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Re: [BKARTS] Narrative books

Susan Hensel wrote:
I'm sure there are more of us out there. As a curator, I am always looking for the "complete object" where personal content is driven by every decision. In my utopia, the perfect artists book could not tell its story without all of its elements. I seek to make and find books where: words and image are so integrated that the story cannot communicate without either; where structure and layout have implicit meaning; where the performance of reading is a unique act that physically expands meaning. Of course, that book only exists in my own imaginary utopia. But one can dream.
First of all, my thanks to everyone who has replied to my query, both privately and on the list.

I hope you will be patient with me while I speak at some length to the very interesting comment above. I began creating my books in attempt to eliminate editorial censorship. I won't go into the details. Suffice it to say that very few of my stories were published the way I wrote them. I am not talking about copy-editing (although that was often absurd, too) but deletion of key content and even the insertion of text written by the editor that sometimes contradicted the main theme of the piece.

My first attempt was Memoir, a calligraphic (sort of, anyway, as I am not the most skilled penman) novel in the form of a journal that I published in near-facsimile. It was printed in two and three colors. That is, some pages had two colors -- blue for the lines of the journal, and black for the type; others also had yellow. Some pages of the original were not suitable for this technique and were either eliminated or substituted, using material that I either created especially or took from other journals. The result was an adaptation rather than a full facsimile. In any case, it was my work and my work alone. I closely supervised the camera work for the negatives, and I watched each signature come off the press, although I didn't physically operate it, as it was a large two-color offset press that took a crew to run.

My idea was to make a book that could not be edited. I thought that all I had to do was to create a proof edition and some publisher would pick it up and commercialize it. Oops. I succeeded so well that I created a book that could not be published at the time. Things have eased up a bit nowadays and I may be able finally to see this book in a bookstore, as it is no longer quite the novelty it once was. There are some publishers who are bring what I might call auteur books to the trade distribution system. That's what the essay I am working on will be about.

After this initial defeat, however, I began thinking about a book that could be edited, even savagely edited, and still remain an integrated work of art and literature. In 1968, my mother wanted to meet Candida Donadio, then my literary agent, who was kind enough to invite us to dinner. Jonathan Cape and Allen Ginsberg were there for cocktails. Before they left, my mother raised her arms over Allen and blessed him: "Allen, I wish for you what you wish for yourself." She had no idea who he was. When she told her well-educated suburban nieces and nephews about this later they were astounded that she had met the great man. On the way out, Allen said to me, "Be diligent! Be diligent!" I wish I'd listened.

After they left, we sat down to dinner. I noticed that all the table settings were different. Nothing matched. All the pieces shared a common taste, but they weren't a set. With a sense of foreboding, I said, "Candida, none of these things match." She replied, "That's right. They aren't table settings. They are my life." And then she explained how she had purchased her first silver spoon when she was twelve years old. My life changed on the spot. I realized that everything in my life came in sets. I had matched dishes, silverware, clothing, books, furniture. Everything fit. When a dish was chipped, I felt heartbroken because now the set was not perfect, and I hurried to get a replacement.

During the following weeks, I also saw that my writing was a set. There was a master sentence that I was matching in my head. I measured each sentence that I wrote against it. Every story was composed of matching sentences that matched a master story pattern as well. I realized that I found it so hard to write because I was trying to get the voice in my head to match this invisible master template. It took me a long time to unlearn all those dramatic tricks of the trade entirely.

Ultimately, I realized that the concept of the matched set was essentially a construct of consumerism. I am not going to bore you with the full Talmudic disquisition. I think you can see how it would tend to increase consumption. You can also speculate on the anal need for uniform turds, for the relentlessly measuring superego clock, but ultimately you come to the assembly line and everything it implies -- the rack.

I saw that Ibsen's well-made play was just another artifact of this process. I no longer wanted to write well-made stories. To be honest, I couldn't write them any more. I could no longer turn out a story on demand. I had to grow my writings from the events of my life (or what I observed as a journalist) and tell them the way I would tell them in conversation. Anything else was artificial. Worse, it was phony. The concept of the plot is a dramatic device that, to me, is a cheap trick to keep people on the edge of their seats. We are taught that life is a story with a plot and a beginning and a middle and an ending. Even the psychoanalyst tries to see the patient's life as a story with a plot. There is no plot. You're born. You live. You die. Along the way, things happen that make you laugh and make you cry. That's what my work is all about.

In the years that followed, I worked on assembling collections of text and illustrations in which no single element was crucial, although some, obviously, were much more important than others because they were story anchor points. They are like holograms. You can chop them up and the all fragments each still contain some part of the basic gestalt. I presumed that editors want to edit. I gave them lots of raw material to work with. I was also able to restore important material that had been cut from previously published stories, whether for space or policy considerations. I consider my method architectural rather than literary in the conventional sense. My stories are like rooms in a house. They have entrances and exits, yet their elements don’t fit together like Euclidean arguments but rather like furnishings. Let’s say I’m an interior decorator of the mind. My main aim is to hypnotize the reader into a kind of dream-like state in which my subtitles point the way through a carefully painted trompe l’oeil labyrinth. By the end of the book, if I’ve succeeded, the reader has slipped across the borders of time into my fully developed world and feels what I feel. It doesn't matter if not all the doors open. Enough do.

This, too, failed, mostly because I succeeded so well. My work and my life are subversive in some very profound senses that pervade everything I produce. Eliminate the objectionable, and you're pretty much left with nothing. Editors admire -- indeed, love -- my work. I have rejection letters that read like acceptance because they are so full of compliments. But they are not publishable in the conventional distribution system for various political and technical reasons. For more than twenty years, I gave up writing for publication while I lived and worked in remote Mexican beach towns that were being developed in today's super resorts such as Cancun. Once I was able to obtain a computer and a laser printer, I embraced book art, creating my own books in every detail and selling them to friends, relatives and admirers who sought me out online. Then came print-on-demand, which enabled me to produce books that I could sell at prices that were accessible to many more people. I still make a book occasionally, but since my main interest is in what is on the page rather than the page itself, I am content with offering standard trade book formats rather than hand-crafted custom-made books.

You can read a bit more about this at http://www.madlaughter.com/digital.htm and see some eamples at http://www.madlaughter.com/ff and http://www.madlaughter.com/slides . My print-on-demand books are at http://stores.lulu.com/jules

Thanks for reading this far. If not, go to the top and begin again.

-- JULES SIEGEL Apdo. 1764, 77501-Cancun, Q. Roo, Mexico http://www.cafecancun.com/bookarts

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