Table of Contents

This is a book project, probably, or maybe just a series of class notes. It’s a work in progress: these aren’t completed blog entries, but drafts for chapters that I am continuously revisiting. All comments welcome, either here or on Facebook or via my website.

This site is the second part of a larger project. The first part is called “What is Interesting Writing in Art history?.” If you are new to this material, it is best to have a look at that site first.

I am moving out of art history (the story is here). “Writing with Images” and “What is Interesting Writing in Art History?” are designed to help me find my way, to theorize what counts as writing in and out of art history.

Use this Table of Contents to navigate around the project: the individual posts are not linked to one another.


I’m always interested in new things to read. Among the texts I’m hoping to get to: Walter Abish’s 99: The New Beginning, Kathleen Hill’s Who Occupies This House?, William Vollmann’s The Rifles and the photographic supplements to Imperial, Ivan Vladislavic’s collaborations, Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad (and website), Christoph Benda, Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Leslie Scalapino’s Dahlia’s Iris: Secret Autobiography + Fuction, John Berger and Anne Michael’s Railtracks, Claude Cahun’s Disavowal; Debra di Blasi’s The Jirí Chronicles, John Holten’s The Readymades, Thomas McGonigle’s Going to Patchogue, Hannah Weiner’s Open House, Roberto Bolaño’s story “Labyrinth,” Teju Cole’s “Blind Spot,” Michael Cawood Green’s Sinking,”  Lydia Davis’s Cows, Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Jen Bervin’s Nets, Herta Müllers’s experiments; the Schloegel Archive.





1   The idea of writing with images

This chapter takes up where the final chapter of “What is Interesting Writing in Art History?” left off.

2   Less interesting uses of images

Ben Lerner, 10:04; Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen; Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. 

3   Writing about images, writing as images…

Another bookkeeping chapter, concerned with more kinds of texts I would like to exclude from this project: (1) Writing on images (ekphrases); (2) Writing as images (typography, graphic text); (3) The page as an image (design); and (4) The book as an image.

Karen Green, Bough Down; Nabokov, Original of Laura; Robert Walser, Microscripts; Montaigne’s manuscripts; Arno Schmidt, Zettel’s Traum; Sterne, Tristram Shandy (the “black page”); Michalis Pichler’s version of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dès “sculpture”; Angela Genusa’s version of Stein’s Tender Buttons; WONDER-TONIC’s version of Joyce’s Ulysses as QR codes.

An attempt at theory

This chapter is especially a work in progress: I’m trying to set out the kinds of narrative possibilities that images enable, which are beyond the ones in traditional narrative theory, as in Genette et al.



Texts without which the others cannot fruitfully be understood.

1   Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte

2   Andre Breton, Nadja

3   Kobo Abe’s The Box Man

4   W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn

5   Stephen Farrell and Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland



Texts that for one reason or another end up treating images as dispensable, or fail to pay the kind of attention that the narratives themselves imply.

1   Joseph Battell, Ellen; or, Whisperings of an Old Pine

2   John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts

3   Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-pays

4   Susan Howe, The Midnight

5   Jacques Roubaud, Great Fire of London

6   Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter, December

7   Julián Ríos, Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel

8  Ali Smith, Artful

9   Wright Morris’s The Home Place

10  Umberto Eco’s Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

11  Barbara Browning, I’m Trying to Reach You

12  Richard Weihe, Sea of Ink

13  Will Self, Walking to Hollywood

14  Monica Ong, Silent Anatomies

15  Christine Brooke-Rose, Thru

16 Jesse Ball, Census and Silence Once Begun



Novels whose uses of images continue to demand attention and new critical tools. (Those in Part 1 do, also.)

1   Raymond Roussel, New Impressions of Africa

2   Tan Lin, Seven Controlled Vocabularies

3   Marianne Fritz, Naturgemaess

4  Arno Schmidt, Bottom’s Dream

5  Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes

6  Christian Bök’s Crystallography and The Xenotext

7  Anne Carson’s Nox

8  Helene Sommer, I was there.


Problems and possibilities for writers


18 thoughts on “Table of Contents

  1. Question:
    Writing with images is similar to thinking in pictures ? According to Goodman “First, a thought may involve not, or not only, activities on the way towards but rather, or also, the state of readiness for production. Second, and more important, thinking in words or pictures may often involve preparing or being ready not, or not only, to produce such words or pictures but rather, or also, to judge a word or picture produced or presented as agreeing or not agreeing with the one in mind. When I succeed in ‘calling up a mental picture’ of a place I saw briefly long ago my ability to produce a picture may be negligible but I am much readier than before to accept some pictures as right and reject others as wrong,
    and to suggest changes.” pag.213
    “thinking in words or pictures or other symbols may involve not only preparation for producing a judging but also for perceiving seeing, hearing such symbol”. 214
    Goodman, N. (1982) On thoughts without words.’ Cognition, 12, 211-217

    • Thanks so much for reminding me of that essay — Goodman is always wonderful. I am trying, in this project, to keep to actual physical images printed (or onscreen) with their text. Principally the reason is that many issues that arise with mental pictures and ekphrases depend on what authors do, or intend, with text and actual images. As Goodman might say, texts and (real) images are a well-made world; the other possibilities, such as mental images, are sometimes metaphors of those worlds. What I have to say about this is in chapter 2 (

  2. Professor Elkins,

    I will be following your project closely, as it seems to overlap with my own research interests related to “pictorial narratives” or “picture books” and their popularity during the 1920s and 1930s. I am curious if you had considered these books as part of the broader category of “writing with images”? Lynd Ward’s famous book, Gods’ Man: A Novel in Woodcuts (1929) is perhaps the most well-known example. Ward’s books are, admittedly, a different sort of “writing with images” as the sequential placement of images *is* the narrative (with little to no text).

    Thanks for all your work and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the subject!

    • Thanks, I haven’t heard of “God’s Man.” There is an older history of (nearly) wordless books, however — my own favorite is the 18th c. “Mutus liber,” an alchemical “manual” in enigmatic images. In general, I haven’t ruled out books like those: at the moment I’m just concentrating on this perhaps unhelpfully narrow definition. I have written a little about attempts to write wordless narratives in art history — there are a few — in the book “Theorizing Visual Studies.”

  3. Dear Dr. Elkins,
    This is a very exciting and interesting project. Especially chapter 2, where you write about 4 categories for images and exclude 4 categories. I wrote my dissertation on themes
    and techniques in poetry, and it includes some images.
    I look forward to read your book soon!
    Nancy W. De Honores

  4. Hello James,
    You may remember that you once wrote me a very generous letter of support for my green card. My sister heard you speaking in Melbourne recently, and told me about your latestwork, which I have been examining/reading/visually-absorbing with great interest….as my work has taken a somewhat similar turn, mixing writing and image. In the terms of your analysis, I would say my work does the following:
    8. Images can represent the mental states of characters.
    10. Images can break up the relentless drive of literary narrative.
    + Images and text engage in a dialogue with one another, so that each is intermittently or consistently posed or personified as writing or text, each with its own interests and capacities for answering, overwriting, interrupting, and otherwise altering the other.

    I attach here a url for my website, which is massively out of date… but hopefully you can get enough of the picture… I would be happy to send you some copies of the texts, if you are inclined to receive them….. PS – on my site, and generally, my work is referred to as poetry… However, I actually think of it as a hybrid of poetics and narrative, as each book is not a series of individual poems, but a story/narrative/argument about the relationships between bodies, tongues, words, images and thought….albeit, from a very “archaic” perspective.
    All the best,

    • Christine, thanks for that, and for the link to your work. I’ll think about your categories — I’m always revising this page — and if I incorporate those ideas I’ll be sure to credit you in the text!

  5. I’m not sure if this falls under the scope of this particular project, but I was wondering what thoughts you may have regarding liner notes? Admittedly, most lyrics read as bad poetry, and most album art is rather banal, but there are some gems out there.

    • I understand and I am aware this is an academic project.

      However, have humans and animals not always been “writing with images” “communicating with images” “learning with images” experimentally to develop and survive since the origins of all our earthly sighted species through and with appearances, markings, symbols, movements, alphabets, etc. aka images?

      Reference: Luc-Henri Fage, 1999, issue from my book “Borneo, Memory of the Caves”,

      The project title communicates an opened ended statement. Does it image an underlying closed ended argument especially when it has been thrown out there into the nether world of the online?

      Ironically, I may only write comment with only the visual images of the English language and without being able to comment with an actual visual image or visual markings in this comment box (hence the links above).

      I arrived at your online project as the result of a recent over the fence covid conversation about your book “How To Use Your Eyes” they are reading.

      The project title triggered me to comment.

      July 11 2020.

  6. To me, what comes to mind as exemplars of the “writing with images” genre is ancient Mesoamerican codices, both Aztec and Maya, and even the Voynich manuscript (undeciphered). Not sure if you are looking within a designated time frame, but I bet you’d get a kick out of looking at them.

    • Yes, I’ve looked at those. Codices and illuminated manscripts are a fascinating and endless field. I chose to begin with Rodenbach for reasons I set out in the chapter 1 (“The Idea of Writint with Images”): basically there’s a continuous history from c. 1900 to the present. Beyond that is an enormous field I couldn’t hope to encompass.

  7. Dear Prof. Elkins
    I’ve arrived late to your site, so your work may have moved along. I’m a Masters student at the University of Birmingham, and in recent years have been intrigued by the developments among many writers with their introduction of images.

    I’m writing an essay currently that engages with the phenomenon with particular reference to Max Sebald. I’m building my argument around his interest in Barthes’ commentaries about tableaux (Diderot, etc), on then to Brecht and gesture, and ‘the pregnant moment’, and will argue that Sebald’s use of imagery pursues a similar structure. In short – the images are not illustrations, but rather (frozen) moments for pause and reflection – and therefore another kind of text. Working title of the essay is Text as Image/Image as Text. What do you think? By the way my background is Fine Art – the programme I’m on currently is Creative Writing.

    Sincerely Gary

    • Gary, if you’re still working on that, email me — you can find my email in my institution (School of the Art Institute, Chicago) or my vita ( Jim

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *