Thoughts From AWP: The Rise of Art Books

I talked in an earlier post about the rise of letterpress, but there’s another interesting small-publishing phenomenon on the rise: art books. I’m not talking about coffee table books full of photographs of works of art. Today, art books are text, paper arts and programming, exploring the outskirts of the literary landscape.

Art books are exploring that area where authors justify why a given story should be published as a paper book or an e-book. Some of the most innovative new art books exist in both worlds, where innovations in the physical book, like special inks or folded or cutout papers are complemented by innovations in the e-book, like an app that interacts with the text or pictures in the print book, or adds audio or animation elements.

The art books I’ve seen, both at AWP and at other conferences I’ve attended in recent months have fallen into a few groups:

1. The “mainly paper” book

These books, like J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., are paper first and foremost, and their main value is in their physicality – they have elements that cannot easily be replicated in an electronic medium. However, in what looks like either an attempt to wring as much cash out of a big project or a nod to the fact that everyone’s doing e-books, the publisher puts out an e-book that is in no way an equivalent experience to the paper artifact.

2. The multimedia book

Some authors have been so inspired by a place or event, some outside thing, that they use the capability of electronic media to incorporate music, video, snippets of spoken word, etc., into their book. Katherine McNamara has done some lovely work in creating multimedia experiences to bring work that she has authored and/or published to a new level. The result is a rich, immersive experience for the reader.

3. The “art for art’s sake” books

The possibilities of programming, where code is its own language that can be clumsy, workmanlike or elegant, offer the literary author both challenges and opportunities. Text can be displayed, remixed and interacted with in endless ways, and the most innovative e-books challenge our notions of the “book” means, or how we “read.”

4. Furthering the conversation with the reader

Some art books take advantage of the fact that a tablet can accept input, and allow for user interactivity within the text. There are still choose-your-own-adventure type hypertexts, but there are also books that allow the reader to add to the text itself, inserting a little of themselves into the work, and expanding the author/programmer collaboration.

Part of the value of art books isn’t just the cachet of creating something unique. For most art books that involve digital production, programming and literary authorship, learning to work as part of a team where no one piece – the words, the images or the construction of the paper book or the programmed app – has primacy can be an important experience.

What’s important about the most innovative, challenging art books is that they are the proving ground for the future of text. The adoption of new technology is a bell curve – the first few pioneers, the trickle of early adopters, the bulk of people who wait either until all the bugs are worked out or it comes down in price, and then the long tail of Luddites and procrastinators. Lots of innovations never make it out of that pioneer phase, but those that do will filter down to the more conventional authoring masses in the form of improved, easier-to-use software and devices that store more data and present it in a greater variety of ways.  Paying attention to what’s happening on the leading edge of the curve can offer writers new ways to tell the stories they’re already crafting.

Thoughts From AWP: The Return of Letterpress

One of the most pleasing themes of this year’s AWP was a return to handcrafted books. Some will argue that handcrafted books never left, but the popularity of hand-binding, typesetting and letterpress has only come to the fore in the past couple of years.

According to many panelists, hand-bound books, broadsheets and chapbooks are physical artifacts that will never be replaced by the impersonality of e-books. While e-readers are convenient and often cost much less than their physical counterparts, the physicality of each book is a distinct experience: its thickness, its typography, the way the pages wear as it is read. Every book experienced on an e-reader may have distinct cover art, but the physicality of the device is always the same. That artifact, the book, can commemorate a specific time and place. Especially if you’re a fan of a particular author and get a copy of your favorite book signed, or if you take a book on vacation with you, it’s easy to associate it with the experiences you had while you held it in your hand – the page you tore stuffing it into your bag before boarding a flight, the drip of fruit juice where it spilled as you sat on the beach while reading.

For those interested in the creation of printed books, the physicality of creating an artifact is in itself a means of expression. Choosing a typeface, papers, designing covers and title pages gives the bookbinder total artistic control over every aspect of the book’s design. Many hand-binders create runs of fewer than a hundred copies of a given book, making each copy more like a limited edition artwork, and less like a mass-market printed book. Nowadays, when even authors who print their own books use some kind of word processing software to write their works, and the process of hand-binding a book can provide a welcome antidote to hours spent sitting in front of a computer. As more aspects of our life – our jobs, our entertainment, our communication – involve sitting in front of a screen, many people are looking for ways to get away from their computers and into handling real objects in the real world. But although most aspects of book binding are strictly physical processes, there are certainly ways that the computer age has impacted letterpress printing. Computer-printable plastics used in the creation of letterpress plates, typesetting for aspects of a work that would be difficult with physical type, digital means of image creation can all contribute to a hand-bound book without destroying its satisfying physicality.

But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of book bindery is its potential to build community. Maybe you love setting type but hate the smell of glue – find a friend who’s not thrilled with the fiddliness of typesetting but loves binding. Teams make the work of things like daily-produced broadsheets or larger runs of hand-bound books easier, and the finished book becomes an artifact of creating not just of beautiful work of literary art, but a community of like-minded souls.

Empathy’s Sharp Little Teeth

When I was little, we listened to the radio all the time. Does anyone do that anymore? I mean, in their houses? It seems like nowadays with iPods and iPhones and Pandora, nobody listens to the radio anymore except maybe in the car and at the doctor’s office where they always seem to play the kind of music that was new back when people listened to the radio all the time.

Anyway, when I listened to music, it changed me. Listening to the Beatles sing “Run For Your Life,” I would feel that I was doing exactly that – running through the house, staring wildly behind me at the ghost of John Lennon who would rather see me dead. I would shake my head, trying to erase the image of someone chasing me, trying to hurt me. If the music happened to be in a minor key, I would inevitably cry. I think that my parents ascribed my tears or frenzy or euphoria to something going on in my life, but that was never true. My “Run For Your Life” frenzy lasted exactly two minutes and twenty-five seconds.

Music isn’t the only thing that changes me. Right now, I’m reading Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World, and it’s having the same unfortunate effect. As the characters sink further into desperation and hopelessness, I feel that my own life is somehow slipping out of control, although when I take a step back, nothing could be further from the truth. Financially, I’m not teetering on the brink with a mountain of debts and a questionable career path. Personally, I’m not the sort to indulge my fantasies of throttling random children I don’t like. And, most importantly, my relationship with my spouse is not based on a mistaken notion of the person I suppose my spouse to be based on my own needs and insecurities. The book has gaping plot holes that make me downright angry (do they have no bail bondsmen in Wisconsin?), but I am sucked in anyway.

And yet, I realize that my dreams are increasingly frantic. My business dealings leave me feeling out of my depth and worried that things aren’t happening the way they should because there’s something I’m not doing. I tend to see only that I have a whole lot of irons in the fire and not the fact that I have many capable, willing friends and associates to help me tend them.

When I talked to my therapist, she said that of course I feel overwhelmed. That I demand more of myself than is perhaps reasonable. When I told her about my need to not only do many things, but to do each of them perfectly, she laughed at the notion. When I shared my feelings of frustration that I have so many ideas crowding in my brain that I can’t capture them all or act on most of them because I can’t write them down fast enough, she was nearly bug-eyed.

But the worst? The absolute killer that will send me under my bed in a fœtal position for a week? Hearing from my real, actual friends about real actual problems they’re experiencing in their real, actual lives that I can’t do anything about. That doesn’t come with any music, I can’t argue that it’s not believable, or that I don’t have to care.

I feel like letting the world in just hurts. It hurts my heart, it hurts the other people in my life who have to deal with me freaking out for no reason they can see or understand. I wish I knew what to do. I really do.

My Dip in Bambi Lake

I haven’t posted in quite a while, partly because I’ve been superbly busy, and partly because I just haven’t been doing anything interesting to anyone but me. You all know about my software project in process, and it’s still in process. *yawn* You’ll want to hear about it when it’s closer to done, but right now? Probably not.

But tonight, I had a brush with greatness. I wonder why more people don’t go to public readings. It really is the very best entertainment one can get for free. Mostly, you get to sit in a nice bookstore that doesn’t smell weird and have someone read you a story. Sometimes there are snacks. And sometimes, things happen that rival the very best live theater in the world.

My friend S. G. Browne’s book Big Egos came out recently, and he was having a launch and signing at The Booksmith in the Haight. The Pirate and I got there a little early and had seated ourselves, when someone came in and said, in a very deep voice “You know who wrote the introduction to my book ?” And gave the name of a fairly famous music-related person whose name I have now forgotten, but at the time, I thought “I didn’t know that Scott knew anyone that connected.”

What sat down in front of me was a painfully skinny person with big, pouty lips, long brown hair and and a well-filled pink tank top. She turned to me and said “I like fat girls and blondes. What’s your favorite poem?”

This picture does not contain the lipliner, which appeared to be eyeliner around the lips, applied without benefit of a mirror.

In addition to being a fat girl and a blonde, I happen to have the penultimate two lines of my favorite poem tattooed on the inside of my right forearm: “I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep.”  She squinted at them for a few seconds.

“It’s from Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.'” I said, and she heartily approved.

She said several times that she stole (“But they know I steal,” she said, gesturing vaguely at the staff. “So I guess it serves them right,” I said.) and that she lied. She asked me to guess whether she was lying when she said that her grandmother was Betty Grable and I thought it might be possible. Then she asked me to guess whether she was lying when she said that her grandmother was Joan Crawford. I have to say, that face had some very nice bones going on, and good skin, too (“Burt’s Fucking Bees,” she said at least five times during the conversation “Get it at Walgreen’s”) but I told her that she couldn’t be the grandchild of both of them. She maintains that she’s Joan Crawford’s grandchild.

She asked me my favorite color, my favorite song, and when she asked the Pirate his favorite punk band and he said he liked X, she lit up. We talked about Exene Cervenka, and she claimed that Exene wrote the intro to her book. But she had come in claiming that someone else had written it, so I filed that in the same bin as Betty Grable and Joan Crawford grannies.

“I’m drunk, sorry.” Visuals travel faster than either sound or smell, but all three had already told us that.

She complimented my shoes and told me that she knew a guy who did custom-made shoes and Marilyn Monroe dresses. She told me that she’s a submissive. That whenever she has trouble coming, all the man has to do is snap his fingers and she comes instantly because she’s so submissive. That Marilyn Monroe was so submissive, she’s dead. I laughed so hard that she got up and said it again into the microphone at the front of the room. And it was funny then too. She approved of my dress and my shoes and my tattoos and my hair, and told me, when I sang a bit of my current favorite song (Regina Spektor’s Samson) that Adele had nothing on me. Nothing, I pointed out, but a few Grammys.

She turned her chair to face us and kept leaning forward and taking my hands. She said that she likes women, but she loves men, and who can blame her? At one point, she said something about Bambi, then said “I’m Bambi, by the way.” But I had figured that out already.

She insisted that I closely inspect her art deco earrings, telling me to put out my hands so that she could cup them in hers and place the earrings in them. I wouldn’t have called them art deco. They looked more 50s vintage, but they were fun, no doubt. Although, I have to say, not as fun as the amazing pearl starbursts I got the little kid as part of her Audrey Hepburn costume.

Meanwhile, every time she got up to get more of the wine and cheese on offer, the Pirate and I looked at each other and started cracking up. This is not the first time that someone with an alternative take on reality has zeroed in on me as a kindred spirit, and, for the life of me, I do not understand why.

She had put her jacket on the back of the chair next to me, but was still sitting in the chair in front of me when three of my friends arrived. One took a seat behind me, but I practically had to beg the other two to sit next to me, moving Bambi’s jacket back to her chair. We made introductions all around because it would seem rude not to, and everyone’s comments were surprisingly tame. This is a pretty snarky crowd.

Bambi went back into the bookstore proper and returned with a large softcover coffee table book with the world “men” in the title. Inside were various pictures of men next to pictures of likely places of manly pursuits. There might be a closeup of a 20-year-old with a deep tan and a 3-day beard next to a picture of a pristine beach with a Jet-Ski sitting on it. That sort of thing. The Pirate looked at it and said “Oh, look. You brought us a catalogue.” We paged through it and said things like “I could use one of these in the kitchen” while Bambi cackled and promised to get a lady catalogue for me. I was fine, though. I’d like one of those for the kitchen as well.

Then Scott got up to read, and things started to go south.

The opening scene of Big Egos takes place at a party full of dead celebrities. As Scott read, Bambi stage-whispered in that way drunken people do, “Name dropper.” One of the staff came over and asked her to be quiet. Bambi got up and made her drunken way back into the bookstore, returning with some paperback and accidentally knocking some cups off the table that held the wine and cheese. By now everyone in the room was very determinedly watching Scott’s reading and Not Looking at Bambi, and something became clear to me.

Bambi knew that everyone was looking away. She counted on it.

As she came back to her seat at the front, she stood up for a few moments, blocking the audience’s view of Scott, who never stopped reading. She pouted her lips and tucked her hair behind her ears and posed, and I drew my eyebrows together and shook my head just a little, trying to communicate “I was feeling kindly disposed toward you earlier, but don’t blow it by behaving badly toward a friend that I like better than I like you.”

She sat down and, without trying to be subtle in any way, proceeded to put the book into the depths of her backpack. Scott finished his reading and asked if there were any questions. Bambi demanded to know if Scott actually knew any of the people he wrote about. Of course he doesn’t. “Well I knew all of them,” Bambi said, and then proceeded to tell Scott that his writing was shallow and affected and terrible. At this point, a male staffer came over and told her she needed to leave. “Call the cops” she growled. “Okay,” he said, and went off to make the call.

She was fidding in her backpack, getting her self together when one of Scott’s burlier friends yelled from the back “Come on, honey, it’s time to go.” At this point she was standing up, and she yelled “Who are you, fat boy?”

“Nobody, but it’s time for you to go. Let’s take it outside.”

“I have to go,” she growled at the crowd. “The cops are coming.” The she looked at the bookstore staffers, who were handling the whole thing with the aplomb that I assume comes of working at a bookstore in the Haight and said “Fine, you want me to leave, I’ll leave.” And with that, she threw some chairs around and walked out.

The room was silent for a few more seconds before Scott said “Are there any other questions?”

After the reading, which couldn’t help but be a bit anticlimactic, my friends told me that they assumed that Bambi and I were old friends by the way we were interacting, and I admitted to only having just met her when she attached herself to me upon arriving. A man told us that he’d known Bambi since he was 18 (he looked to be in his mid-30s) and that Bambi was “a character.”

But nobody seemed to have noticed what happened. The book went into the backpack, in full view of everyone, but when she was ejected, everyone was so relieved to have her gone that I’m sure nobody bothered to remove it, which, I realized, was the entire point. What better way to create a distraction from one misdeed than with another, larger misdeed? If this had been a movie, everyone would have been cheering for Bambi.

As it was, I was the only one in that crowd, and my cheering was all internal. Go, Bambi. You’re brilliant.

And, for the record, Exene Cervenka did write the intro to Bambi’s book.

No Elves Allowed

I had a conversation with a friend from my MFA program today. We’re both reading slightly different stream-of-consciousness novels and wondering how everyone started re-writing Mrs. Dalloway. I feel like so much of what I read in the program is derivative of something else – Hemingway, Faulkner, Pynchon, Woolf (although, funnily enough, not Proust or Tolstoy). Everyone’s writing realistic fiction, trying to frame events that we’ve all experienced first- or at most, second-hand with a voice that makes them sound relevant and urgent and more important than anything in real life.

The whole “voice” question comes up all the time in our studies, and in things related to our studies. In the magazine I edit, I had one editor question the “voice” of a first-person essay because she didn’t think that the author’s “voice” matched the actual story of her own experience. Seriously, that’s fucked up.

And it occurred to me that when I’m reading genre fiction, I almost never worry about voice. For that matter, I don’t worry about a whole lot of the conventions of “literary” fiction, because all that matters when you’re reading a genre story is the story. This is why books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sell bazillions of copies, even though everyone in the world acknowledges that they’re barely literate rubbish: people like the stories they tell.

I haven’t read either of the books above, because I like my story to come passably well-written as well as thought-provoking, so I end up reading really good sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and magical realism authors, and I always end up thinking “I would love to write like this.”

Did I mention I’m getting my MFA? And you’d think that, since I’m in a program specifically meant to make me into a better writer, I’d have a chance to hone and perfect that, right? The problem is that there are good mentors in our program – mentors who are attentive readers, willing to give really in-depth, line-edit feedback to my writing. There are also mentors who really like experimental writing and genre fiction. There is precious little overlap.

Many of the mentors claim that they don’t “understand” the conventions of genre fiction, but I’m not sure that they’re any different than the “conventions” of any other kind of fiction. Tell a good story. Have compelling characters. Build some tension. Does it matter exactly how vampires work? No. Everyone who’s ever written a successful vampire book has made up their own rules, but as long as those rules are consistent within themselves, no one minds. Does it matter whether your fairies (or, if you insist, faeries) are good or evil? Nope. Whether robots are our friends or enemies (or both)? Not a bit. Whether the aliens can pass for human? Nah.

What I’ve always loved about genre fiction is the way it explores what it means to be human by juxtaposing humans with other things and thinking about those differences. I’m not convinced that humans are the strongest, smartest, most compassionate species in the galaxy (which is how we’re always portrayed, which, as a trope, embarrasses me) but I like thinking about what makes me human as opposed to robot or vampire or elf queen. Because when I think about what makes people human, I get to think of all people at the same time. All races, all genders, all religions, all classes and nationalities. They’re all included.

Maybe I’d have liked Hemingway if there’d been more spaceships and fewer guys fishing. Maybe Faulkner would have appealed more to me if there’d been less racial tension and more species tension. Maybe I’d like Woolf more if there were fewer first-world problems, and more multiverse problems.

Therein Lies the Tale

Once again, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about what’s important in writing. As an editor in chief, I’m not the first person to read anything that comes to our journal. First, we have assistant editors who look things over and vote them up or down. Then we have editors who look at things and recommend them to be published. Then I look everything over and give it a yes or no. Well, actually, I give it a yes. I’ve only said “no” once, and I was outvoted.

Sometimes, I look at things that have been submitted and I fall in love with the story they’re telling, but other editors on the staff don’t like them because they’re not technically dazzling or have a shining, crystalline story structure or…honestly, sometimes I have no idea why the other editors hate them.

Then I read a piece in The Atlantic, and it all became clear. The journal for which I am EIC is affiliated with an MFA program, and all of the editors, myself included, are current or former students of that MFA program. We’ve been drilled by Rick Moody about varying our sentence structure. We’ve been inspired by Susan Orlean to carefully balance fact and judgement. We’ve been told by everyone who’s ever written anything to “find our voice.” (I would have made that a hotlink, but when I googled  “find your voice,” I got 1.1 billion results. Billion. With a B.)

So what do we do with those stories that are less than technically perfect, but where the writer is telling us something we haven’t heard before? Some experience they’ve had that is so surprising, so inspiring, so thought-provoking, that you find yourself thinking about it and referring to it long after you’ve finished reading it? I would like to think that our egos as writers are enough in check to be generous to that writer. As generous as the New Yorker editor obviously was to that writing student, but I have to be honest.

Every one of us is human. We are all, at various times, jealous, petty, nitpicky, prejudiced, or fearful, and we don’t always have control over those emotions any more than we have control over when our bosses are going to put a whole bunch of work on our desks and say “this has to be done by the end of the day.”

I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this past week, and it took me a couple of days to distill my thoughts and feelings about it. In the end, I ended up writing a 13-page annotation, complete with subsidized time section headings and footnotes. I mentioned on Facebook that I had finished it, but that I didn’t know anyone else who had read it so I had no one to talk about it with.

What followed was a thread in which those of my friends who had read it weighed in briefly, and those who hadn’t gave me their reasons for not having read it, and the adjective that I heard the most often was “pretentious.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, vis-a-vis Infinite Jest, because it’s not the story of how rich people know more, are better looking and deserve more than everyone else. Nor is it a mundane story told using unnecessarily large words. It does demand a certain amount of attention, but so does Anna Karenina, an even longer book that I’ve never heard called pretentious, although it does contain a lot about the privilege of rich people and unnecessarily large words.

At heart, Infinite Jest is about the gross and frightening appetites of human beings. For love, for approval, for honor, for money, for an undefinable happiness that they cannot construct for themselves, but must purchase new each day in a different form, while not throwing out yesterday’s happiness. I don’t suppose that’s a new story, but it’s told in a way that is off-putting to a lot of people, and (as I’ve learned in the biography of DFW that I’m currently reading) Wallace had a great deal of trouble during his lifetime getting people to recognize the worth of his writing.

Maybe that’s it. The more uncomfortable a subject makes people, the more they’re going to look for something else about the story that bothers them. The voice doesn’t sound “genuine,” the sentence structure doesn’t vary, there are too many or not enough commas, they don’t know the difference between “there” and “their.” It keeps them from having to say “I don’t understand or relate to this material,” or “this portrays people like myself in an unflattering light,” or “I disagree with this person’s worldview.”

Where Were We?

Oh, that’s right. We were talking about where narrative is going. The first thing you have to understand is that “narrative” is not necessarily the same as “writing.” A narrative is just a story – a way of expressing a series of events. The Nutcracker is a narrative told in dance. Peter and the Wolf is a narrative told with music. Guernica is a narrative of the Spanish civil war told in a mural. And there’s the most familiar and accessible form of narrative  – the television.

Since narrative isn’t necessarily literature, let’s pull back and broaden our scope. Some of the most innovative uses for narrative are showing up in games. First-person shooter games like Borderlands (and its sequel Borderlands 2). The great thing about these narratives is that they’re user-driven. The game can control the narrative in some ways, such as not allowing a player access to new chapters until certain criteria have been met, but the player has ultimate control over where they go during the game. As such, the narrative has to be flexible enough to allow the player to understand what they’re doing and how it affects the story, but it also has to be cohesive enough to remain interesting. Granted, people play games in order to overcome challenges and “win,” and that alone is enough to keep a lot of games interesting, but the best games engage the player on a narrative level as well.

Which leads to the next amazing source of new narrative: augmented reality games. The one that’s currently out and available (albeit on a invitation-only basis) is Ingress. These augmented reality games take existing landscape and landmarks and, using a smartphone’s touchscreen and geo-location capabilities, it spins a narrative about things the player can see in their physical environment. Ingress specifically uses pieces of public art, but other games under development use shared experiences like live sporting events and small-town geography to create a narrative that the player can enter at any point and will not follow in any predictable sequence. The challenges of constructing such a narrative, and keeping it compelling and believable sound so exciting to me, I can barely contain myself.

Okay, I’ve caught you up with what actually exists in the way of new narrative. Just wait, though. There’s more. I know the future.