Testimonial of an ink-stained scribbler at the digital crossroads, 2: Decisions, decisions! Should I add pictures to my text in a travel book?
A writer who isn’t personally negotiating the transition from print to digital publishing has no idea of the dimensions of its strangeness. Nor does almost anyone else. Last week, I described the experience — to expensively educated non-writers — as travelling in a car you have had to design yourself, from guesswork. But that isn’t all. It is a car that you must keep re-building on your journey — from glitchy, off-the-shelf components.
Nothing in the set of tools you use is stable. Already, some digital tools that print people still think of as new are being spoken of as nearly obsolete. Cognoscenti of the likes of the financial journalist Felix Salmon are saying, in online conversations: ‘[Y]ou and I still spend … time clicking links on computers. But a whole new generation is growing up which doesn’t use computers and web browsers nearly as much.’
In this screaming blizzard of change and experimentation, for those of us working online, a travel writer is apt to wonder — what would the genre’s legendary practitioners have done? Would Wilfred Thesiger, Freya Stark, Rebecca West, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, V.S. Naipaul or Paul Theroux have interwoven paragraphs and pictures – using photographs they took on their journeys – if this had been easy to do?
I have a hunch that the last four authors on that list, who are still alive, would strongly advise against doing so. In writing an account of a journey for anything but go-see tourist guides, you are creating a sequence of images that has to come alive in a reader’s head. This happens as your reader interprets your words, combining her or his own imaginative visualisations and personal memories. With concentration, these become more vivid. When a text is visually rich, images add colour and feeling to acquiring information, and being amused, intrigued, saddened, and so on, by language. Surely, adding photographs would mean not merely distraction from — but derailing — deepening engagement?
We know that we use different parts of our brains to look at pictures and read. Would forcing more frequent switching between them be desirable?
I typed questions from this stream of dilemmas into Google. Almost the first page to come up was on a meditative, beautiful site — Vertigo, whose special interest is in the works of W.G. Sebald, an intriguing, idiosyncratic German novelist – emphatically modernist and experimental, who died in 2001. He made a habit of inserting black-and-white photographs – many of them mysterious and blurry – into work that was ‘part hybrid fiction, part memoir and part travelogue.’ The Vertigo blogger, Terry Pitts, posted this excerpt from a commentary on Sebald by Ivan Vladislavić (The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, Seagull Books, 2012):
The most compelling motive for including a photograph in a fiction is to discount it. … In Sebald, the images are cut down to size and drained of authority. … Their purpose is less to define than to disrupt, to create ripples and falls in the beguiling flow of the prose. They are pebbles and weirs.
But then, haven’t we all got used to unreliable, nonlinear narratives that undermine themselves – storytelling conditioned by the cinema’s jump cuts, splicing and scrambling of time and space? Borrowing these techniques has become unremarkable in prose, both fiction and nonfiction.
The only answer I could think of, in the end, was to yield to instinct. I decided that it would be best to publish my book as just a text, and the pictures separately, online. I chose a site that turned one, on its birthday earlier this month, to display them – Exposure.co, part of the Elepath group in San Francisco – almost on my first visit there. Its bold minimalist layout and other design choices, including generous expanses of white space, were instantly addictive. After days of witlessly typing variations of search terms like ‘blogging plus photography’ or ‘text plus pictures site,’ into search engines, there was suddenly a mention in The Verge of this gathering place for people with a special interest in photography.
One of Exposure’s two co-founders, Kyle Bragger, has explained that it grew out of the obsession of the other, Luke Beard: ‘A talented amateur photographer, he’s been wanting a way to build beautiful photo narratives for literally years.’
Though this venture has a social media dimension, I have – so far, in about six weeks – picked up no hint of cliquishness or coercion. It feels like a sandbox, genuinely open to all. Its subscription fees – for publishing on the site, not looking — start at less than I pay for a barista coffee and will, with luck, mean that its founders can keep their promise not to use hawking information about their users as their economic survival plan.
Do have a look – and buy the book at its throwaway price. Then — and this is most important of all — please improve on what I’ve tried to do with your own multimedia experiment. That shouldn’t be too hard.
Published here and on Medium.com,18 December 2014, Cheryll Barron