Illuminations and Illustrations; Videowriting for the future

One thing that always struck me as a bit odd in the Harry Potter movies is the moving illustrations of books and newspapers. Odd because, set in the present, there’s a sense in which the internet is already a great deal more magical than that. As things go, indeed, Harry Potter is peculiarly a-chronic, living in the modern world as if he’s never seen a computer. Still, those video books are, in some sense, a continuation and enhancement of the tradition of illuminated manuscript–great textual form of the world of Gothic witches and warlocks.

The attached video I got in my email today reminded me of this, one of many announcements about writing contests that I get as an English professor. This one came with a twist since it’s promoting the use of YouTube as a resource and as a media for creative writing. I checked out the details as much as I could–writing contests are famously cash-cows for journals, requiring entrants to pay anywhere from a 10 to 50 dollar reading fee for what ends up being a one in a thousand chance of being published. Not a con exactly; just a grim fact of how literary culture has to support itself in our society. This looks decently legit, and no fees that I can find.

I’m struck by two things I see here. One is the idea of YouTube as a medium for or at least an enhancement William Blake illuminated manuscriptto traditional creative writing. I’m not much taken by the idea of embedding text in video format–I’ve seen work like this before on the net in multi-media forms of poetry. Touted as an “interactive” form of reading that values the reader, this kind of thing really ends up wresting a lot of control from the reader by controlling how and when the reader will see the text the reader sees.

On the other hand, I am taken by the idea of embedding video in stories. In literary circles we’ve traditionally seen books as opposed to film in some respects, with film usually inferior. But books traditionally have made great use of visuals as supplements to the text. Illuminated manuscripts, of course, but also extensive illustrations in nineteenth century novels. Graphic novels, of course, subordinate the text to the visual, so it’s not quite the same animal, but at least you could say that the exclusively alphabetic text absent all illustration is mostly a 20th century phenomenon.

So I’m wondering how video might make room for an new kind of illuminated text. The video commenting on and enhancing the text rather than being a redaction of it–as occurs so often in films about novels. I’m not familiar with anything like this, so if someone knows about stuff for me to look at, I’d love to see it. Again, one of my pet topics; the visuality of books.

The other thing that strikes me in this is the way that internet culture is changing the culture of books in general. I’ve lamented in the past–and still do lament, to be honest–the ways in which computer culture is gradually fracturing and dispossessing the traditional sites of book culture. Places where readers Uncle Tom’s Beatinggather are increasingly becoming places where computer users gather, clicking away in their separate universes.

On the other hand, it is the case that the internet creates new cultures for readers–and not only in chat rooms and forums devoted to literature. In online book clubs I can chat with authors–at least I assume I can; I’m always wondering if it’s the author on the other end or a poorly paid graduate student doing her best to imitate the voice and interests of the latest author plugged by Barnes and Nobles. Online readings don’t yet substitute for readings in person, but I can imagine them becoming the norm. Already as a department chair I’m seeking the permission of authors to record their readings for replay on our web site. The Lunch Poetry series at UC Berkley is a good example of this on the web. I don’t think it substitutes for the great pleasure of gathering together with other readers, but who could complain that this kind of thing exists.

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