William Blake, Job, and the pictures that haunt us

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.

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Pictures in the Pages (Part 1)

Illustrations in novels can, very broadly, be categorised into two distinct groups: standalone character/plot illustrations, and sketches and diagrams that interact directly with the text.

In this post, I’ll take a look at the first category, standalone sketches that serve to define characters in the readers’ mind’s eye, while simultaneously summarising key action in a chapter or scene. They usually appear on a separate page from the text, often at the start of a chapter (although sometimes, for reasons of spacing and typesetting, they may be arranged as ‘heading vignettes’ on chapter pages).

Millions of children (and the adults who read to them) have grown up with Quentin Blake’s illustrations of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books.

The scratchy, fragmentary feel of his illustrations leaves room for further interpretation in the readers’ imagination, which, I’d hazard a guess, was always the intention. Furthermore, the imperfect rendering of the characters gives the pictures a childlike feel – as if they could’ve been drawn by one of the book’s readers (albeit a very gifted one).

This may not seem particularly innovative now, as it’s become something of an industry standard, but I can recall illustrations in other children’s books I read around that time to be either perfectly-drawn cartoons, in the vein of Mickey Mouse, or in the case of The Famous Five, posh British teenagers looking like they’d stepped out of a cigarette ad in Playboy with the Lucky Strike packs airbrushed out.

Blake’s first collaboration with Dahl was on The Enormous Crocodile in the mid- to late seventies. This was Blake’s (already a published illustrator) first proper colour picture book. In this interview, he talks about how book design can be used to influence pace. One of the key points he makes is how a ‘picture problem’ or ‘picture choice’ should not be placed on the left hand page and resolved on the right, but placed on the right hand page and then resolved on the following page in order to propel the reader forwards.

While working on The BFG (a children’s novel, not a picture book) he began to work with Dahl more closely, rather than Jonathan Cape’s designers. In this interview, he talks about his previous misconception that Dahl had been badgered into having illustrations in his books by the publisher. (At first Blake had submitted samples along with other illustrators. Although initially concerned that Blake’s style may be too striking, once committed, Dahl actually wanted more illustrations in his book.) If any graphic novelists are reading this, it’s well worth your while watching those two clips.

The quintessential example of standalone illustrations in adult literature would be from the fountain pen of another British illustrator, Ralph Steadman, and his work with Hunter S. Thompson.

Those two gonzo anarchists, of course, need no further introduction. Foreshadowing the madness that was to come, on Steadman’s first assignment with Thompson, which would later be titled, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, the illustrator was forced to improvise his work. Upon meeting Thompson for the first time that morning and having been Maced in the face by Thompson with “Chemical Billy” over lunch, it was touch and go whether the drawings would ever happen. However:

“…Steadman did make it to the Derby, albeit minus his pencils, pens and inks. He used lipstick and rouge borrowed from a generous lady in the betting tent to transform the great and the good of Southern society into grotesque slobbering monsters.” (1)

(You can read The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved here.)

Steadman’s jagged dip pen style became iconic and brought him many admirers. The combination of his twisted portraiture and being associated with Thompson also made him plenty of enemies as well. Thompson understood how much Steadman’s cartoons brought to his writing, especially Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Indeed, he felt threatened by the artwork’s power and worried that it could overshadow his prose – so much so that during various negotiations to film his work he stipulated, adamantly, and in customarily colourful language, that there would be no (insert a string of whacky expletives) cartoons.

There are no records of Dahl ever firing a chemical propellant in Blake’s face (although he did once send him a used Jesus creeper in the mail). There was, however, in both cases a complex creative partnership at play, with both illustrators eventually coming out from the shadows to gain recognition centre stage. And in the case of Ralph Steadman, that meant standing in the mosh pit while playing electric guitar with his teeth.

Next time I blog, I’ll take a look at a few examples of illustrations that interact directly with the text.

(For a great interview with Ralph Steadman on his time with Hunter, click here to take you to the article I cited below.)

(1) http://www.wonderlandmagazine.com/2009/01/ralph-steadman-on-hunter-s-thompson/#sthash.E1Ag9fne.dpuf


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The Goods

If you were looking over a fiction writer’s shoulder as she worked and asked her, “Why are you writing that?” Her various answers might boil down to a rather simple statement, “Because I want to make something good.” Of course, the seeming simplicity of that response is not really so simple. It begs the question, What is good? As it relates to the literary arts, the best answer to that question that I’ve come across is from the American philosopher Richard Rorty. The points I make below are more or less my attempt to summarize his ideas in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (1989) and apply them to the genre of literary fiction. First, a couple of quick points. Andrew Oberg has already written well for Drugstore on the topic of writer motivation here. When reading that piece, I couldn’t help thinking of a figure I’d come across in a recent non-fiction book called Going Clear, about the history of Scientology. The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, still holds the world record in titles written by one author, a number that exceeds 1000. Early in his career, he wrote for money: the going rate was a penny a word.

I have no idea if Battlestar Galactica is still being read, nor do I have an inkling of readers’ aesthetic judgments if they do read it. I do know that novels as different as The Color Purple and Anna Karenina have been lauded time and time again and that fact calls for some kind of explanation. So, in fiction writing, what is good? The are two main camps and it’s important to remember (regardless of one’s personal preferences) that both are right. First, we say a novel is good if it draws us out of ourselves and allows us to see some moral truth about the world that we’d previously been blinded to. Leo Tolstoy said, quite famously, that he considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be amongst the highest achievements of the human mind. In his view, that novel was good because it aimed at addressing an injustice, a social evil, and succeeded at getting people to see it. It’s usefulness as a tool for moving the human heart is paramount. Vladimir Nabokov, less famously but more playfully, said he wished that Tolstoy had been chained up in his later years and been forced to write literature as beautiful, as perfect, and as socially useless as Anna Karenina. Here, confused students might ask, “Doesn’t Nabokov care about justice and righting wrongs?” Readers who conclude from statements he gave in interviews that he was some kind of right-wing conservative, or some kind of libertarian in U.S. parlance, miss the point entirely. He wanted political hands off of aesthetic pies. When pressed about his political views he came out with old-fashioned liberal values: freedom to live and speak and write the way one chooses. He was anti-cruelty and said NO to executions and torture. Compared to most American presidents, he looks positively dovish.

If the two camps can be summed up as Justice and Beauty, it’s time to turn to Beauty. But before taking another step we should retire an overworked phrase, “art for art’s sake”, because novels are written, published, and read for readers. That means living, breathing human beings with their own aims and motivations. In this sense, great works of literature can still be useful, just not in the social sense. Rorty does an excellent job in his book at showing how great books can provide us with the sense of who we are and how we come to be as individuals. I fumble now to find the double-italics feature for that last phrase. Every birth brings into the world an utterly unique, and therefore precious, form of consciousness.  But that which comes into the world is coal; effort makes it a diamond. A life in literature is one time-honored path which allows a human consciousness to develop, grow, fine-tune itself, refine itself, and expand itself over its lifespan. In my next post, I will look at a couple more examples from each camp (which suddenly strikes me as an ugly word since I’ve just finished watching Shoah and am a few chapters into Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved). For now, I’ll leave you with a question: if you had to select a quintessential example from each of the two branches in literature, what two works would you choose?

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The next BPO: Regret

We’ve got a juicy one for you this time — Regret! Note the guidelines below, crack those knuckles, and charge the batteries in your wireless keyboards. When all the sweat and blood has been spent, send us your stuff here: contact@drugstorebooks.com.

  • Theme: Regret
  • Length: 3,000-8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word or TextEdit file
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 14 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: www.drugstorebooks.com (on the left) © Your Name 2015 (on the right — stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“regret”) with embedded single quotes (‘regret’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (e.g. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Referencing: Any standard academic convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site
  • Deadline: 07 July

Remember that all of our previous entries are available on the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing page. All submissions will be edited by us but the final decision regarding any suggested changes to the content will be left up to the author. The author will also retain full copyright privileges and ownership; we’re here to display your work and help it reach a broader audience, not to profit from it. We’re looking forward to reading what you come up with!

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Your book in the world

“A book may be written and remain unchanged; but with the world, and all potential readers, changing around it, can the book remain the same?”

The above is taken from the delightfully well-written and very interesting PhD dissertation called “The Ways Hypothesis: An alternative approach to Society” by Athanasios A. Kastritis (DPhil in Social and Political Thought, University of Sussex, 2009, p. 42). (Don’t ask me why I’m reading a stranger’s doctoral dissertation.) I’ve written here on the life of a book before, and although the quote touches on the issues discussed in that post as well, what I’d like to take a look at in light of current publishing trends is that first clause: “A book may be written and remain unchanged”. In the world of ebooks, how accurate is that? How accurate should it be?

Just six years on from when Dr Kastritis submitted his work a lot has changed in both the processes and time involved in publishing a book. The self-pub world has been accepted; first by readers (of course), and then by agents and editors within the trad-pub sphere. An author can now publish a book electronically with very little wait time and fewer and fewer concerns about handling complicated formatting issues themselves. Self-pubbing was a phenomenon in 2009, and we here at Drugstore Books were exploring it then and finally heralding it on these pages a year later (we certainly weren’t the first but we did get in early), but for the most part an ugly aura hung around the approach until the last couple of years. Now, thankfully, new books are commonly judged on their own internal merit and not just the publisher’s label on the spine (if you will), though some publishers, whether of the self or trad variety, do have a deserved reputation for quality that may tip the balance in a book’s favor if a reader is in doubt. But let’s stick with this issue of publishing time and ebooks.

Both Smashwords and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing allow writers to post their work and see it go live for sale within days or even hours (you can more or less count on 24 hours or so depending on a number of different factors). You might think that an ebook should appear instantaneously but the files are vetted first; in the case of Smashwords this is done initially by a robot which alerts the author to any potential problems which can then be adjusted before proceeding, and in the case of KDP the file is either accepted or rejected wholesale prior to being confirmed by a person (KDP accepts Word files and requires less formatting than Smashwords, but Smashwords has a detailed guide that does make it easy to give them what they want). Once your book is in the shape it needs to be making changes is a simple matter of tweaking the originally submitted file and then republishing it with only that very short wait time as a disadvantage. You can do this as often as you like — it’s free and you are in full control.

And therein lies the rub. The desire to fix the tiny little errors that crept in is one thing — and that’s understandable and probably beneficial — , but the temptation to make more substantial changes is one that every writer will have to face and wrestle with. My own view is that once you’ve finished your book, and I mean really finished it, edit after edit after edit and draft after draft after draft, then you let it go and allow it to find its place in the ever-changing world it will inhabit. It may go nowhere, it may go straight to the top, it may plateau and dip and rise, but it will be a piece of your life and your own world at the time of writing and will genuinely reflect that. Some books do have second or third editions, and some books do have later additions (I added a long commentary and suggestions for further reading to Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies a year after publishing it); that is not what I mean. Rather, what I’m getting at are the nagging doubts that X could have been worded better, or Y should maybe have done Z instead of A in chapter five and then chapter six will need… Writing a book is an aesthetic act, and as such I think some very good advice that was passed on to me by a friend who heard it from his painting teacher is appropriate here: Sooner or later you just have to put the brush down.

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The real-y real

Due to their very bad shipping methods, I just received my December 18th issue of the London Review of Books a couple of days ago. (The issues are meant to arrive every two weeks, but guess what? They don’t.) In it is an interesting article by Tom McCarthy on realism in writing that got me thinking about the possibility of objectivity and how we should consider it when writing fiction.

Foucault, Nietzsche, and many others pointed out that what we consider “real” is always structured — or, to perhaps put it more accurately, filtered — by how we think, how we view the world. You can detect these thoughts in Wittgenstein too in his post-linguistic turn, and it is one of the major reasons that logical positivism died an ignoble death towards the middle of the previous century. Personally I think that there is something to be said about speaking and/or writing in purely empirical terms, i.e. a “factual vocabulary” (see my paper “Don’t put mouths in my words” on the bottom of this page on my personal site, as well as chapter five in Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies, available on this page of my personal site), but that is a topic for another day.

At any rate, now to the main: If the world we inhabit is one that is necessarily perspective-oriented, and if these perspectives are individually bound even while being (largely; almost entirely?) culturally constructed, then how do we write about what happens to our characters in a way that reflects this? There are of course a number of approaches that could be considered here but two ends of the spectrum stand out for me: that of the internalized head-tour (if you will), and that of the external narrator. The head-tour puts us in our character’s head and keeps us there; we see things as she does and we experience the world through her and how she reacts to it, even if we find ourselves with very different intuitive responses to the events while reading about them. Paul j Rogers does an excellent job of this in his forthcoming book (more on that in the months to come). The second option listed, that of the outside narrator, poses an interesting dilemma that itself allows a number of responses. Does not the narrator himself have his own perspective on the world, on the occurrences being described, and his own biased beliefs regarding the character’s reactions to them? There is a lot of room for play here, and the more approaches taken to this issue the more interesting available fiction will become.

When working on a project, it strikes me as important to consider these aspects of how you will write from the outset and then commit to following the guidelines you have set for yourself. Change can always be introduced, but we readers would need a reason of some kind to make that shift in perspective believable. There are a thousand plot doors to be opened here. What might be really intriguing, and potentially quite jarring, would be to introduce an alteration in the external narrator’s worldview midway through the story. I leave it to all of you writers out there to wow us with your own takes on the “real”.

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New format

Dear Readers,

We’re going to switch gears a little bit here in 2015 and change from weekly blog posts to irregular blogging. Whenever inspiration strikes us! We will of course continue with our By Prescription Only: Themed Writing series, the first one will likely be in the spring but check back for announcements on that and a definite submission date. We are also planning to launch some exciting books this year so keep your eyes open for that.

We hope you continue to enjoy our unique views on writing, reading, publishing, and everything in between. We deeply appreciate your taking the time out of your busy days for us and we’re looking forward to what the new year brings.

Yours sincerely,

DSB’s soda jerks

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Happy holidays and winter break

That wraps up our By Prescription Only: Themed Writing round on the theme of Faces, we hope you enjoyed the contributions.

We here at Drugstore Books would like to wish the happiest of holiday seasons to all of our readers. For those of you whose holidays have already begun, for those of you whose holidays are just around the corner, and for those of you whose holidays will be celebrated by not celebrating, we say: Enjoy them!

We’ll be back in January with fresh content and some exciting new books to launch in 2015.

Till then, take care of yourselves and those around you.

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Generating Fast Faces by Paul j Rogers

The final installment in this round of the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing showcase on Faces comes from our own Paul j Rogers as he adds a 21st century spin to “the cut-up technique” – a literary technique that began with the Dadaist, Tristan Tzara, and was later developed by Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, and David Bowie (amongst others).

Disclaimin’ away~ ♪: The following story is entirely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, events, etc. are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in the following works of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Some stories in this showcase contain adult themes, so reader caution is advised.

Generating Fast Faces by Paul j Rogers

The following story is a “Google cut-up”.
The writer searched “faces” and then cut and pasted one sentence from the first 100 websites. (*Where possible. If only a few words were available, the writer cut and pasted those.)
The harvested text was then cut and spliced to make a narrative.
Harvested text could only be used once.
No new words were written.
Only punctuation, capitalization and spacing were altered.
All 100 harvested text cuts were used in some way.


         Alive with web-based applications, a modern city is a massive and ceaseless information producer. Urban neighborhoods with pervasive unemployment and poverty are home to the hungriest. One in 60 babies is born with some type of disorder. If you are fun-loving and outgoing, this is the place to be. This sunflower is thrilled to be decaying.

Dr. Seymour J. Rydal (PhD, Biochemistry) has a large jaw; it looks almost ogre-like. (The guy’s skills: restaurant health inspection, the best rock & roll, and scamming tourists on the side.) This experimenter celebrates the process, not the tool.

With the private jets, drink, drugs, clothes and haircuts, Vakula is a name that needs no introduction. She serves as a symbol for the rebellion, a role model for girls everywhere. She also shared several screenshots of their conversations via Facebook that detailed their plans to meet up.

“I don’t know what it is about your face.”
“Seduction is treachery.”
“If you’d like to complain, I’d be happy to listen.”
“This ain’t my first rodeo, cowboy.”

To read the rest, download the pdf

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Report From Agent Gamble by Nick Cody

This week our By Prescription Only: Themed Writing contribution on Faces is from the successful comedian from Australia, Nick Cody. No, wait, I mean the…

Keep this in mind: The following story is entirely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, events, etc. are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in the following works of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Some stories in this showcase contain adult themes, so reader caution is advised.

Report From Agent Gamble by Nick Cody

“Antipathies lead to animosities. Nip it in the bud.” It took a while for my swimmy vision to bring her note into focus. By her, I mean my wife Lisa, who had scribbled the message onto a yellow note, peeled it off the pad, and then attached it to the one place I was sure to see it: my alarm clock. She gets up early but I always sleep in late. The “it” in her note referred to my resentment over a “little mission” I was given recently. I’d stayed up last night and railed against my rotten luck. Lisa listened and commiserated, nodding at what I felt were the ace points in my argument, points emphasized by pounding my fist into my palm, and then she nodded off completely. I must have continued shadow boxing for another full hour before I noticed that I’d been talking to myself. She was out cold.

I joined the Movement about six months ago and the assignments I’d been given did not exactly match my initial expectations. Read Rudolf Rocker. Check. Meet another Movement noob at the Jumping Bean café to discuss the latest work of Noam Chomsky. Check. Write a check to support the DemocracyNow fundraiser. Check.

The reading I didn’t mind. It was something I had taken for granted, a necessary blade in the armory: get the facts! And given my net worth, funding this or that group was always going to be part of the game. As far as Ethan goes, that’s the guy I met at the Park Slope café, he’s plenty smarter than me. He just needed some help getting his head around Chomsky’s critique of U.S.-Israeli policy, and that stuff has nothing to do with the intellect. Reading, meeting, discussing, all well and good, but none of it seemed like action. I’d hoped for something bad ass, like Code Pink or WikiLeaks. Instead, it was turning out to be more like book clubs and cocktail parties.

So three days ago I received my latest directive via secured email: Accept your invitation to the Koch brothers’ Halloween party in the Upper East Side, bring a costume, 1 guest…

To read the rest, download the pdf

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