Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Death of the Reader

I found these essays by Shaun Tan today. The first in particular interested me - his answer to the uneasy question, who are your books for? Shaun Tan writes very strange and very beautiful illustrated books that deal with sophisticated and sometimes quite uncomfortable material. Books that I would really be willing to look at with a child/adult of any age, though for some younger children (around Fred's age) I would want to help guide them through, help them articulate their interpretations of the more complex images and themes the books deal with (like depression).

There is a common preconception that picture books are for a children, often preliterate, where the pictures act as a guide, signposts with which to interpret the text. I would even say there tends to be an implicit devaluing of images, that a binary code exists here where text is of a greater significance than picture. I think some people would probably even think Shaun Tan was irresponsible dealing with adult themes and ideas in this form. Others would be confused, not knowing where the book should be in the library or the bookshop, not sure where to physically place a picture book for older readers (as if the two ideas are mutually exclusive).

When I was seventeen I used to buy picture books (at least in part to satisfy my urge to surround myself with beautiful things). There were a few special offerings for adults. Remember Griffin and Sabine? There was a beautiful book by Patrick Suskind (who also wrote the amazing book Perfume) called The Story of Mr Sommer. It was around this time I discovered The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery and even Jonathon Livingston Seagull (I seem to remember it had photographic illustrations in it) by Richard Bach. But it was kid's books mostly that I had to turn to to fulfil this desire for illustrated texts. I reacquainted myself with illustrated kid's novels like the Winnie the Pooh books (which are much funnier when you're an adult than when you're a kid) and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - you can read the full text online here and look at the marvellous Tenniel illustrations, which is like being hit in the head with a nostalgia sledgehammer. I also bought picture books, intended for children, but so deeply layered, so rich in complexity that they seemed to speak directly to me, as if they had been hand crafted to suit my own needs and desires aas a reader. Books like Window (which is textless) and The Idle Bear by Robert Ingpen. What was I looking for in the relationship between text and image that I couldn't find in other forms of media (though it was about this time I really discovered watching foreign, subtitled films - another relationship between the image and the written word - perhaps not a coincidence)? I certainly never wondered if I was the intended audience or not, I was able to engage with these texts despite any notion of audience that may have been considered in the making of them. I am not an illustrator (nor would I even consider myself an essentially visual person. I tend to remember actors by the sound of their voice - if I'm trying to place someone I always close my eyes). And yet at this particular stage in my development as a reader/writer/adult there was something vital about the images for me, about partnering the written word with illustration.

Now I have a three year old we have the challenge of finding picture books that I can read again and again, that lend themselves to the kind of quiet contemplation we seem to achieve mostly in our evening story sessions, that offer the kind of illustrations that can be read and reread. In addition, Frederique will often "read" her picture books without an adult, the words become superfluous (a disconcerting thought for someone who plies her trade in words) and the narrative is entirely absorbed through the illustration. Actually, to be accurate, the words are not entirely superfluous - remembered fragments are applied to the images, Fred tries to sew language and image together with her own sparkling needle and thread. Many of the books we read are ones I acquired as a teenager.

This notion of audience is already complex. A three year old, a parent, an eighteen year old all looking at the same book for a reflection of themselves, to help them describe and interpret the vastly different worlds each of them inhabit. And this is just in our house, between two of its members. It doesn't factor in Martin (with his own experiences of childhood, books, images and reading) or Una, a one year old with her own multiple ways of looking. It doesn't factor in the other households of readers, or the Infinite Reader each of us is, as we change and grow and re-engage with material read over and over but each time anew as we change and grow. (Though personally I also believe in comfort reading, in trying to recapture a time and place and feeling through multiple readings. I think there is a point where words can stop meaning themselves and become more abstract, like music, if you don't believe me try reading the same picture book aloud ten times a day for many months in a row. I don't think this belies the Infinite Reader but it suggests a desire to deny infinity and difference, the relentless passage of time, and instead seeking sameness and return, a desire to capture a frozen time and place within the covers of a book, where things are predictable and familiar. I comfort Fred with some books, we point to the same things on every page, even my lilting intonations and rhythms are the same. These are the books she returns to, when she is sick or tired or sad. In one book part of the text has been torn out and yet I read anyway, as if it is still there, the sameness of the words heals the gaping wound of the book.)

The upshot of all this hard thinking my brain has been doing is that it can be hard as a writer NOT to think about your audience, it's also hard not to think about a contracted book as object rather than the process of the art. I start thinking I'm writing Rise for the people who have read Undine and Breathe (and I do genuinely care about these people), but really I am writing Rise for Undine herself, to fully realise her world, her experiences. (And I am also writing Undine for 17 year old me, who I know would have loved her). It is easy to read reviews and talk to friends and family and feel swayed by their own frustrated desires for Undine, their own ideas about where she should go and what should become of her. It is hard to walk away from other people's good intentions (for example I've had people with their own troubled relations with their parents scold me for letting Prospero off the hook so easily) but in the end I can't write anyone's novel but my own. I don't always know what's going to happen next but sometimes I think it's because Undine and Trout haven't told me yet. As hard as it not to think about my audience, I owe it to my audience to forget them, to burn effigies of them (to enact the death of the reader instead of the Author) because there is no one Reader only multiple readers, and who knows who they are, or who they will become.


  1. I know exactly what you mean about "comfort reading". I have many comfort novels and a few picture books that I will get out, like Fred, when I am sad or tired or sick. They are often either relics of my actual childhood (like Bridge To Terabithia - which almost makes me tear up just thinking about it) or describe some kind of instant nostalgia world, like The Peppermint Pig, which I discovered (thanks to YOU Pen I believe) as an adult. There is a distinct trend towards returning to some sense of childhood, be it something idyllic, or oddly enough, my other genre of fascination in teen fiction, the post-apocalyptic world. Those stories (like Children of the Dust) give me hope... life after destruction, a nice sentiment for a child grown-up under a vague and hazy threat of nuclear arms. Nomatter what your motivation, reading is a wonderful thing!

  2. Reading is almost the closest thing these days I get to feeling like a kid again. When you get entirely absorbed in a book and the outside world shuts down, I could be any age, any me again.
    Yay Bridge to Teribithia. I love that book.