Thursday, 5 July 2007

Gimmickry and publishing

To argue why the typo/graphic devices are more than (mere) gimmicks, I need to define what a gimmick is. Merriam-Webster online: "a: an important feature that is not immediately apparent b: an ingenious and usually new scheme or angle c: a trick or device used to attract business or attention gimmick>" (see my post: "this is not a threat" for another definition that is more negative in tone)

So the definition is not necessarily negative, except in 'c' where it is described as a 'trick' (playful at best, deceptive at worst). The negativity associated with the term 'gimmick' in the context I'm talking about – fictional literature – comes from a value judgment about language over image: the perceived 'hegemony' of word over image. Literature is highbrow, but advertising (associated with gimmickry) is lowbrow. So these visual 'gimmicks' or 'tricks' are criticised because they are perceived of as 'hype' - included as marketing hooks (conversation starters?) rather than for their literary merit.

To show where I'm getting the issue of 'gimmickry' from:

Steven Hall: "these storytelling techniques are still considered 'experimental' or even worse, 'gimmicky' in some book circles; whereas in art you can sit in a gallery with a dead lobster on your head for a week without fear of being accused of either."

From Khan, Design Week: According to Safran Foer, the use of images in novels is 'still considered to be a gimmick or some expression of the failure of language'.

Arguing for the inclusion of images, from an interview with Gabe Hudson in the Village Voice:
"It's a shame that people consider the use of images in a novel to be experimental or brave. No one would say that the use of type in a painting is experimental or brave. Literature has been more protective of its borders than any other art form -- too protective. Jay-Z samples from Annie -- one of the least likely combinations imaginable-and it changes music. What if novelists were as willing to borrow?"

CRITICS: (I've only cataloged Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close so far)

Myers in an article called 'A tired bag of tricks' says: "What may hurt the book even with its intended audience arc the various diversions that both writer and publisher seem to have thought would constitute a selling point...After a while the gimmickry starts to remind one of a clown frantically yanking toys out of his sack: a fatal image."

Upchurch subtitles his review 'Gimmicks drown out power, poignancy'

Greer: "Oskar's grandfather's letters are the most gimmicky in the novel...He never really comes alive, and is perhaps the one major person in the book that is more a metaphor than a fleshed-out character."

Updike: "But, over all, the book’s hyperactive visual surface covers up a certain hollow monotony in its verbal drama. "

Robert J. Hughes: "The novel's ramblings and gimmicks are meager representations of catastrophe and often badly out of key. The end of the book features a stunt -- a short flip-book of photographs with a body falling upward to a World Trade Center tower, as if we could turn back the clock. We can't, of course, but we already knew that. It is fairly offensive to see a novelist co-opt such an indelible image of desperation and death for such a trite purpose. Whimsy and terrorist tragedy do not add up, at least in Mr. Foer's hands.

Jonathan Raymond, Artforum: Impressively, the book's bells and whistles actually feel appropriate to its larger meaning, rather than coming across as mere gimmickry.

How many of these authors have websites/blogs? Almost all of the contemporary (last 5 years) I've looked at do. Steven Hall was actively involved in the marketing strategies of his book (TBS interview?), Mark Danielewski released parts of House of Leaves on the Internet pre-publication. The contemporary novel is embedded in a marketing culture, and, more broadly, what Mitchell etc describe as an age characterised by a 'pictoral turn' – how does this context effect the content of contemporary fiction?


digshot said...

I have to say, though I like what Steven Hall says on the subject (especially in that Open Book interview), I don't think the visual devices in the Raw Shark Texts are that successful. In fact, I think they err on the 'gimmicky' side. Can't help but thinking that the flick-book element - the approaching ludovician - is what's got it so much coverage and foreign sales...

But then I didn't like the book at all.

Zoe said...

Steven Hall was very actively involved in the marketing of his book, I think he is a writer highly conscious of the necessity of marketing to make sales. I'm re-reading the book now and will write up the 'flip book' element to our More Than Words blog soon...

Anonymous said...

G'day Zoe,

This is interesting stuff. I like the word 'gimmicky'. I don't think it's a bad thing if graphic techniques are sometimes considered gimmicky, in that they do usually fit at least one of the definitions you quoted. Most of the time it's probably a matter of opinion, don't you reckon? But i spose its a problem if readers and reviewers start to automatically dismiss work if it uses graphic devices, resorting to the more negative side of 'gimmick'. Obviously this may be merited sometimes and not in other cases, so it still depends on how well it's done. With the Foer book it works quite well i reckon but that's just an opinion. I can see where the snooty reviewers are coming from too. It may or may not be a better book without the add-ons but it would certainly be a different book.

The comments you quoted are pretty funny. i suppose they can't mean to be taken too seriously - like the bloke who claims that sitting in an art gallery with a lobster on your head for a week would not be perceived as experimental or gimmicky. Has he been to any galleries where this has happened and the lobster-wearer was being taken seriously?

The serious point he seems to be getting at is that art galleries have established themselves as places that are much more comfortable with routine experimentation of form than the pages of a book, which is a good point. You might see the lobster as a gimmick, good or bad, in a gallery. But if said event was taking place in the federal court then the artist could be expected to be treated with even more derision.

I spose the value of a gimmick can be determined by its contribution to the quality of the art or book. Once upon a time, writing a book from the point of view of a small child could be seen as a pretty cute and silly gimmick. Now it's a pretty standard way of doing business, even sometimes passe. The kind of experimental graphics being seen now in books are relatively new (even though there are historic examples), so they will have to wear the inevitable skepticism i spose.

Like those new-fangled labour-saving appliances that emerged in the 40's and 50's, accompanied by many jokes abt how you spent more time fixing them than having your time saved by them. But toasters, washing machines et al are no longer a joke: they have stealthily infiltrated millions of homes, as unnoticed as the linen press in the corner used to be.

Its also a good question about the degree that book content is affected if the authors get too interested in the marketing of their books. I suppose the main thing would be that they might want to write books that are easier to design or sell, which would turn them from primarily literature into primarily an object for sale i spose. Anyway, it could change the writer's objective, which may or may not be a bad thing, but it sounds bad to me. What do you reckon?

Hope the research is going well,


Zoe said...

Hi Ben,
I think the word gimmicky is highly problematic because it highlights one of the issues driving my research - that these visual devices are being dismissed outright as marketing fluff rather than considered for the affective impact they may have on the text. The main argument seems to be 'you could have told the story without the pictures'. But you could argue that equally for 'visual language' (metaphor, descriptive writing, etc) as actual images. I can relate the plot of a book to you, but I cannot impart the experience of reading it, what's magic about the story is the way it's told. Having said that, yes, there are times when I think the visual devices are gimmicky: when they fail to contribute to the experience of absorbing the narrative, but then, there are a lot of writers who can't write descriptive language like Dickens. So in some way, yes, it's always a matter of opinion, but my argument is that if people had access to a language they could use to evaluate these graphic elements, perhaps they wouldn't dismiss them so quickly. You refer to Safran Foer's devices as "add-ons", which is exactly the lack of language that I'm talking about. I think he uses graphic devices in a manner intrinsic to the text - they are embedded as affective devices, not "added-on"as illustrative after-thoughts.

I think the lobster quote was very tongue in cheek. He has a cat in the book called "Ian" - it's a Douglas Adams kind of British humour that doesn't always translate well in a pull-quote. But the point he's making is one that many authors make - no one gets fussed if painters incorporate text in their art, but if writers incorporate images there's a violent reaction. But then, read the previous post about Postmodern fiction ... the complain is not just about images but about the way new writers are treating the novel. It's the tip of an iceberg, and I'm only looking at the little drop of water that is trying to find a way to talk about the graphic devices in these novels in a language that will allow people to evaluate them for themselves.

Thanks for reading and giving feedback, always appreciated. z

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