Novelists use a bigger toolkit these days. The use of visual devices such as photos, maps, quirky type-setting, experimental layout and printed ephemera has given rise to a new narrative style. This is used sometimes to show readers what characters are seeing; sometimes to expand upon or to subvert the written text; but always to further immerse readers in the story.
This new type of book occupies a new space in the literary scene. It is somewhere between the traditional novel – a series of text blocks wrapped in a cover, barely seen as the reader escapes to the story beneath the surface – and that more modern thing, the graphic novel – an extended comic in book form. Increasingly, authors are using 'graphic interventions' to extend the written narrative, to bring the reader back to the surface – to then immerse them in a more visual way.
This is something different than traditional illustrated fiction, which obviously enjoys a long history. In the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and William Morris’ handmade books, nineteenth century book illustration and Surrealists' artists' books, visual elements have usually been decorative – or vignettes of the story. In the contemporary novels of Alisdair Gray, Dave Eggers, Douglas Coupland and Jonathon Safran Foer – among many others – the visual elements are an intrinsic part of the narrative. Removing them would alter the story. In these novels, images no longer merely reflect or illustrate the writing; they are part of the writing.
As part of postgraduate research conducted in opposite hemispheres, we want to investigate these narrative devices. We have noticed reviewers tend to focus on the written narrative – on character and plot, on familiar ground – when reviewing these books. The visual devices are more or less ignored. That, then, is the purpose of this blog: when a novel is more than words, we'll discuss the function of graphic interventions, and the interplay between word and image.