Saturday, November 7, 2009

Zoë Sadokierski

Last year I met Zoë Sadokierski to discuss how the illustrations and design of my first book, Pistols! Treason! Murder!, might relate to Zoë's research for her Ph.D. thesis. Zoë is also a freelance book designer. In particular, she has worked on several titles in Allen & Unwin's new graphic novel imprint, notably Nikki Greenberg's adapation of The Great Gatsby. It was through Zoë that I first met Erica Wagner, the publisher at Allen & Unwin who eventally bought my novel Five Wounds, on which Zoe is - of course - the designer.

On her blog, Zoë explains that:

Books that use graphic elements as a literary device are not a new phenomenon: ... In fact, it could be easily argued that historically, books have been more heavily illustrated than they are today. However, these illustrations have generally been decorative embellishments, rather than conscious interruptions, to the written text. By contrast, Zoë is interested in books that use photographs, illustrations, diagrams, experimental typography. .... in a manner intrinsic to the writing; where the visual does something more than simply reflecting the text.

How does the use of graphic elements affect book production? Zoë explains:

There are designers who write, just as there are writers who design and illustrate. Generally, these people are the exception to the rule rather than the norm. I don’t think merging the two disciplines is a realistic future. I think it’s collaboration. To explore this narrative style in a way that won’t render it a passing trend, writers and book composers (to borrow El Lissitzky’s term) need to reconsider their relationships.

If it’s appropriate for a novel to include graphic elements for narrative, rather than decorative purposes, the writer and the book composer must consider the book’s graphic elements from the initial stages of the process, rather than cake decorating a manuscript once it has cooled. In the tradition of literary pairings from Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake to Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman, I think writers and book composers need to develop closer working relationships; they need to understand the way each other work and think. It’s something that graphic novel writers and illustrators do well.

Parenthetically, it is deeply dispiriting that the area of publishing where a total absence of 'closer working relationships' is most glaringly apparent is that of mainstream photography books, where the authors of forewords and introductions often make no reference whatsoever to the images contained within, or, if they do so, discuss them in a manner so crude and reductive that one wishes they had kept silent (some negative examples are discussed here). This is a problem with the incompetent incorporation of text into a predominatly visual presentation rather than the other way around; but the consequences of this failure to conceptualise (that is: to design) the entire book as an integrated whole are even more catastrophic.

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