Oh, what can you do with a title like that? Many thoughts and images may flash through your mind, but one theme triumphs, right?
- I think the above title is an example of words painting a pretty accurate picture of the inner essence of what the article/post/prose is going to be about — Something to do with people’s prejudices or restrictive view/s of what true literature really consists of (that alone would fill a dictionary).
But, in what way are we going to be talking about the disintegration of ‘pure lit’ (if, indeed, there is such a thing)?
How about taking A Narrow Conception of Literary Purity and mix in the ingredients:
literature, prose, pictures and aesthetic corruption.
Music of the language.
Shake well and pour straight up and you have a fine concoction that tastes something like tonight’s post.
Sam Sacks, who writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal and contributes to The New Yorker, has this insight:
Bring Back the Illustrated Book!
It’s curious how much of literature we are conditioned to consider unliterary. Few would contest the canonization of “Bleak House,” “Vanity Fair,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” but these classics have something in common we may be prone to disregard: each was published with profuse illustrations, and in each case the author relied on the artwork not only to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the book but to add meaningfully to the story.
Some of the art from the golden age of the illustrated novel remains a vital companion to the text. It is nearly impossible to go down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole without envisioning John Tenniel’s drawings of a ranting, bucktoothed Mad Hatteror of Alice eerily elongated after eating the currant cake. George Cruikshank was such a brilliant artist that his emotive illustrations for “Oliver Twist” retain a tenacious hold on the imagination. But we almost never find them in contemporary novels (on the rare occasions that they do appear it’s as ironic anachronism—in Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell,” for instance, or Umberto Eco’s “The Prague Cemetery,” both of which are pastiches of nineteenth-century genre fiction). Even as graphic novels enjoy a surge of newfound critical appreciation, the common consensus seems to be that pictures no longer belong in literary fiction. It’s reasonable to ask, Why not? What do we know that Dickens and Twain didn’t?
It may easy to dismiss the tradition of Victorian book art because of its origins in cartooning. Undoubtedly, many illustrators were caricaturists in the tradition of William Hogarth, whose raucous urban tableaux used comic distortions to point up moral lessons. But we need only look at “Vanity Fair,” written and illustrated by William Thackeray, to see how much playful complexity can exist within the trappings of caricature. Thackeray had aspired to be a cartoonist before he took up writing (he unsuccessfully applied to illustrate Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers”), and his wonderful drawings play a sneaky, editorializing role throughout the novel. Some are of children playing with dolls, framing the story as a kind of metafictional puppet play. As the anti-heroine Becky Sharp progresses in her conquest of the venal English aristocracy, Thackeray depicts her as a man-eating mermaid, a female Napoleon, and the notorious husband-slayer Clytemnestra—this last portrayal was controversial even in its time because it implicates Becky in a murder that the text leaves ambiguous. The author is very much toying with us as he stages his entertainment.
Dickens was dependent on artists, but when he began working with the relatively unknown H .K. Browne (who signed his work with the moniker Phiz), he found an illustrator willing to abide an imperious amount of supervision. Browne has never been credited with deep artistic gifts, but under Dickens’s overbearing instruction, his drawings began to subtly communicate the themes and motifs of Dickens’s mature novels. Their collaboration became an essential element of Dickens’s preparations for writing. The pair travelled together on fact-gathering trips. Letters between them show how dictating the contents of each panel illustration helped Dickens plan out his characters’ physical and symbolic dimensions. In a letter to the illustrator during the composition of “Martin Chuzzlewit,” for instance, Dickens wrote, “I have a notion of finishing the book with an apostrophe to Tom Pinch [the book’s quietly good-hearted hero], playing the organ.” Browne’s lavish frontispiece places at its axis Tom at the piano, and shows the novel’s other characters in miniature dancing a kind of roundelay to Tom’s music, stressing his moral centrality.
I suspect that most fiction writers would instinctively agree that interacting with visual representations of a book in draft can help give shape to evanescent impressions or inspire new ideas. (In the most famous instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald “wrote in” the image of T. J. Eckleburg’s haunting optometry billboard after seeing Francis Cugat’s dust-jacket design for “The Great Gatsby.”) Nevertheless, a stickier problem lies beneath the writerly distrust of publishing fiction with illustrations. The real backlash to the universal custom began around the turn of the century. In his 1909 foreword to a reissue of “The Golden Bowl,” Henry James sought to explain it (brace yourself, as this is the most Jamesian of Jamesian sentences). The danger of pictures of people and scenes, he wrote, is that “anything that relieves responsible prose of the duty of being, while placed before us, good enough, interesting enough and, if the question be of picture, pictorial enough, above all in itself, does the worst of services, and may well inspire in the lover of literature certain lively questions as to the future of that institution.”
This is one of the earliest articulations of the existential anxiety that still preys on novelists today. Basically, James was worried about movies. If prose was going to lean on the crutch of pictures, however charming, it was going to quickly find itself surpassed by far more dazzling mediums of visual entertainment. Literature needed to apply itself to doing the things that photography and film could not—it needed to evoke a scene’s inner workings.
In her 1926 essay, “Cinema,” Virginia Woolf reëmphasized the distinction between visual stimulation and the ineffable conjurings of prose. When we watch a film version of “Anna Karenina,” she wrote, “eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples.… For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind—her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema on her teeth, her pearls, her velvet.”