Welcome to our first ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ profile – a badly named but admiring look at the fascinating work of literary PhDs. A little while ago, I came across Zoë Sadokierski’s PhD research blog. I was immediately intrigued by her posts, which deal with ideas like ‘exploiting borrowed emotion’ and Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘doodles’, as well as giggle-worthy pie charts and post-its tracking Zoe’s progress and epiphanies.
While I was an in-house book designer (at Allen & Unwin in Sydney), I noticed some unusual novels being published. In these novels, graphic devices – such as photographs, drawings and typographic illustrations – were printed amongst the written text. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity and Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts are a few examples. Looking at these books, I understood that the graphics were doing something unusual – rather than illustrating the written text, they were actually part of the text. I called these books hybrid novels – novels in which word and image combine to create a narrative that is neither purely verbal nor purely visual.
Although hybrid novels are not new (Laurence Sterne toyed with graphic devices in Tristram Shandy as early as 1759, Kurt Vonnegut scrawled ‘felt tip calligraphs’ onto the pages of Breakfast of Champions and other novels in the 1970s) there is a notable increase in the number of these novels being published now. Both literary critics and academics are questioning how we ‘read’ graphic devices in novels, and who should critique hybrid fiction. My doctoral thesis argues that Visual Communication Designers – those versed in both the verbal and the visual – offer useful analytical tools for the critique of hybrid novels, and other kinds of hybrid texts.
I undertook my doctoral research partly because I had the opportunity to come at it from a ‘practice-led’ perspective. I felt it was important to use my skills as a practitioner – a designer and writer – to drive my research, rather than putting them on hold for a few years while I disappeared in the library (or Wikipedia). I kept a blog during my candidature, to help me think through ideas and get feedback from people outside my department. The blog is still live, and documents my process for the three and a half years it took to complete: www.zoesadokierski.blogspot.com.
As part of my research, I developed workshops for writers, encouraging experimentation with graphic images as part of their writing practice. I sometimes run these workshops with design students as well. I think the more writers and designers collaborate and learn from each other, the stronger chance creative people have of retaining autonomy in an increasingly digital environment. My main research interests at the moment are looking at relationships between the world of writing and the world of design.
If you are doing literary research that you think the world (or Kill Your Darlings readers) might be interested in, email email@example.com with details.