Thursday, 8 October 2009

New Reading Formats - The word going visual

I'm not a Luddite, honest. I've graduated from feather quill& ink, through biro, Olivetti manual typewriter, Amstrad Word Processor with ectoplasmic green screen, right up to Applemac. Look around at this blog, I've even shot some vids on I-movie. But I want to consider the issue of visual video content forming part of future literary formats.

What is this strange process of communion, between an absent author sowing his/her words, for a reader all alone to absorb inside their head? Whatever it is, the dynamic is radically changed once a visual/audio component is introduced.

1) The typesetter is not an auteur:
The only visual field for the reader to negotiate is the regular blocks of text on the printed page. Therefore the visual display presents no barrier to going deeper, straight to the heart of the matter, the meaning of the words. I accept there are plenty of authors who subvert this convention, Alasdair Grey for example (and it's something I've used as well), but the majority of printed books still stick to such formats. With video content, a whole new visual language is introduced. In this day & age, people are probably highly visually literate, through film, TV & shared video. But then I don't think you can get away from the fact that the video makers are closing off some of your interpretative decisions through their choice of image which they present you. A reader of a print book is left far more amplitude within which to move through in their own mind. They absorb the words and more actively forge the images for themselves from the wordscapes on offer. I'm not saying it's impossible to do this on film, but there is less room for the viewer's active contribution to the creative process. Just as an addendum to this, what is the file sharer viewer doing with their hands while they watch the literary content on screen? A reader has no option but to hold the book in order to read, thus centring their whole physical body and in all likelihood their mental focus, on the act of reading and absorbing. Can the same be said of a viewer? A cognitive scientist can probably answer that, but I'm not one (wha'd'ya mean 'you don't say'?)

Rene Magritte's painting of a pipe with the caption "This is not a pipe" points up the fact that rather than the physical presence of an actual pipe, this is a painting of one and additionally, that it is a painting of a symbol we take as representing what we mean by 'pipe'. Now move his caption into a body of a novel. "This is not a pipe" might refer to a tobacco smoker's pipe, or a crack-smoker's improvised pipe or a sewer pipe or some duct piping that leads to an A/C unit. The visual representation of a pipe in a painting, narrows these options. An author may well write in such a way to mean (say) the tobacco smoker's version, but resonating with that of the addict's, or maybe even the serpentine convolutions of duct piping if that's the effect he is after. The visual representation, strips away a layer of imaginative interpretation from the reader.

2) Partial Recall
Some written sentences are really quite long. Though the reader has the option of rereading something, equally the viewer has the option of rewinding, if either have missed or forgotten what has been said. However, I would argue a reader who has had to construct the sentences in their mind through reading the words, is far more likely to remember the content at the beginning of a sentence, than a viewer more passively receiving the words through the articulated voice passing down his/her ear. Now you could argue that this might serve to discipline prolix writers into writing snappier, more memorable sentences and fair enough. But I would personally always stick up for the tranches of literature that delight in the word, taking their time to detail observations and the like. The word in and of itself can be luxuriated over, with the mental tongue savouring the inner rhythm of a sentence, or playing over a choice morsel. Clearly visual motifs can establish stunning metaphors, but there is a level of language that works without reliance on visual connections. Linguistic puns and other plays on words as an example. I did a recent public reading and realised that the audience were unlikely to get my "Greeced lightning' reference as written, because their processing auditory apparatus would faithfully report it to the brain as "greased lightning". The words become secondary to some extent with a video, with the visual imagery the dominant language of expression. Some writers may mourn this, others may relish it.

3) Pop Videos
Like I say, I'm not against visual presentation and have explored the option myself. I am currently commissioning 5 video voiced over readings and have storyboarded the visual content that I feel best represents the material, without trying to slavishly enact it. I'll also get the actress to do a podcast of a section so bleary eyed commuters can listen to it on their Tube journeys (god help them ease into the day with the reading selection I've got in mind...). I've also written screenplays in the past, so have some notion about structuring visual content. But I am very much treating these video presentations as promos for the book. I regard it in the same way as a pop video stands in relation to the song it is there to promote. By that I mean, not only is the video there to boost sales of the download/CD, but it has its own narrative, told in visual terms, that may only have the slightest of connections back to the narrative of the song. It is after all, to all intents and purposes, an advert. A glossy, high end feast for the senses, employing the same seductive hooks as any advert trying to get the consumer to part with their money.

Now while I'm not advocating this for one moment as being the relationship of vooks and their video content, I again want to look at the physical processes involved. When I want to listen to a song at home, I might want to lie back on my bed and let it wash over me if I'm feeling the need to chill out, or maybe just feeling blue. Or I may opt for a song that makes me want to throw some dance shapes in the comfort of my own bedroom (curtains closed). Or perhaps even sing along or indulge in some air guitar into the full length mirror. All of these are possible, because my body and in particular my eyes are free to act as they will. Now, imagine being tied down to watching the video version on a screen, still feel like dancing? Harder to pull off if you're keeping your eyes on the screen. Obviously your eyes are engaged when reading a book, but as I say in point 1) they are not really tied down by the visual content of the word, more of a scanner scooping up the content for the brain to bathe in. With a vid, they are far more trammelled by the work they have to do to feed the brain it's input. The eyes, as it were, are led by the nose to drink in the visual content.

The wonderful @namenick on Twitter who is an explorer and pioneer in all the new media possibilities for literature, pointed me at the vook of the new Nick Cave novel "The Death Of Bunny Munroe". While it certainly looks amazing, one has to remember that a) it has had a lot of money thrown at it because of Cave's crossover music/literature bankability 2) He's a musician so the soundtrack presents no problem, nor the accessibility to video makers of high quality c) clearly he is a charismatic performer, so shots of him reading and to camera pieces of him talking about the novel will work. However, the prospect of more than 1 minute watching a less charismatic author read from their own book make me want to switch off. It just isn't visual enough. This doesn't have to be an impediment to success, since Cave's vook also provides plenty of visual treats as the auteur brings his creative interpretation to the text. The interesting thing about this is that suddenly literature faces being a collaboration, not between editors and writers, dealing in the same artistic currency, but between writers and film-makers coming from very different places. If it's the author shooting the vid himself, then I'm going to ask, does he actually want to be scripting films in his heart of hearts, rather than being a prose writer?

Reading as Proust said is "that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude" (quoted by Maryanne Wolf in her wonderful book "Proust And The Squid" which looks at the physical processes of reading. Video still communicates, but is it within the same environmental solitude and is it precisely the same communication? I have no problem with looking for new ways to communicate, but if as I suspect, this is a compensatory reaction to things like shortened attention spans and the popularity of YouTube and therefore we are trying to shoehorn literature into these square pegs in order to 'get with the programme' I am less convinced. I think it's literature trying to appear proactive, but as usual the drive is coming from the margins of some of its practitioners pursuing their own programmes, with literature wheezing and panting to keep up and broadcast itself as a reinvention. Power to the pioneers I say. Could this be publishing's punk rock movement, only with high tech?

Hey, guess what? I'll be aiming to film a video giving a more apocalyptic (as the medium desires) view on this whole argument in evolutionary terms. But I'll post it on to this old fashioned writing bloggy site thing.

See, I told you I wasn't a Luddite.

Just a writer of words who remains divided on the issue.


Dan Holloway said...

Now there's a lot to take in.

Section 2 is of particular interest to me having learned speed reading a few years ago. The first and last principle is true, but I'm not sure that decreased recall of long sentences is necessarily true with speed reading - that said, ifwhat matters is the way the word SOUNDS in your head, decreased enjoyment is.

jenn to the t said...

I'm going to use reductive reasoning to respond to not just your post, but the issue of vooks, videos and ebooks, or just videos and text. Just take this example, which support my thesis I've been preaching about for at least a week now (hey, that's a long time for me to stick with an idea):

I'm reading an interesting article online somewhere, and listening to mp3 of Sham 69 playing from my system's media player and through the speakers. Right in the middle of the article is a well-placed video, which is correctly there to provide additional information, rather than to repeat what was just written.

So I click play, and the video begins.

Then what happens to my Sham 69, shouting If The Kids Are United, We'll Never Be Divided?

We haven't perfected the proper devices yet. The technology is there; the will is there. But the *device* to deliver the content is immature.

(My thesis being, ebooks are immature because Kindle or my laptop, blackberry, etc are clunky and not fun to read like a book.)

So bring on the video; but let's do it right. Because right now, it's tripping all over itself and stumbling on the words that have so gratefully invited it.

~jenn (grumpy today)

Sulci Collective said...

Are we novel writers, or do we secretly want to be Hollywood script writers (even subversive ones)?

I write books that are proudly unfilmable over their length. I am interested in words that rub off on other words as the means of unlocking their meaning. Maybe they don't even convey any visual image whatsoever.

If I've got an idea that demands a visual treatment, then I'll happily write a screenplay for it. The material must dictate the medium, not some commercial excuse to boost flagging sales.

(also grumpy)

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

I don't think there's a difference, Marc - I think we're all storytellers

@jenn - yeah, the software's great; much hardware is terrible. iPhones kinda do it, but intelligent paper is the real future

Sulci Collective said...

See Dan I would even quibble with the notion we are all still storytellers. As per earlier post on "(flashbacks&) No More Heroes Any More", the hero-.antihero notions I think are now completely outmoded outside of genre writing.

I prefer to see myself as an impressionist. Less ambitious, but more forensic maybe.

But then I also identify with the abstract expressionists, with words as my paint. Non-visual, but self-expressive.

Okay, I'm rambling now.

jenn to the t said...

I would fucking LOVE to write screenplays for Hollywood and make them ridiculously subversive. Like when I become queen of the universe and I get to write all the screenplays for all the subversive movies that change the way people around the world think. And then we could eat healthy donuts all day and dance the night away to a 21st century Dance Fever that I would also produce.

Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were listening. I was just singing in the shower.

Dan's right about intelligent paper. But since that doesn't exist now, I think we need to press Pause before we launch into integrating video into text. It's got to be way smarter. But Marc, it wouldn't be one (Hwood screenplays) or the other (clunky video embedded into an otherwise text-oriented medium). Someone really smart out there will come up with a way to do it right and I can't fucking wait for that to happen.

I've devolved to writing like I'm 11 years old again. Spent.