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Kristen French: Mixing Mediums–Fiction on Video

August 10, 2009

It may sound old-fashioned for our digital age, but literary fiction should be read or heard, not seen. In the last few years, book trailers have begun popping up on YouTube, Powell’s and Amazon for hundreds of books, among them recent works of well-received fiction, like Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story collection, Nocturnes. It’s not that fiction doesn’t lend itself to film, even if something is inevitably lost in most adaptations. But fiction, especially literary fiction, doesn’t yearn for multimedia representation the way, say, news stories do.

For novels, the layering on of pictures and sounds corrupts the flavor of the text. After all, one of the greatest pleasures of reading fiction is allowing your own experience to guide you, actively imagining the thinning line of a character’s mustache and what that reveals about his growing fastidiousness, or how a woman’s heels sound as they clack across the cold linoleum. You may recall a teacher you once had, or a friend’s overlit kitchen. These memories are your compass. The more you get lost in the book, the more present you are in it. It is a meeting of consciousnesses, a kind of ESP.

It’s hard not to compare the book trailer to its forebear, the film trailer. Film trailers are meant to be synecdoches for the real thing, teasers that pull pieces from the original to suggest a story line and draw you in. What you see is, at least to some degree, what you will get. Translating the actual experience of reading a book to video in this same way is impossible. You would have to hijack the viewer’s imagination, plug it in to some kind of digital feed to animate the action, breathe visual life into the individual characters and order the logic of their world.

Most of the fiction trailers try to get around this problem of the reader’s imagination by using shadowy figures and elemental animation, leaving a lot of room for interpretation. But the result is often just bland and obfuscating. Other trailers, like the one for John Wray’s Lowboy, engage in a referential trick–the video shows what appear to be random New Yorkers reading lines from the text as they ride the subway, where much of the action in Wray’s novel takes place. The novel’s text, the actual words, drive the video. And the drama is in the reading, the uncomfortable looks on the faces of subway riders. This kind of video doesn’t have the potential to haunt the novel the same way visually telling the story itself would.

I am certainly not against the intersection of technology and text. Books are beautiful objects, but if someone gave me a kindle, I would accept. I applaud a new literary magazine called Electric Literature, which launched in June, for its tech-smart model: all stories are available through the iPhone, Kindle, Amazon, or print on demand, and you can buy individual stories for iTunes-like prices–99 cents a piece. I love the silly online PDF Miranda July created to promote her short story collection, No one belongs here more than you. It quickly went viral on blogs when it came out in 2007. And I’m in favor of anything that would encourage more people to read more fiction. But I’m not convinced that book trailers will do that. When I recently asked a literary agent and editor about them, they looked at me blankly. The agent later told me that they were hailed as The Next Big Thing in book marketing a few years back, but that the buzz had died down. Maybe it’s simply that no one in the literary fiction world has the money for experimental marketing these days. Either way, I don’t think anything should interfere with the reader’s ability to conjure worlds from an author’s words.

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