My comrades here at the Drugstore have just done two posts that lined up well and got me thinking about art, experimentation, and Writing that is not “writing”. If I wore a hat I’d take it off to you Nick and Paul, but I don’t so let me just say that I’m looking forward to the second parts of your series.
I know I waffle on about this a lot, but consider just what an era we’re living in as regards the writing life and the opportunities it provides. We are now able to do whatever we’d like, absolutely anything at all, and see it published without fear of censorship from both bean counters and overlords. This has not been the case for centuries, and even when it was previously the case it was typically only so for those of a certain socioeconomic class. I want also to talk about images here so let’s take William Blake as an example of what I mean. He was a 19th century figure who printed his books in his own home and then shipped them out himself (a true self-pubber); his was a labor of love and left him financially certainly no better off and probably a lot worse for his efforts. At the time and prior to it (and for some time after) the only people who were really able to afford to pursue writing were those with a stable outside income that provided them plenty of free time (e.g. landed gentry), or those who had curried the favor of people with enough money to be able to support would-be artists. There were exceptions of course, Blake being one (his father was a hosier), Shakespeare another (and one of such brilliance that the English-speaking world has yet to produce anyone even remotely close), but on the whole only if you didn’t have to work for your daily bread could you sit down to write a book.
This is no longer the case but does raise the important question of money which we’ll return to in a moment. Sticking with Blake, he produced books that were both visually and textually oriented. His engravings and paintings have been loved and loathed in our time, but in his they were mostly ignored. Likewise his poetry. To produce his images he seems to have employed a method whereby prints were taken from outlines and then watercolors added to that, allowing him to slightly alter each subsequent image, whether purposely or by accident. He combined these with his text in various ways and sometimes not at all, but what I want to focus on is that he did this in the way he thought would best allow the two to interact, to dance on the page together or in solo, staring at each other across the book’s binding with arms outstretched and gazes locked. We are now stunningly able to do the same, and without the need to take prints and break out the watercolors; yet such should not be ruled out and to that method many more of visual creativity can and should be added. But if we are so inclined, why bother?
Consider what an image adds to a work. Here is a sample from Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826) that has haunted me for weeks now since I came across it by chance, “Job and His Daughters” (Plate 20; you can click on it to really get a feel for the detail):
This one picture has completely reinvigorated Job’s story for me and sent me back to the original text, one of the best examples of the ancient Hebrew culture’s theo-literary genius. I also can’t get it out of my head, as I mentioned. In a similar way the art historian T.J. Clark was so taken by two paintings that he visited them day after day (if I’m not mistaken museum admission is free in the UK) and wrote a book on his developing relationship with and reactions to the pair called The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006). Clark is a well-known old guy in the academic world so places like Yale University Press put out his work, but what’s important for us is simply that he did it. And we can too.
Now to the money question. It is entirely reasonable to want to be financially compensated for the hundreds if not thousands of hours that you put into a book, and I do not mean to fault in any way those writers who choose to stick with mainstream formulas in the hopes of achieving a good sales record and steady (or anyway continuing) income from royalties. I just personally find that a bit boring. Now, thankfully and amazingly now, we are able to do so much more with our work and that is something that should be embraced. Put images in your text. Embed music into your ebooks. Make interactive graphics that alter the story that’s being told as the reader goes along. Or forgo all of that and just write, but write in a way that is daring and fresh and gives the reader something they’ve never encountered before. Don’t write, Write. And see the thing done.