Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Are novels Artist's Books?

This post starts with Lucy Lippard and the Promise of the Artist’s Book. 

Lucy Lippard is a writer and art critic who believes in art criticism as a form of social advocacy. She was one of the founders of Printed Matter in NYC. According to their mission statement, Printed Matter is the World’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to the dissemination, understanding and appreciation of artist’s books. 

In 1977, Lippard published a paper The Artist’s Book Goes Public in Art in America 65 no. 1. There she argues the gallery system had become too elitist, artists made art to please critics, and the public was cowed by the austere, cold, and inaccessible content of the conceptual art movement. She went on to claim that artist’s books have qualities that make them the perfect inoculation to prevent the gallery system against the creeping rot of utter irrelevance (my words not hers). Or as she put it, they are affordable, accessible, and reproducible, the opposite of the ailment afflicting the high art market. 

This kind of thinking created a sub-category of AB known as the Democratic Multiple. Later accomplished painter and print maker Pat Steir, another of the thinkers responsible for the establishment of Printed Matter, enumerated it this way: the Democratic Multiple is an Artist’s Book that is

1. portable 
2. durable
3. affordable 
4. intimate
5. non-precious
6. multiple
7. historical
8. universal

Beyond that I believe the AB is an art form, which excels when it surprises and subverts viewer’s expectations for the purpose of communication and expression.

My work in ABs has been heavily influenced by the democratic multiple. My most recently available artists book demonstrates many of the qualities Steir articulated. THE AFTERTHAWTS is a collection of collaborative ABs conceived, printed, and distributed by HeavyDuty Press. So far a copy has been placed at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Murphy Library, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison and at my favorite AB collection, and The Joan Flasch AB collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

I try to continue to work in ABs, even as I write novels. But the question I've been toying with is: Are novels actually a kind of Democratic Multiple. I'd like to think so.

Novels are usually bound codex format books; and so, like ABs, a variety of book. 

Clearly my novel, Good For Nothing for example, is portable. One of the greatest things about mass-market book publishing is the generation of content that people can digest at their own speed and in their own space, when they find it most convenient. This mobility makes it approachable to most of the population.

It is durable. I've carried paperbacks in my coat pocket, my back pocket, and tossed them in any number of messenger bags. I've read in bed, in a hammock, in car, trains, plains, boats, and from a hospital bed. The unsewn glue bindings are inexpensive yet surprisingly sturdy. I've moved books from place to place for thirty years, have loaned them out and had them returned ready to read again. 

Affordability is a relative term. In general commercially printed paperbacks are between six and twenty bucks a pop. Inexpensive enough that cost is not a major obstacle for anyone desperate to lay his or her hands on a particular book. The secondary used book market can make books even more affordable. Certainly buying paperback books is much cheaper than attempting to dabble in most of the art market. 

The nature of reading is Intimate. It is a haptic experience of holding, hefting, turning, feeling, smelling, and hearing. Books are most often read as a one to one relationship, book to person. Or perhaps writer, via the book object, straight to the reader. 

Non-precious is also a relative value. But when I loan a book, I know full well it may not come back. Even if it is one of my favorite books such as Richard Ford's early collection of short stories Rock Springs, I still loan books. The potential loss of one copy of one book is less important than the opportunity to connect with someone. 

Clearly mass-market books are printed in multiples. It is a unique trick of the artform that it is both intimate and widely distributable. 

The term Historical I've always taken to mean books that are a reflection of the context in which they are created. Some writers aim to write in an ageless way that allows readers to easily generalize the experiences of a protagonist to the reality of their own existence. Sometimes in service to that intention they strip away much of the detail that makes the narrative of a specific moment or place. I am not that kind of writer. I am interested in anchoring a character to a moment in time, a place, a social reality and a political landscape that will certainly shift by the time the book has made it onto a bookstore shelf. I trust readers to fill whatever gaps exist. 

Lastly universal I have always taken to mean the democratic multiple should speak to the human condition. It's hard to find a novel that doesn't do this. In particular though, my writing has a Universalist bent. I believe our similarities as people far outweigh our differences. 

So Good For Nothing clears the first eight hurdles. As for my own definition: does it surprise and subvert reader expectations for the purpose of expression and communication? The honest answer is yes. One of the rationales for working with genre fiction is that there are sets of tropes that have expected outcomes. Starting with an awareness of what a reader is likely to expect, I can then deliver a resolution in an unexpected way. By that point in the plot, a reader has carried their book to their favorite spot, invested time and attention, they are open to persuasion. Novels are empathy generating devices. An artist with a point to make can find themselves in conversation - with the book as a conduit - about complicated and difficult issues with people who might not otherwise engage on that given issue. Subversion is not an attempt to trick the reader but an opportunity to make an unexpected point in a ripe moment when the reader is open-minded enough to consider a reality outside their own experience. The real challenge is to do all that without being preachy or pedantic, while being interesting and entertaining. I hope to write books that manage to do exactly that. 

One obvious point is that many people think of ABs as a visual art form. And novels clearly are not primarily visual. But, there are whole categories of ABs that are text only. Text art and letterpress printing are two very influential areas that run into to the making of ABs, and two areas that have had a huge impact on my own creative thinking. Generally I reject the idea that ABs must have visual content. Or rather, that text on a page is in fact a kind of visual communication. 

The one hang-up is control of the process. In ABs we call it Authorial Control and it means that one person (or a group of collaborators) conceive and control the execution of all aspects of creating the book object. In commercial printing authors have varying degrees of control depending on force of will, the size of the publisher, the clout of the author etc.. . With Good For Nothing, I had a great deal of say in cover design, typographic design, and typesetting. The one area that has been most out of my control is the way the work is marketed. Often the novels are shoehorned into the existing marketing space they best occupy. Not necessarily a perfect fit, but the best fit given the existing categories. 

In other words, it is arguably possible for a commercially printed novel to meet the minimum requirements to be an artist's book. One of the simplest definitions of an AB (a constantly debated subject within the field) is a book made by an artist. Certainly Good For Nothing is that. 

Finally, I'm pleased to share that I completed my third novel, Half Dead. My agents are reading it now. We shall see what the future holds. 

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