Is this some sort of new movement in the publishing world?
It was once said that fiction is an art, but apparently it hasn’t been said for a while. Words and illustrations have been kept apart everywhere but in the pages of picture books and graphic novels. Why does this matter any more now than it did ten years ago? Well, with the advent of photo blogs and an increasingly artistic approach to typography, the way we read and respond to the world has taken a turn for the visual. Enter Visual Editions: a pint-sized publishing house championing ‘visual writing’. This doesn’t mean that they’re a trumped up children’s publishers, but does mean that they embrace the practice of pictorial storytelling. So, yes, in a sense it is a new movement. It’s certainly unusual.
Have they done anything good?
Founded in 2009 they’ve released four books and one app to date. Their first publication traces visual writing all the way back to 1759 with Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Published in 2010 it became the 123rd edition of Sterne’s ground-breaking 18th century story. The book is an autobiography of Tristram Shandy, only it’s a mock-autobiography because Tristram didn’t really exist. Imagine a very early precursor to The Office, actually Tristram isn’t all that dissimilar to David Brent. He begins the story at his conception (some might conjecture that as a place to start this is slightly premature) and, in an impressive nine volumes, covers his birth, his accidental circumcision and his uncle Toby, amongst other things. What you need to know is that this book is essentially one long digression (no anecdote goes uninterrupted) and that this was pretty revolutionary for 1759. Sterne provides a useful diagram of the book’s trajectory (pictured) that might help you visualise how meandering the plot really is. (It’s exactly these sorts of pictorial reading aides that Visual Editions are keen to encourage.)
Why have I heard of Tristram Shandy, even if I know nothing about it/him?
If you haven’t heard of the book you might have heard of the 2005 Steve Coogan film, A Cock and Bull Story, which takes the impossibility of filming Tristram Shandy as its subject. It’s very funny. Trust us.
Who buys Visual Editions’ books?
Although none of Visual Editions’ titles have made it onto Oprah’s book group they have found a bit of a cult following. This might have something to do with their addictive quality. Each title comes with a number, VE1, VE2, VE3 (you get the idea) which means that the gaps in your collection are made pretty apparent. Without wanting to quote the famous Pokemon catchphrase, it’s very easy to fall prey to the idea that you’ve gotta catch ‘em all. Then again, it might have something to do with the cult authors they’ve worked with: Adam Thirlwell and Jonathan Safran Foer are the names to drop.
Who are these writers, and why do I need to know about them?
Adam Thirlwell went to Oxford and was the 2009 winner of the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award. His debut novel was called Politics (2003) but was really about sex. Johnathan Safran Foer is an American author whose first book, Everything is Illuminated, follows a character called Jonathan Safran Foer on a mission of family discovery through Eastern Europe. His second book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (for which he is more famous, because of the 2011 film adaptation starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock), follows a little boy on a mission of family discovery through New York. The former focuses in on the history of the Holocaust whilst the latter is set in the aftermath of 9/11, so naturally both are quite intense, but also funny. If questioned, bring up how interesting it is that Thirwell introduced a political slant to his writing for the first time (his Visual Editions’ published book Kapow! explores the Arab spring) whilst Safran Foer moved in the opposite direction with Tree of Codes: swapping grand political and historic tragedies for the micro-tragedy of one man’s emotional collapse. Or you could just mention that Thirwell likes a martini and Safran Foer moonlights as an animal rights campaigner.
Visual Addition: A + B = VE?
Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen are the women behind Visual Editions (known colloquially as VE). Remember those surnames, you’ll be hard pressed to find them on the VE site because the pair prefer being on a first name basis with their readers. Anna has a BA in Political Science, an MA in Communication Design, and an MSc in political philosophy (from LSE no less). Britt has a BA in Business and Consumer Studies. What a lot of letters. Maybe that’s why they dropped their surnames for the press blurb.
When’s their next book out?
Their next book is not actually a book, it’s an e-book, or more accurately an app (for a Bluffer’s Guide to the trials and tribulations of digital publishing head here). It’s written by Seonaid MacKay, is called Thump and other Places and promises to be a collection of fifty or so short stories illustrated by the author. The novel did begin its life as a book but it was soon decided that this format was doing MacKay’s work no favours and so it morphed into this more modern of mediums. Indeed this decade has seen the rise of many things: the app being one such fad, and Tim Burton’s specific brand of quirky horror (think Edward Scissorhands or Alice in Wonderland) being another. Well we’re all in luck because, as you might be able to garner from the pages released so far, Thump promises to satisfy our penchant for the digital and for the sinister modern fairy tale.
Maximum Bluffing Value
We’ve gone above and beyond to bring you the best bluffing fodder: an interview with Anna and Britt. Pass this off as a conversation you struck up with the pair in an edgy Clerkenwell café (that’s where their offices are) and you’ll enter the annals of bluffing history.
Bluffers (for the purposes of this bluff, we’re you): Seonaid MacKay’s Thump and Other Places will be your second digital based publication – are you planning on continuing your affair with the digitised future of publishing?
A&B: If it’s right. Then hell yes. But it’s got to be right. And the funny thing with Thump is it started out as a book of short stories, but that didn’t feel right. The stories needed to be totally immersive, they needed to move, readers can engage with the material here that just wouldn’t be possible on the page. And it’ll have music.
B: Can an app ever beat a book?
A&B: Totally. So long as there’s a reason for it and as long as it adds something to the reader experience. The funny thing is most of the really exciting apps out there right now seem to be for children – it’s the same with pop up books. But what’s wrong with making immersive reading experiences for grown ups too?
B: Has the revolution in digital publishing made things difficult for Visual Editions or have you found the e-book a helpful medium to react against?
A&B: We don’t really see it as an either/or scenario. You know, all of us, in our day to day, we flit so seamlessly between paper and the screen. We read the newspaper in print with our phones right next to us. It’s our natural way of reading and engaging. As publishers, we think first of the reading experience (what should it be, how does it work) and second to that is the medium (where is the best place for this to live and how can it be read).
B: How did VE all come about? Hare-brained scheme that somehow ended up with full time employees and an office or a labour of love that’s been years in the making?
A&B: It’s been a little bit of both to be honest. We still think it’s a bit of a hare brained scheme started by two friends who wanted to make something and were sick of talking in our old jobs. And it feels like a labour of love because we love what we do and wake up everyday surprised we’re still doing it, growing it, making more.
B: Favourite quote from the VE publications? Or if that’s too hard: your favourite page from one of the books?
A&B: Wow! That’s totally hard. Without wanting to cop out here, we’d say that every book has something we love. We can say hand on heart that we’re proud of everything we’ve done. So that could be the folded page in [The Life and Opinions of Tristram] Shandy or the very first die-cut page without text in Tree of Codes or the silly small copyright on the inside box of Composition No.1 or the pigeon in Kapow!
B: Not important, but is Adam Thirlwell nice?
A&B: Adam is just lovely. We adored working with him. And adored hanging out with him over martinis. And adored how much he made fun of our girly martini drinking ways. (His are clear, ours are pink.)
B: And finally, determined to stay bijoux or planning for world domination?
A&B: We are definitely planning for world domination. How long does that take?
(We’ve heard at least six months.)
Do ask ‘Is it wrong to have bought the books to look at rather than to read?’
Don’t say ‘Aren’t all these visual tricks a bit gimmicky?’ (That is exactly what they don’t want you to think.)
(Photo credits: Visual Editions)