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. I hope the project will grow to about twice its current size, and I hope to finish around 2015. All comments welcome, either here or on Facebook or via my website.
This project follows from another, called “What is Interesting Writing in Art history?.” That one is on a Blogger site. Look for links on this page; they lead to completed texts. If you are new to this project, please have a look at the Blogger site first.
The long descriptions here will be absorbed into the chapters as the work progresses.
Table of Contents
A preliminary bibliographic survey of writing (in continuous narratives) with images (without captions or call-outs). Terry Pitts’s lists: one on LibraryThing, and others on his Vertigo blog; books theorizing writing with images (Renee Riese Hubert, Surrealism and the Book (University of California Press, 1988); Ofra Amihay and Lauren Walsh, The Future of Image and Text (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012); Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, section on illustrated fiction (called “anti-illustration”); and Paul Edwards, Soleil noir, photographie et littérature des origines au surréalisme. (The first three thanks to Terry Pitts.) Most of this chapter will be preoccupied with housekeeping: defining the limits of this project in relation to a number of other practices. First among the excluded subjects is children’s books: in this context I am not interested in children’s literature, but the forms and experiments in some children’s books are as radical as any in the “adult” literature. Then there are artist’s books with narratives; formatted or designed practice-led PhD dissertations, where the continuous narrative required by the PhD intersects the candidate’s visual practices; e-books that involve hyperlinked images and videos; graphical novels that have enough continuous text so that they are nominally distinct from graphic novels where the text is primarily brief narrative and spoken dialogue embedded in drawn cells; and finally, books with minimal continuous narrative such as Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and… (a novel disguised as an auction catalogue). I will probably also include a parenthesis on novels and poems that include descriptions (not illustrations) of actual artworks, including Proust’s description of the yellow wall in Vermeer’s View in Delft, Auden, Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Javier Marías’s A Heart so White, and Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters. This takes up where the final chapter of “What is Interesting Writing in Art History?” left off: texts that aren’t really about artworks, and don’t have images physically present in the book. Just outside this theme are novels that describe imaginary artworks (including, I suppose, the passage on Achilles’s shield in The Iliad), and the many novels that describe non-art images (of which I would single out Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy and Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual as crucial examples).
This is a bookkeeping chapter, intended to address several kinds of practices that are not what I am after here. Most of them can be provisionally identified with the general category of artists’ books: I am not interested in books where the text is presented as a visual object, and where reading can be discontinuous and random. In this chapter I try to do that kind of policing by considering four categories of texts I would like to exclude: writing on images (ekphrases); writing as images (typography); the page as an image (design); and the book as an image. Examples include books with graphical inventions that function as images, for example Tristram Shandy (especially in the Visual Editions version); Mallarmé, Un coup de dès (with the new critique, and its recent debunking); Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes; Robert Walser’s microscripts; Jen Bervin’s Nets; Christian Bök’s Crystallography; Anne Carson’s Nox; and perhaps Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. I will be minimally concerned with those and other graphical or typographical experiments, because I want to think first about prose that does not draw special attention to its own visuality, but rather poses itself alongside explicitly visual objects.
3 Readings: Novels with Images
The inquiry begins here, with a series of ten readings. What ties these, loosely, in one chapter is their relatively traditional narrative forms, which encounter and accommodate (or ignore) images in various ways: Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte; John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, Kobo Abe’s The Box Man, Wright Morris’s The Home Place, Umberto Eco’s Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, W.G. Sebald (exemplified by Rings of Saturn); notes on Sebald’s influence (for example on Vicenz Serrano and Lise Patt). I may also mention 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, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul and Museum of Innocence, Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad (and website), Christoph Benda, and Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel.
4 Readings: Experimental Writing With Images
This chapter collects ten readings of the books that I think are most promising. These are texts where the writing presents itself as experimental, in addition to the inclusion of images: Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa; Andre Breton’s Nadja, Yves Bonnefoy’s The Arrière-pays; Susan Howe’s The Midnight; Jacques Roubaud’s Great Fire of London; various books, pdfs, and collaborative documents by Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies. I may also discuss Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant; Debra di Blasi’s The Jirí Chronicles; Helene Sommer; John Holten’s The Readymades; Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge; Hannah Weiner’s Open House; and perhaps Lydia Davis’s Cows.
Earlier in the project I proposed some ways that images work in relation to nonfiction. But with fiction those formulations are inadequate. This chapter is a work in progress, or perhaps a starting place for future efforts—a list of strategies that have been used in writing with images, and a list of the meanings that are generated.
Because this project is aimed at the criticism and theorization of the contemporary practice of experimental writing with images—and because its impetus is my own writing, which has meant I read every book with an eye to where writing with images might go next—this book ends with a practical chapter, for writers, summarizing issues raised by the preceding chapters.