Is a novel still a novel if you hand write it onto a bed sheet? One of my old classmates seemed to think so, because that’s what she handed in for her dissertation at university. Lucky for her, our lecturers were crazy for that sort of experimental literature, but would any normal person even consider buying a new book if they had to unfold it and spread it out across their living room floor first?
Now, I’m not completely set against writing in mixed media. I myself experimented with it once by creating a story that was pieced together from scraps of newspaper, photos and torn up texts pasted into a photo album. It was fun and I definitely think it was a good idea to try something different like that. If nothing else, it gave me the chance to explore some new ideas that I might never have thought of if I were just using a blank Word document for inspiration. But I would still never even begin to consider submitting something like that to a literary agent. Even an established author would struggle to pitch it as a wise commercial investment. I highly recommend having a listen to this presentation from Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveller’s Wife (after you finish reading this blog post first, of course!). She talks a little about the beginning of her career when she tried to sell ornate, and beautifully printed books that were just too far out of the regular buyer’s price range.
So, with all this in mind, what questions should you be asking yourself if you are considering creating a piece of experimental or mixed media literature? Here’s a couple of things to consider.
Do I Want This to be a Commercial Hit?
Mainstream, popular literature is rarely scrawled in blood onto the inside of a mixing bowl so if you want your work to be widely read, especially if you are a new author, experimental literature may not be the right way to go.
It isn’t impossible for you to find success with this route if you have a truly inspired idea,
of course. My personal favourite in terms of non-standard books has to be Masquerade by Kit Williams. This guy wrote a beautiful children’s picture book which actually contained subtle clues which would lead readers to real life buried treasure in the form of a jewel-encrusted golden hare! And why did he do this? It was because he wanted to give people a reason to study his illustrations carefully rather than just flipping past them. Maybe this doesn’t quite count as it was a picture book rather than a text, but it was such an amazing idea that I just can’t bring myself to dismiss it.
But if you don’t have the money to invest in a nation-wide treasure hunt, you are going to need to think of something equally as intriguing to sell an experimental book. And I should point out that Masquerade was, at least, written with regular ink on regular paper so if you want a more wild format than that, you are going to have to be seriously creative.
Is it Possible to Reproduce This?
Maybe you are happy for just one original copy of your work to exist in the world – that’s quite an experimental idea in itself. But if your plan is for this thing to be sold and distributed, you are going to have to ask if it is practical or even possible to reproduce. A story etched into the side of a mountain or onto a piece of moon rock is hardly going to
fill the shelves at your local book shop and at that point, I would say it is probably closer to a work of art than it is to literature. This is where you need to start making compromises. Imagine the process and the money it will take to reproduce your work and figure out what is going to be the biggest sticking point. Instead of demanding that your pages be dusted with sand from the Sahara desert, perhaps you could just be happy to have regular builders’ sand and let the readers use their imagination.
Experimental literature is a complex and highly debated subject. For me, the bottom line is that if you are just creating this work for your own enjoyment and benefit then you go for it and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. I find it very therapeutic and satisfying to create this sort of thing and I highly recommend it. But if your ambitions are more business-oriented, you will have a number of challenges to overcome and so I recommend thinking very carefully before sinking your time and money into such a project.
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, please click like and follow and look out for my next post, where I will be going into a bit more detail on Writers’ Residencies.