I’ve meant to write about Lindsay Hunter’s Daddy‘s for awhile, and for a lot of different reasons.
First and foremost, of course, I went to grad school with Lindsay (for about a year, I think) and I was excited to see that–after she relocated from Orlando to Chicago–she’d made a name for herself with a unique and gritty female-centered fiction, and she’d published her first book, a collection of (mostly) short fiction, with the inventive Chicago-based featherproof press. From a purely selfish standpoint, then, it was just fun to see someone I knew achieving real success in fiction writing and publishing…and aside from the easy access to signatures/ autographs, it’ll give me an opportunity to someday tell people that “I knew her way back when.” Looking forward to that.
But I’ve also wanted to write about Daddy‘s because it fits one of the main themes that I like to blog about: mixed-media fiction. featherproof press, as I mentioned above, is a creative publisher; take a look at their web site, and you’ll see that they truly see the book itself as an art form, not just a boring vehicle used to deliver text. They publish mini-books which require readers to print out the copy and literally craft the book themselves; they publish books which include mobiles; their covers are brilliant pieces of work, often piquing interest and making you consider adding unknown authors to your shopping cart without even reading a synopsis, a blurb, or an excerpt. I might be over-stating this, but I really think that featherproof is setting the standard for what small-press publishing should be. After all, if the publishing industry is encountering real conflict with the advent of e-readers and e-books, and consumers and publishers alike are questioning the value of print books, why not–if you believe in the value of print books–make them into something worthy of actually printing? No one would argue that digital photo frames should take the place of wall paintings, after all, and while mainstream publishers seem content with cutting their printing costs and transitioning their business model to highly profitable books that are made specifically for e-readers, featherproof is crafting books that are actually pieces of art that we want to hold in our hands, books made with real passion by people who truly value the Book itself.
Okay, so that’s featherproof. But what about Daddy’s? How does its format and structure fit into this concept/ philosophy? First, I should say that this is a book of short “traditional text” fiction that could have been enjoyed on its own. It doesn’t necessarily need any clever design elements, and many of the pieces were previously published (and successful) in both online and print journals. Hunter writes short fiction that rarely exceeds 2,500 words. It’s quick, and it’s often scary how quickly a character’s life (or decisions) can derail in these stories. It’s brutal and it’s honest, and it feels like the ultimate White Trash Story Collection, every piece bringing to mind double-wides and gravel driveways and piles of discarded McDonalds bags. I’ve heard Raymond Carver’s old minimalist approach described as “grunge fiction,” but trust me when I say this: you haven’t read truly “grungy” fiction until you’ve read Hunter.
But about the formatting: the wraparound cover of Daddy’s is an image of a tacklebox, with the front cover as the top (complete with handle) and the back cover the bottom. The spine is an image of the hinges, and each cover has a small flap that folds out so that you can literally hide the pages and carry this thing around like a paper version of a tacklebox. Bizarre, but super-cool. And throughout the book, the text is interspersed with highly stylized (and often resonant) images representing items from inside the tacklebox. Some are literal, some are metaphorical, and some are just surreal. Overall, it’s an interesting reading experience, the grungy fiction matched with such grungy graphics. In terms of mixed-media fiction, this is what I would call “narrative voice,” the use of extra-textual elements to complement the voice of the narration, to heighten the mood (see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime as another example of this), rather than a “hybrid” work, where we are supposed to view the images as some document or photograph that the characters are actually viewing, too.
The other interesting aspect of the Daddy’s layout: the entire book is printed on its end, much like a flipbook. There are no indentations, either, with white space breaks separating the paragraphs, and paragraphs themselves are rarely separated over two different pages. This gives the feeling of online text, which makes sense for the author and her work; Hunter has had a lot of success publishing in online journals and magazines.
The journal Diagram, though, recently published a negative review of Daddy’s and another featherproof book, arguing that they were failures because they seemed gimmicky and didn’t actually change the way that we read a book. And I do agree that the book doesn’t “change the way we read.” I’ll never say, “Man, I wish more books were printed this way!” The formatting changed the way that I read this one book, and I think that’s all that Hunter (and featherproof) was trying to do here. Their real argument (as a publishing company) seems to be this: each book is unique, and each book’s overall design and layout should be treated on a book-by-book basis. If the author is widely published online, and her style is gritty and rural, why not create a tacklebox book with online-style formatting? It makes the book into a piece of art that reflects the content.
In any case, this is an idea that I haven’t really explored much on this blog: how will we see mixed-media fiction change the shape and format of the books themselves? I’ve talked a great deal about how the addition of images and documents and graphics have changed individual stories, but aside from graphic novels, there are few fiction writers so ambitious that they want to transcend what we expect of the Book itself.
(And Lindsay: still need your sig, dude! Don’t think I’ll forget about this one.)