mawkish fan sites (crayon drawings of the characters, a precocious fannish voice narrating the content with mispellings and other cute tricks), but there is no fan forum, no blog content, nothing to show that it's active in any way. It's a cardboard standee, deliberately so I think, but ultimately emphasizing the lack of actual fan engagement. The last of the marketing pages I visited was for Brakebills, and the content there was even thinner, as if the design team had gotten tired at the end of business, and said, "Good enough. Course curriculum, yadda yadda yadda. Nothing that isn't from the book. Summarize in three sentences or less, and then we drink." Devastatingly, the contact button of each web site takes you to the main marketing website. Surprise! It's all a fake!
Maybe this is super cool for most folks; I don't know. You tell me.
For me, I think the marketing plan fails because I've been hideously ruined for all lesser marketing plans through my worship of Jane McGonigal (not Professor McGonagall, ), author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Makes Us Better and How They Can Change the World (OMG, Jane, don't stop this crazy thing!) and her paper "Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming." (Unfortunately, when I try to download the PDF of "Why I Love Bees", the file won't load. This may be a problem with my Mac, so if you're interested in the article, you try and let me know if you get it.)
The article explains how ilovebees, one of the first Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), was built and what sort of community the game led its fans to create. Okay, how dare I compare a harmless little internet marketing scheme to ilovebees. That's just not fair. It's not. It's like comparing a tent to the Taj Mahal. Both keep the rain off, but the latter uplifts your soul. The one thing is not mean to be the other, can't have a comparable effect, and I get that, thanks. ilovebees started out as a viral marketing campaign for the video game Halo2. Those who saw the weblink flash at the end of the movie theater trailer for the game and went to ilovebees.com were invited to play a game like no other game. A game where players were required to band together in a mass of determined, fanatic collective intelligence in order to solve the unfolding puzzle the game masters developed only a few steps ahead of the problem solvers. In an extreme example, players discovered a set of GPS locations, where they gathered on a certain day, at a certain time, to receive clues in the forms of recorded messages from pay phones at those GPS locations. Crazy! Unbelievable! A game that would call you at a pay phone, or even at home! A game that was a game, but invaded your reality, if you dug deep enough! A game that blurred the line.
Why am I going on about this? I guess because I loved The Magicians and because its novel-within-a-novel-and-the-novel-inside-the-novel-is-actually-real-conceit fairly begs to be an Alternate Reality Game. I'm having the same sort of experience as the protagonist, where my passions are so vivid, and formed at such an early age, fed by millions of words of fabulous fiction that reality can't keep up with my desperate yearning for escape from the mundane. When I click on those sites, I want more to see. I want to find the Neitherlands, and I want to jump in the pool and be transported into an alternate reality. I want to go on a ride into a greater experience.
Oh. Wait a minute. Maybe I've been invited to be a student at Brakebills and I've just spectacularly failed the entrance exam. Oh, I hope that's it! Because, you see, if you're not meant to find Brakebills, you won't find the college campus, which is situated on the Hudson River, but hidden from regular people by spells and wards and things. If you're not meant to see it, the campus just won't show itself to you. You can wander for days, even weeks, in the surrounding forest, and you'll just end up pissed off and hungry and lost.
Oh, all of a sudden, I feel like such a fool. It was right in front of me the whole time! I guess it's time to go back to those deceptively simple websites and start poking around. If I just poke hard enough, maybe they'll let me in! Maybe they'll let me in, and I'll get to go to Fillory, and I'll be a queen and frolic with naiads and centaurs, and try to figure out the clock trees, and defeat the Watcherwoman, and meet Ember and Umber, and live happily ever after!
My kingdom for a trip to Wonderland, to Oz, to Narnia, to Middle Earth.