Defining the essentials of artist-bookery is a Sisyphean chore, as everyone who has written anything worth reading about artists’ books readily acknowledges. Book artists employ no standard printing method or machinery. Contributors are not bound by a particular set of materials or building codes. There’s no exact minimum (or maximum, for that matter) degree of involvement demanded of designers in the physical process of creation. Limited edition printings, photocopies, and one of a kinds are all acceptable. The most influential formulation, Johanna Drucker’s, is as much an act of defiance as definition:
Artists’ books take every possible form participate in every possible convention of book making, every possible ‘-ism’ of mainstream art and literature, every possible mode of production, every shape, every degree of ephemerality or archival durability. There are no specific criteria for defining what an artist’s book is, but there are many criteria for defining what it is not, or what it partakes of, or what it distinguishes itself from.
Even the exact parameters or degree of “codexiness” required of an “artist’s book” are uncertain, as exemplified by the delightful fabrications of the celebrated book artist Julie Chen (of the Flying Fish Press). Thus, the old quip: “Is it made by an artist? Well, then it’s an artist’s book!”
Here’s the question that I want to pursue in this series of posts: can an artist’s book be made by an author? (“Now, wait right there,” you might be thinking, “aren’t we living in the aftermath of the Foucauldian/Barthian ‘death’ of the author?” Hold that thought, dear reader: we’ll discuss those French fellows in the next post.) Can we, I’ve been wondering lately, speak meaningfully about a subgenre that I’d like to dub “literary artists’ books” (hereafter LABs)? Drucker’s big happy family (resemblance) definition doesn’t rule out the possibility of an artist’s book that has strong literary pretentions. Moreover, a number of introductions to the art form note the importance of language to many of its practitioners’ modes of meaning-making. Here’s an example from the website of the nonprofit bookstore and gallery Printed Matter:
Whether the contents are visually or linguistically based (often a mix of both), physically moving through an artwork implicates notions of sequence, repetition, juxtaposition, and duration. The interplay of text and images, as well as considerations of printing process and the design of the book, allows for many exciting possibilities within narrative, media, and meaning that are specific to the artists’ book alone. (emphasis mine)
Based on such a description, a term like LAB might seem unnecessary, given how central text and narrative are to the art form’s familiar behaviors and ambitions. (Let me be clear, dear reader, that I believe this description to be correct: the artist book does hold “exciting possibilities” for writers of narrative–and poets as well–thanks to its ways of blending and juxtaposing textual content with qualities of its design and materiality.)
What’s the problem then? In a word, reading. As anyone who has spent a few hours with artists’ books knows, many (most?) are designed to hinder–or toy with, even frustrate–easy reading. Drucker notes the penchant for artists’ books to disrupt “conventions of reading.” We often don’t know how exactly to go about reading them because their designs depart from the familiar organizational systems of the book, page, sentence, etc. Here’s an example from Drucker’s creative work:
In The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists’ Books, Judd and Renee Hubert observe the recurrent presence (or it disappearing act?) of illegible or truncated verbal signs in important artists’ books. We discern language or language-likeness but are left without full access to what often seems to be a more expansive text:
More broadly, Hubert & Hubert call attention to how discombobulating the “interplay” of meaning-bearers–text, image, other material qualities–can be for readers (presumably accustomed to the regimen of the black-and-white print page):
[T]he reader may find it difficult, useless even, to assert text, image, or any other feature as primary. This paradoxical situation whereby the audience must focus on the book as a whole rather than dwell on any of its parts, may account for the usual brevity and occasional illegibility of text deliberately upstaged if not obscured by the structural and pictorial aspects of the work.
[W]hen the basic idea of the bound text is intercepted by the “concept” of another medium—graphic, plastic, sculptural—the comfortably accepted manner of reading is complicated by the rethought spatial matter of, for want of a better word, booking. Received textual formats no longer yield so immediately their content: no longer, that is, yield to reading.
Now read this:
While there’s no definitional prohibition against LABs, then, the Huberts’ observations pinpoint a practical tension. The reading practices that literary writing entails seem to go against the grain of major tendencies of arist-bookmaking. Ebooks produce anxiety in many modern commentators for the same reason: their chiming and chain-linking siphon off our attention, these critics argue, with the result that we quickly run out of gas when tasked with a difficult read like a Tolstoy novel. Sven Birkerts has made a career of such diagnoses. Taste a gobbet from “Reading in a Digital Age” (2010):
The problem we face in a culture saturated with vivid competing stimuli is that the first part of the transaction will be foreclosed by an inability to focus—the first step requires at least that the language be able to reach the reader, that the word sounds and rhythms come alive in the auditory imagination. But where the attention span is keyed to a different level and other kinds of stimulus, it may be that the original connection can’t be made. Or if made, made weakly. Or will prove incapable of being sustained. Imagination must be quickened and then it must be sustained—it must survive interruption and deflection.
While I’m not a Birkertsian luddite by any stretch of the imagination, I find his critique of e-reading useful now insofar it highlights the many demands of literary writing and the related issue of sensory over-stimulation. Artists’ books give us too many things to keep track of, to pair and compare: in the reading of surfaces, colors, layers, and images, how much attention can be paid (by writer or reader) to lengthy or intricate text?
In my next post, I will offer Tree of Codes as a prototype for a LAB. With the help of Sheldon’s commentary, I aim to discuss how Foer’s book (largely) avoids the pitfalls that I have tried to map out here. There’s also, of course, the unfulfilled promise of the epigraphal image of Anne Carson’s Nox…