May 3, 2010

Ars Prosa 101 - Illustrations

Just as Ars Poetica deals with the nature of poetry, Ars Prosa aims to explore the nature of prose. In “Ars Prosa 101” I will present my ideas regarding certain literary devices employed in fiction, and perhaps offer some basic rules. These posts will be constantly reconsidered and revised, as I refine my judgments and come up with better examples, or new thoughts on the topic. I would also like readers to participate through the comments by voicing opinions or objections, which I may later incorporate into the post itself.

The use of illustrations in fiction isn't a recent invention, going back in its current form at least to the 18th century, with Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, (if you can think of an earlier example please let me know) where among countless asterisks, dashes, and blank or black pages, Sterne sketches some examples of the non-linear path necessary for a well-told story:

In this case I am only concerned with illustrations that constitute part of a narrative, usually in the form of sporadically used line drawings by the author, and not:
  • Typographical oddities, dingbats, Index fingers/fists, or artistically shaped paragraphs (i.e. Concrete Poetry like "The Mouse's Tale" in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland).
  • The glossy paper insets found in old hardcover novels that depict a colorful scene from the story, sometimes including a line of the narrative quoted at the bottom (these are generally an editorial, not an authorial, concern and often limited to books by writers who died long ago).
  • Illustrations found in graphic novels (no matter how crudely drawn).
Kurt Vonnegut employed illustrations in several of his novels, including Slaughterhouse Five, Hocus Pocus, and most extensively in Breakfast of Champions:

I think Vonnegut's illustrations are successful for three main reasons, which we can also use as the basic rules for the employment of illustrations in fiction:
  1. The Illustrations fit the content and tone of the narrative.
  2. The Illustrations do not require prolonged consideration and analysis, and therefore do not constitute a distraction from the story.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most meaningfully, the illustrations add something to the story which cannot be stated as clearly or as efficiently in words.
A good example of this last rule can be found in Jonathan Ames's collection of autobiographical essays, What's Not to Love?, where in an essay on his odd balding pattern he includes this helpful image:

In this case, explaining exactly what his hair looks like, or even attaching a photograph, would not be as informative (or illustrative) as the image above. I believe that all three rules should apply to justify the inclusion of an illustration in a work of fiction, particularly when this device is being misused and overused by so many contemporary writers, possibly following the example of Donald Barthelme who used a lot of old-timey drawings in his less interesting "illustrated stories," (collected in The Teachings of Don B.) and sometimes, for good measure, threw a few sketches or doodles into his better stories, as in the case of "Eugénie Grandet":

As with many literary devices, less is more, and so the best use of illustration is often the most sparing, e.g. Thomas Pynchon's single illustration of the muted trumpet symbol in The Crying of Lot 49:

Once again, you get a lot more from the image than from its description as, "a loop, triangle, and trapezoid."

Other novels which have used illustrations successfully include:

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