Mostly whimsical reflections on life
The British introduced penny dreadfuls. America gave the world the pulp novel. Now the French have given us stories from a vending machine.
Instead of snacks, the Shortédition vending machines dispense food for thought – or perhaps just junk food for the mind.
But the story spewing vending machine follows a tradition of serving up short stories, often with sensationalized plots and events, that people read for escape – or, in this case, while killing time in a long line.
The first “distributeur d’histories courtes,” a modern-looking device resembling a ticket-dispensing kiosk, appeared in Grenoble as a way to distract tourists waiting for tickets. You hit a button and, viola, a story appears on paper resembling a sales receipt.
Readers are given choices, not in terms of genres, but with separate buttons for stories that take one, three or five minutes. It’s like picking lottery numbers to guess how much time you will have to spare.
Pulp literature was dubbed dime novels, but the French stories spit out from these orange and black vending machines are free.
The stories come from writers who want to reach a wider audience and perhaps attract feedback, even from frustrated tourists. It is crowd-sourced fiction.
The novel idea has quickly exploded into a worldwide phenomenon. There are now story-spewing vending machines all over Europe and in Latin America, Asia and many U.S. cities. Their popularity can be measured by the number of selfies taken with story vending machines as backdrops.
Critics might view this cultural development with raised eyebrows as an “innovation” that feeds our collective attention deficit and need for instant gratification. This criticism overlooks the nature of innovation, which doesn’t change people, but changes the way people behave.
The vending machine for stories can be viewed optimistically as just another channel for creative output. If you can’t lure people to a bookstore or your website, maybe you can catch their attention in a public space during an idle moment. It’s quite a bit like musicians giving away songs for free online as bait for fans to pay for tickets for their concerts.
Of course, the inevitable comparison will be made between stories on a roll of paper from a vending machine and toilet paper. Indeed, some of the tended stories may share an intrinsic fecal quality with poo-poo paper. But that hardly diminishes the brilliance of the story-on-the-spot idea.
Getting published is damn hard. The New Yorker, in writing about the advent of the distributeur d’histories courtes, reported that 17 percent of the French population had written some kind of manuscript, most of which had gone unpublished, so a vending machine that randomly selects stories to share with strangers doesn’t seem like such a long shot.
Marketers and businesspeople are taking the story-from-a-vending-machine seriously with interest from hospitals, museums, movie houses, train stations, airports, amusement parks and gas stations. Access to an original short story may wind up as competition for bored people scrolling around aimlessly on smartphones.
In time, the spicy content of vending machine stories may mature. You could imagine inspirational stories about overcoming health challenges curated for hospital distribution or stories about adventures on the road populating gas station vending machines. Just as we have seen stars emerging from YouTube videos, we may witness the rise of an important author who is discovered by people waiting in line for morning coffee at Starbucks.
The impulse to express oneself and be noticed is longstanding and hard to suppress. People have written stories to hang on Christmas trees, post on bulletin boards and paint on walls. The distributeur d’histories courtes is just another variation with a digital age twist.
If we can mix a cocktail on a vending machine, why not dial up a short story that, who knows, could change your life. Or least amuse you for a few moments.