Literature as a visual medium

I guess I’ve been gearing steadily towards this idea although I was yet to phrase it as such. I find the easiest books for me to read are usually the most ‘visual’. This is the sort of topic that would be great for an honours project or something, although I haven’t yet looked into the academic field to see if many people have written on this subject. Then there’s the matter of discussing to academic standards (which is as dry and static as they get) about this concept of ‘the visual’.

It’s no secret that I love books. I’m constantly buying them and I’m constantly reading them. I’m constantly trying to write them too. But my reading habits tend to be very erratic. Up until recently, I couldn’t really decipher why. Usually, the length of a book and its content factors heavily on if/when I will finish reading it. What can I say? I have to be ‘in the mood’ to read certain types of books.

I grew up reading a bit of a mixed bag of genres and styles. After the children’s stories, the Roald Dahl type stuff, I read things like John Marsden’s Tomorrow Series and the Harry Potter Series and Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. A fair amount of fantasy and action. Not a lot of realist fiction. I think there were a couple of realist young adult books, but they were never my favourites.

No, I was always fascinated by books about big dramatic things that stimulate the imagination and provide a spectacle of visual phenomenon. Text that describes so vivid the things that would be visually impressive in film, but without the need for film, without the grandeur of cinematic special effects. Primarily, these things belong in the wider category of ‘speculative’ fiction. Because the act of speculation itself is to think independently of and engage with the text you are consuming. The world of the speculative is not just a representation of a fictional reality, but rather it is its own reality which requires the reader to bring their own understanding to the text. They carve the world out of their own inferences and imagination.

Stuff like the Tomorrow Series, you still get it set in the fictional real world, but it’s a real world that pivots on the hypothetical (what if Australia were invaded and our freedom were under serious threat?) that launches the story into a drastically unfamiliar setting that is somehow the same place but different (the concept of ‘the uncanny’). Here, we are still required to stretch the imagination to paint the mental image of this world of the divided Australia.

I’ve always struggled with sci-fi or fantasy novels that were ridiculously long. Even an average long novel becomes challenging. Books have become like films to me. Best consumed in a short time frame to maintain a maximum impact from the visual spectacle of the book. Sure, the visual can function in a variety of ways, as with the Lord of the Rings representing an immaculately crafted fantasy world that is rich in culture and history. It is far more detailed than most films need to be. It is an image to be consumed over a considerable amount of time, and I just haven’t had the patience for it. I want to be dropped right in the middle of the action and I want to be entertained.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of bizarro fiction, which usually doesn’t push past 250-300 pages, as well as a lot of graphic novels and manga. Well, my initial response to literature is a visual one, then it would appear graphic novels and manga are obvious choices. It’s the sort of mid-way point between novel and film. A storyboard that’s supposed to be consumed ‘as is’. And by all means, I love it. It’s presented as static images, yet at the height of the action, there is a remarkable amount of movement. The combination of dialogue and artwork bring a visual immediacy to literature which is almost inaccessible to the standard novel. But on the counter-argument, having the visual right there means that there is less for the reader to imagine and to reconstruct in their own mind, which I think also forms a large part of the pleasure of reading fiction.

Why I’ve been thinking about this lately is that I’ve been watching a lot of films and TV shows and thinking “ok, how can I capture that in text? How can I write something so that they’ll read it and see that?” So as a writer, it becomes an issue of trying to get the reader to see in their head what I see in mine. And of course, how it is with the speculative, subjectivity, and the death of the author, no one is ever going to see my writing as I see it. It’s just not possible.

I’ve been looking at various genres at play, and how the aesthetics mould the world, both in literature and film, and how they project the setting as a space for the visual to occur, for the action and entertainment. Stuff like Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, they’ve got that strong sense of visual stimulation, that you don’t need to see it, you can just read it and form those images from films, images, other texts that inform your own knowledge of those genres.

Last year I wrote a story about ice-popsicle creatures living on a giant’s back. Now, I’m going back to it, and I visualised it like this. It changes my approach entirely. Being able to visualise it means that it’s easier to describe it, which means it’s easier to plot it out and write the damned thing. It also means that (theoretically) it should be easier to read. Well, for people like me, it should be easier to read.

Now, it’s easy to get wrapped up in genre and the visual components of literature, but I’m saying all of this in addition to a writer’s ability to formulate attractive prose. Good writing, good visual storytelling, and there’s a good chance I’ll be really into it. If it’s good visually, but kind of mediocre writing, I’m usually pretty cool with it. Even good writing with so-so visuals can sometimes hold up. But when stuff becomes entirely hinged upon the writing, with no regard for conceptualising it, I struggle. Just like a film that’s all special effects with no substance. It just feels hollow. That’s my problem with academic writing in a nutshell. It’s hardly ever engaging and visually stimulating, which makes theories harder to conceptualise. It’s been difficult with stuff like literary and cultural studies, especially since it’s so broad and often quite vague, to grasp theories and latch onto the ideas of specific theorists, without first having a text or case study to anchor it to, which is the case most of the time with ‘old school’ theorists writing in the field of semiotics or postmodernism or stuff like that. So I can only do the whole conceptual/visualisation thing of the theories in practice after I’ve read all their long-winded essays.

It’s kind of like those epic science fiction/fantasy novels that take ages to build momentum. It usually takes me a few tries to get through them, but when I do it’s usually pretty rewarding. I just wish sometimes I could read longer books as easily as I do shorter ones (as in, not having month long gaps between starting and finishing. My third year at uni and the cultural theory is slowly starting to sink in. If only academia were more visually stimulating.

Oh well, I guess this can be taken as a long winded, visually lacking (unless you consider my narrator-as-character persona to be particularly visual) rant on how I only have the attention span for short, entertaining, fast-paced books.

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