Mixed-Media Literature

Note: I’ll soon update this page with additional examples and descriptions.

Simply put, “mixed-media literature” refers to any piece of writing that utilizes additional mediums. Generally, this means that the traditional text will be joined by some new visual element, whether that be an additional document (letters, schedules, scripts) or changes in the design of the page or in the text (additional columns of text, font changes) or a piece of artwork (clip-art, comic panel, photograph). This isn’t a brand-new concept. Heck, magazines and newspapers have been employing a variety of mediums ever since their inception. But most forms of literature have stuck mainly to “traditional text”: most novels, memoirs, and essays generally rely upon the text alone to convey the message. And even when additional images or design elements come into play, it happens in non-intrusive ways (chapter breaks, or appendices). With the rise of mixed-media communication in our daily lives, however, and with the Millennial Generation growing so accustomed to constant mixed-media communication (from web sites with embedded images, to iPhone apps, to Powerpoint presentations, there are very few occasions when we ever see text standing alone anymore), I am interested in the ways that these mediums will manifest themselves in “traditional literature.” Where will we see web sites incorporated into novels, and facebook status updates incorporated into memoirs, and text messages incorporated into poetry? I ask “where” and not “when,” because quite simply, it is happening all around us…with greater and greater frequency.

On this page, I want to track some of the more prominent and successful examples of “mixed-media literature” to surface in the last few years. And to make my argument a bit more clear, I break apart the idea of mixed-media literature into three different categories. Really, every author determines to what extent he/she will actually break free of a single medium, so it’s a sliding scale and the author decides when to start and when to stop. But here are the three different ways we can view this type of literature: (1) narrative voice, (2) hybrid narratives, (3) graphic literature.

Narrative Voice:

This is the sort of story that incorporates other mediums into the narrative in an effort to better showcase the viewpoint/ worldview/ attitude of the narrator or protagonist. Sometimes, the font will change. Perhaps certain words will flash out in a different font type, size, or color. Sometimes, images will suddenly appear amidst all the text, or words will change direction. The author is looking to mimic the ways in which our reliance upon a constantly shifting landscape of mediums and technologies can influence our thinking, or even our actions. How does our use of hyperlinks change the way a certain character thinks? How does one character’s autism change the way he might tell a story?

Some examples that I’ve written about:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Breakfast of Champions

House of Leaves

Bad Habits: A Love Story

Hybrid Narratives:

A “hybrid narrative” feels much more loyal to traditional text as its primary medium, rather than shifting the font size or color, or suddenly devolving into AIM-speak or clip-art images, but it also recognizes that other mediums might be useful in telling the story. So a hybrid narrative will use other mediums as “textual artifacts,” perhaps in the same way that a lawyer will gather and show evidence during his/her argument, or a magazine/newspaper/textbook will create sidebars and edge-of-the-page figures to show charts or diagrams or statistics that do not fit so easily into the text. Hybrid narratives might include letters or emails or web pages, pasted onto the page as if the character has just picked it up and is currently reading it.

Some examples that I’ve written about:

Wolf Boy

House of Leaves (which actually incorporates elements of “narrative voice” and “hybrid narrative”)

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

I Just Want My Pants Back

Fatherland

Graphic Narratives:

A graphic narrative is a story told through a consistent combination of text and image, in which the image is the dominant medium, and the inter-relationship between text and image does not necessarily replicate the “narrative voice.” In other words, a cartoonist doesn’t necessarily draw Spider-Man as a comic book because Spider-Man views the world in comic panels; the cartoonist is an artist, so he works in comic panels that are complemented with text. And this doesn’t mean that text is unimportant to a cartoonist, just that it is not dominant as it would be in a traditional novel.

Usually when we hear “graphic narrative” or “graphic novel,” we are referring to the form of “comics” (panels of artwork, with word bubbles accompanying the drawings), but we could also be talking about photo-essays (a collection of photos, with accompanying captions), or a story told entirely through letters, or web site pages, or facebook status updates. This is different from the above concepts in that the graphic medium (whatever it might be) dominates and progresses the story, and that the author is consistent in how he/she teaches us how to read the graphic narrative. When we pick up a comic book, we don’t ever expect to suddenly come to a point where the artwork stops and we just get pages and pages of text (just as we don’t ever expect a movie to fade to black, and then rely only upon sound for the next hour and a half). The author decides upon a form, and sticks with it.

Some examples that I’ve written about:

Maus

Far more horrifying than it seems on first read, Spiegelman’s graphic novel is important on many levels: first, it tackles a subject (the Holocaust) that has been rendered many times before, and it does so with a fresh artistic perspective; second, it ties together both the tragedies of the Jewish parents and the frustrations of their children, giving a moving account of the Holocaust legacy throughout several generations; and finally, it establishes the power and literary merit of cartoons and comics.

In the years since its publication, it has become probably the most studied graphic novel in academia, and while it is by no means the only important “literary comic,” it is the sort of work that will eventually be canonized…a benchmark in American literary history.

Blankets

Persepolis

The Photographer

Watchmen

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2 responses to “Mixed-Media Literature

  1. Pingback: Daddy’s – Lindsay Hunter | The Library of America: Nathan Holic Collection

  2. Pingback: Mixed-Media Literature | Chris Michaels, Author

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