0 / 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.

Links on this page lead to completed texts and drafts.


Table of Contents



1  The Idea of Writing with Images

This chapter includes a bibliographic survey of writing (in continuous narratives) with images (without captions or call-outs). It 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.

A separate page discusses what I call “less interesting” uses of images, to distinguish them from the subject of this project.


2   Texts as Images

This is a second bookkeeping chapter, which is concerned with four categories 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.

Supporting readings:

(1) Mallarmé, Un coup de dès

(2) Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes

(3) Robert Walser’s microscripts (discussed in the chapter)

(4) Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You (discussed in the chapter)

(5) Christian Bök’s Crystallography and The Xenotext

(6) Anne Carson’s Nox

(7) Helene Sommer, I was there.

(8) Karen Green’s Bough Down (discussed in the chapter)

(9) The black page in Tristram Shandy (discussed in the chapter)

(10) Monica Ong, Silent Anatomies

(11) Stephen Farrell and Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland

Other possible readings: Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian NovelJen Bervin’s Nets; Herta Müllers’s experiments; the Schloegel Archive.


3 Readings: Novels with Images

The inquiry begins here, with a series of close readings. What ties these, loosely, in one chapter is their relatively traditional narrative forms, which encounter and accommodate (or ignore) images in various ways.

Supporting readings:

(1) Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte

(2) John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts

(3) Kobo Abe’s The Box Man

(4) Wright Morris’s The Home Place and Plains Song

(5) Umberto Eco’s Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,

(6) W.G. Sebald, exemplified by Rings of Saturn); notes on Sebald’s influence (for example on Vicenz Serrano and Lise Patt).

(7) Richard Weihe, Sea of Ink

I may also discuss 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, Will Self’s Walking to Hollywood, Han Kang’s The White Bookand Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel.


4  Readings: Experimental Writing With Images

This chapter collects readings of texts in which the writing presents itself as experimental—loosely speaking, as an intervention in the novel form.

Supporting readings:

(1) Joseph Battell’s Ellen; or, Whisperings of an Old Pine

(2) Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa

(2) Andre Breton’s Nadja

(3) Yves Bonnefoy’s The Arrière-pays

(4) Susan Howe’s The Midnight

(5) Jacques Roubaud’s Great Fire of London

(6) Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies

(7) Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter, December

(8) Arno Schmitt, Evening Edged with Gold and Bottom’s Dream

(9) Julián Ríos, Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel

(10) Ali Smith, Artful

(11) Marianne Fritz, Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst and Naturgemaess

(12) Christine Brooke-Rose, Thru

(13) Arno Schmidt, Bottom’s Dream

I may also discuss 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; Helene Sommer’s I Was There; John Holten’s The Readymades; Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge; 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 Sinkingand Lydia Davis’s Cows.


5  An Attempt at Theory

This chapter is a list of strategies that have been used in writing with images, and the meanings that are generated. Examples are taken from throughout this project, with some additions: Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun; Anne Carson’s Nox; Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.


6  Problems and Possibilities For Writers

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.


This project has been built online, so I owe thanks to many people on Facebook, Twitter, and Academia who have suggested readings and pointed out errors. Among many others I want especially to mention Karen Schiff, William Marotti, John Armstrong, Susanne Slavick, Andrei Molotiu, Paul Gladston, and Jaleen Grove. About 100 people commented on posts from this site in 2014. Thanks everyone!

And I also owe thanks to the unpredictable and engaging ideas of the “Writing with Images” seminar, in its first iteration, spring 2014: Lily Brewer, Marisa Choate, Angharad Davies, Frederick Eschrich, Brian Leahy, Bert Marckwardt, Meghan Morris, Kayla Risko, Julia Ruskin, Jessica Sattell, Yuri Stone, Nadira Wallace, Daniel Spangler, Kendel Woods, and Yinzi Yi. Special thanks, also, to my research assistant in 2014, Maggie Carrigan.

And last but not least: to Terry Pitts, the presiding scholar of this subject: thanks for your patience with my outsider’s perspective and all your many suggestions.

12 thoughts on “0 / 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 (writingwithimages.com/?page_id=466).

  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!

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