Conflicting Emotobooks?

Somebody get me an emotobook, stat. I need to figure these things out.

There’s been a steady background buzz/chatter, via the usual social network suspects, regarding emotobooks for about a week now. I looked into them about a minute ago.

Near as I can tell, an emotobook is a book created for consumption on digital platforms, with a text injected with pieces of abstract visual art. That art is meant to evoke a certain mood or feeling being experienced by the characters, thereby bringing a new level of emotional involvement to its readers.

Color me socked in the stomach. Is this a new evolution of the book, a new bridge in the gap between unillustrated texts and graphic novels? Is the writing/illustration a collaborative effort? What is the quality of the writing and is it possible for writers to create a piece that doesn’t wind up leaning on the ability of painting/artwork to provoke emotions? What does this mean for the commercial future of painting as an art form? Is using abstract art to evoke emotion in the service of the written word a new thing, or is this just an updating of the classical idea of illustration? Knowing how some authors have had negative reactions to having their works illustrated, what is the level of interaction between author and artist, here, and what will it become if emotobooks take hold as more than as passing fad? If an editor feels a writer needs “help” pulling an emotional reaction from their audience, will the decision be to make the writing more resilient and communicative, or to throw in a graphic that “nudges” the reader in the right direction?

Anticipating the answer to that last question makes me a little nervous, particularly in light of my feelings on the quality of writing in some recent bestsellers. At the same time…it’s an exciting idea, if executed well, and potentially opens reading up to much larger audiences. While my gut frets, “What about the ghettoization of unillustrated fiction?!” my mind replies, “Don’t be an idiot, art is not a zero-sum game.” So for now, I’m going to tell my gut to shut its big mouth, and see where emotobooks take us.

On the reader’s side, I’ve only heard good things about the experience of reading in this form, and I’m glad of that. Mostly, people are talking about the emotobooks making it possible for them to connect with what they’re reading to a degree they hadn’t quite understood before. A new way to open up the classics? I’m in.

Think about it: haven’t you ever had the experience of watching a movie, and that making it easier to get through a classic work of literature? I wouldn’t have been able to make my way through Jane Austen (who I grew to adore) if I hadn’t had the six-part BBC miniseries to help me learn how to read them to hand. But some writers don’t lend themselves (in my experience) to quite the same kind of graphic dissection. I’ve got about a hundred pounds’ worth of books by Russian writers, and as many times as I try, I can’t get into them.

Maybe I’m reading crap translations. But maybe having some emotionally evocative visual art inserted into “Crime and Punishment” would help me – and other readers – follow along.

5 responses to “Conflicting Emotobooks?

  1. I think it could be an interesting use of digital books, but I’m wary of anything that describes itself as emotional or thought-provoking. I looked at some of the images, and some, I feel are ok, others…

    Another problem is that the images are abstract. You getting into Jane Austen via a visual representation of the story is different, and I totally agree that it is a way that I’ve entered into texts I initially found either dense or boring. I don’t think an emotobook would have that effect on me, and I imagine I would feel it very contrived. And I believe your nervousness about it being a stand-in to basically tell the reader how to feel at a given time is how it is going to work, either that or take you completely outside of the experience of reading.

    On the other hand, I do applaud that press for doing something to collaborate between visual and language arts. Have you heard of Jaded Ibis Press? Here’s their website: I think they are doing something, not exactly similar, but close. Here the books are collaborations, and meant to be artifact as much as an experience of a text. And while I still think there’s the danger of contrivance, there’s not the whole using an abstract image as a visual representation of an abstract emotion the writer thinks the reader should feel vibe to it.

    I’d actually prefer just straight up illustrations. But then again, I’m a comic nerd.

    • Rachel / @girl_onthego

      There’s a short story by China Mieville in this week’s New Yorker that talks about seminal influences in creating someone who enjoys science fiction and fantasy and one of the works he mentions apparently weaves words in and around illustrations. I think I agree with you, really – if it’s an illuminated manuscript where each part of the text is supporting the rest (and here I would count the illumination/illustration as text) then that’s one thing, but the way this looks is like the illos are being dropped in.

      That Jaded Ibis link is quite cool – but they also seem to be focusing on the text first, then the art. And I think you hit on it in the last line – “using an abstract image as a visual representation of an abstract emotion the writer thinks the reader should feel”. Actually, one of my earlier blogs on self-pubbing was about how important how the audience is feeling is to how an author gauges their success.

      How does it work in comics? Are there different models, or does the artist usually support the writer, or vice-versa, or are they truly collaborative?

      • The biggest difference in comics, I feel, is that the images are representational even at their most experimental. The collaboration ratio varies from creative team to creative team, but sometimes the writer dictates all of the images (Alan Moore) and sometimes the artist draws stuff and the writer fills in the captions (the old Marvel model with Stan Lee). Most of the rest of comics is somewhere in between.

        In comics, though, the premise is the interaction between visual representation and written story/dialogue. I don’t think the abstract illustrations that try to nudge will actually create an interesting tension b/n writing and visuals (though I’m not ruling out that it is possible). Also, it sort of limits an experience of abstract art as well, by confining it to a type of representationality that’s impossible to maintain, i.e. these squiggles now purport to mean sadness and horror, but if they were out of the context of the language, they could really mean anything (within parameters of abstract art traditions or not). In the end, I just think that it’s too easy.

        Re: authors gauging success by audience emotional response. I agree, but I don’t believe that emotional response should be forced, and here I feel that there is a borderline between adding an interesting layer to a text (that could add emotional tension or rich allusion or some other type of parataxis that’s useful) and being contrived (forcing the abstract visuals into meaning, forcing the reader outside of the experience of the text, having the emotion come from an abstraction (even a visual one) rather than an organic narrative device).

        This, of course, is all speculation, because I’m basing my opinions on the sample, the copywriting, and the gallery all on the website.

        I *love* illuminated manuscripts. I think that shit is AWESOME. I have some killer photos I took of the Nuremberg Chronicle at Cornell. They crazily let me handle the book alone. (!!)

  2. I’m not sure I like any genre telling me that they will make me feel more emotional than another. I read “The Outsiders” as a teen and cried harder than I ever had in my life. Saw the film and nothing. The magic of the book wasn’t there for me. You don’t need any one thing to create emotion, you just need to know how to do it.

    My guess is that since some people are visual, auditory, tactile, etc., the experience will be different for everyone based upon how they best consume their entertainment.

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