Most readers can understand the experience of finishing a great book and wanting more. Davis Schneiderman is an author who does exactly that. In his books, Schneiderman isn’t simply a purveyor of words. Instead he is an artist extraordinaire and creative director of collaborations. His books include soundtracks, photography projects, and excerpts from famous works—one even comes with a biological pathogen. In this exclusive essay, Schneiderman discusses the manipulability of literature and how modern technology is changing what it means to be an artist.
Literature is multimedia.
I don’t mean that in a metaphoric way, as books like Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland or Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions anticipate/ape/mimic/refract still-burgeoning online sight-scapes.
Rather, it takes multiple media streams to make a book, electronic or otherwise. We generally use digital tools to originate many of these processes; but even in the mid-century age of my New York City-printer grandfather Paul Scheiderman—think type boxes, pasteboard layouts, and printing presses rolling into the eternal tomorrow—we still used multiple (non-digital) media streams.
Part of the mystique of publishing is exactly that, a too-neat package where the “genius” author produces the product of his genius to be interpreted and decoded and understood by the reader who then develops a better understanding of the genius ideas of the author. This is the Romantic tradition, writ large, the world of John Keats and Frederic Chopin, but not less so of Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer.
In all of these cases, there is “something” “essentially” “special” about those people that allows them to make “““meaningful art.””” Others cannot make meaningful art at the same “level” because others, ahem, are not possessed of either the a) inborn quality that allows such production, or b) the ability to struggle successfully through the complications of life and market to “rise” to the top, which was of course pre-ordained from the dawn of time.
Sound familiar? Yawn.
Our current age of multimedia—the electronic age?, the internet age?, the Millennial-hipster age?—is essentially akin to the previous situation, with this key difference: the entry obstacles to making art have been lowered. Activities that would have once been the exclusive province of the auteur (the digital treatment of photographs) have now become the casual playhouse of anyone with a cell phone (Instagram).
While it has democratized production, it has at times created a new star system for social media users—who gets the most hits on the YouTube channel, etc. Such a star system reinforces Romantic ideas of value, albeit from the bottom up. Think The Voice and American Idol.
You might ask why we shouldn’t celebrate those who a) use these tools most effectively, over those who b) have simply learned to use those tools? Gertrude Stein writes somewhere that everyone can write anything nowadays.
Why shouldn’t we all be geniuses?
David Shields and I recently conducted a long email conversation that will be published next year in AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle. There, I ask Shields about whether collage strategies—another imperfect term for current techniques—might redefine what we think of as literature. He puts it eloquently:
“On some level, sure, there is no pretense that these subjects vanish entirely: we still are born, have bodies, try to love other people, and die; also there is still a social cataclysm just outside the window, but in these works—call them collage, if we can’t come up with a better term, and I have yet to—all these divisions of fiction/nonfiction, confession/reportage, public/private vanish and we are, I think, in a very exciting space.”
This space, while exciting, is also undefined particularly on the question of genius. In many cases what social media loves is the supposed opposite of genius, anonymity, or that which is apparently anti-genius, that which appears to be lowbrow (Lolcats, or Star Wars: Uncut, ad infinitum).
At this nexus between genius and anonymity in the digital age is the space of what we might call “conceptual” literature, including my own recent works, the DEAD/BOOKS trilogy: BLANK (2011), [SIC] (2013), and INK. (forthcoming).
[SIC], the Latin abbreviation for “as written,” includes public domain works I have published under my name, including “Caedmon’s Hymn,” Sherlock Holmes, and the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. [SIC] also includes works in the public domain after 1923, and so includes Wikipedia pages, intellectual property law, genetic codes, and other untoward appropriations. The text also pivots on Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” taking the publication history, in all languages, through a replicated series of Google auto-translations. The book includes one “original” piece, an introduction from Oulipo member Daniel Levin Becker.
Additionally, [SIC] is a multimedia work:
- I copied the content from web pages, using search and cut-and-paste tools.
- I dressed in an all-white lycra suit, and was photographed around Paris in this suit. These pictures were manipulated by the excellent photographer Andi Olsen to give the white body—now no longer “me” exactly—an ethereal glow.
- The book has musical accompaniment, in a sense, including web playback (to come) of artists on the Illegal Art record label, including from Illegal Art label acts Yea Big, Oh Astro, Steinski, and Girl Talk. (Blank, the predecessor text, had Bach remix tracks from Dj Spooky that serve as “part” of the book.)
- The fine-art edition ($24,998.98) will be packaged with a biological pathogen, which the reader may choose to deploy over the text. In this way, the book [SIC] will make the reader sick—sick about copyright.
- The e-book texts of the opening 25 pla(y)giarisms, still in production, include works such as these The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, in Latin—my complaints against the Catholic Church.
- For Ink., the future third volume, artist Tim Guthrie has taken photos of me in a black Lycra suit, in the woods and other natural settings. Those images will be inserted as loose pages into the book, hand dipped in ink.
[SIC] is not a joke, per se, but it’s funny or infuriating, depending on your tolerance for such gestures. These words do not mean to suggest that all literature will be of this kind in the future.
Quite the opposite: we see a dominance of narrative (in new ways—sometimes) in the age of explicit multimedia, in video games such as Grand Theft Auto, in user-created content such as remixes and fan videos for Key & Peele.
The difference for literature, now available in multiple formats and through different media streams, is that it has become untethered from its status as exclusively printed object subject to intense and often overheated fetishizing. One may read the hardcover or paperback, consume the e-book or audiobook, watch the trailer and read the comments and user reviews on the web…and for the “classics,” quickly access the free summary notes that pre-internet shoppers (myself included) once had to buy in half-embarrassment from the racks at Waldenbooks.
A good book, say Proust, doesn’t end when you close the book, and today’s books, neither start nor end when you open them. Often, they are already open—in the case of [SIC], since the time of the first extant Old English poem, “Caedmon’s Hymn”—and in the case of The Hunger Games in action figures available at Wal-Mart.
Both, of course, are conceptual gestures, but the difference in scale is key. Once multimedia literature finds a way to upend distribution systems even further, the classics, such as they are, will further a) reinforce their positions as works of great meaning, and b) seem like vestiges of a past when only certain works are “destined” to be classics.
They are both full of value and completely valueless for literature to come. After all, it’s not the texts themselves that possess meaning, but what we make of our stories, and lives, upon the breaking of each new (or endlessly repetitive) digital day.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.