- Electricians, Wig Makers, and Staging the New Novel
Collage has been called the most important organizing principle for art during the twentieth century, and surveying today’s music, video, and visual arts, it seems to be even more prominent today. From the crawl text and video insets that make up a news report on CNN, to rap, to collage in painting and video—across journalism articles or encyclopedias like Wikipedia—collage as an organizing principle is a prominent feature of the cultural landscape. This has become particularly true in literature, where how something is said is at least as important as what’s said. Its diversification is accelerated by the increasing technical feasibility to combine disparate media in a book, music, and text, for example, that once could easily exist in collaborative works like opera, theater, or film. What does it mean for novels when books can begin to do things they never could before, like include video, as well as include things like color that were always possible but too expensive for an author to use on every page? What does it mean for authors who take the medium of the book seriously rather than treat it as one designer once described good book design: the crystal goblet (i.e., invisible) that holds the wine of literature? Just as changes in the medium of music, film, or visual arts have changed what composers, directors, and painters do with their materials, so changes in the technology of the book open up exciting possibilities for authors. Yet few authors are the kind of renaissance people it takes to take advantage of these possibilities. A highly skilled artist in words (aka an author) is likely to be a rank amateur when it comes to painting—it can take years to develop an aesthetic, let alone the technical facility, to compose a sophisticated painting. And so, like movie directors, some authors like John Cayley (What We Will), Stephanie Strickland (True North), or William Gillespie (Morpheus Biblionaut) have turned to working with those who have the sophistication in their respective medium, e.g., programming, graphic design, voice acting, composition, the violin, etc., etc. Conversely, this explains why there are so many works that may be visually stunning (e.g., created by a talented designer), but shallow in terms of writing (e.g., written by a talented designer)—or well written by a talented author, but come across as amateur hour when this same author decides he or she is suddenly a cameraman, sound editor, filmmaker, layout person.
It seems like collaboration in all spheres, including the novel, reflects particularly well the cut-paste-burn sense of our time.
The Book of Portraiture (2006), one of my novels, tells the history of human representation from the invention of the alphabet to the depiction of people by the sequencing of their genetic code. Across this span of time, the means and materials of representation changed radically, of course, and so it seemed important, in writing this novel, to make these means and materials part of the story: the sketches done by a seventeenth-century artist in the novel are a form of “writing” constraint that allows him to depict people in some ways but not in others, just as the surveillance cameras and data mining used to depict people in a later chapter cause a kind of portrait to emerge, one that is very different from that of the seventeenth-century artist. And so, in incorporating these materials into the narrative, not as illustrations or decoration, but as elements that shape the story as surely as line breaks or rhyme shape a poem, it was important to bring different kinds of creators into the book—artist Maria Tomasula, designer Robert Sedlack, and others—not as co-authors, for in writing a novel, as in making a film, it seems important for each contributor to do what he or she does best. Rather, contributors by other artists can help shape the experience of reading in the way that set design can inform our experience of a play by Shakespeare. In TOC: A New-Media Novel (2009), some fifteen people contributed to the novel: composers...