When Henry James re-edited his complete works for the so-called New York Editions, photography had recently emerged as an artistic technology and a shiny new means of telling stories. Critics such as Charles Baudelaire scorned the camera, claiming it didn't allow for human interpretation of events the way painting did. It didn't allow the audience to use their imagination, either. "It is useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me," Baudelaire wrote. "I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial."
But as any photographer will tell you, people view the world from different vantage points. Where some saw a stifling medium of mindless shutter-clicking, James saw an opportunity. He hired a photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, to illustrate the covers of his novels and asked that the artist abide by one rule: That the images suggest more than they specify.
Today, a handful of writers are stepping beyond the page, using video to create unique literary experiences that combine new technologies and edgy theatrical techniques in the spirit of James' experiment. The results are sometimes amazing, sometimes confusing -- but never less than interesting and engaging in imaginative new ways.
And while many believe that technology is a tool in an invasive attempt to rid books of their singular, intimate natures, others see video and technology as a way to make reading more accessible, social and even imaginative.
One such author is Eric Kraft. Known for his extensive "Peter Leroy" series (10 books in varying styles, all focused on the life of one man), Kraft recently produced a project that leaped off the confines of the page. "Persistence," a reading event at the Center for Fiction, did not involve Kraft perched behind a microphone, speaking at a stuffy, fidgety crowd; instead attendees traveled from room to room, looking at Google maps projected on walls, listening to telephone conversations and playing assigned roles in a story about an artist's self-doubt.
Kraft believes the most successful and innovative aspect of "Persistence" was what he has dubbed "karaoke fiction." Volunteers performed as characters, reading the subtitles of a silent film and contributing to a more social, interpretable experience.
"Some people did it as an argument, some people did it as a flirtation or romance," Kraft said. "In reading, we all participate that way. We're always performing the text in our minds, and if you're really into it, you end up identifying with one or two of the characters and you can hear them in your head as you're playing them, but to do that in the company of others really adds another dimension ... which never would have happened if it were simply a reading."
But not all multimedia readings are created equal. According to Kraft, video and language must fuse into a cohesive whole, rather than one simply complementing the other.
"My favorite metaphor for this is clam chowder," Kraft says. "Every ingredient is essential, and when you look at it, you can see the individual bits, but the total effect is that of clam chowder."
Robbie Q. Telfer, founder of multimedia reading series The Encyclopedia Show, disagrees.
"You don't want the video to distract from what your goal is," Telfer says. "It's like garlic. It's great and essential and good for your heart, but it's meant to add texture to the experience. Aside from maybe some bizarre Polish soup, no meal is ever just like, 'Here's your garlic!'"
Telfer's series began as an alternative to slam poetry, a reading format in which he had partaken but found to be limiting in its appeal to a narrow, learned audience. Now he aims to make literature accessible. According to him, images and humor gain the audience's trust, which enables the reader to discuss more difficult issues.
"This allows for regular people to enjoy something that a lot of rich, boring and old people would tell them they're not allowed to enjoy," Telfer said.
The Encyclopedia Show is a monthly event that showcases five writers who are assigned specific topics under a larger "entry," such as obsolete diseases, the moon, Mesopotamia, bears or extreme sports. The writers can choose to tell their stories with videos, PowerPoint slides or only words.
The extreme sports edition featured Young Adult author James Kennedy, who read a piece about parachuting on Mars. Because his story was written in the third person and involved a handful of speakers, it was difficult to follow when read aloud. To help the audience focus less on who said what and more on the content, Kennedy read in front of a video with images to guide the reader, such as a flame to indicate when the atmospheric gas was "speaking."
In order for this to work, Telfer, like Henry James, insists that the video can't be too specific.
"If you're interested in your audiences' experience, you have to leave entry points for them to enter through," Telfer said. "You can't do all the work for them like Hollywood blockbusters do."
He cites Charlie Brown and other comic book characters as a parallel. Charlie is drawn in an ambiguous way not because his creator, Charles Schultz, can't draw, but so readers can identify with him, Telfer explained. Similarly, video-enhanced readings should allow room for the imagination, rather than visually chronicling the entire story.
Another venture currently using video to expand reading into a more social experience is No Perch, a series in which authors are filmed reading in unusual places.
"I'm tired of seeing people reading at podiums," says co-founder Aaron Plasek, who recently filmed novelist Amelia Gray shouting lines from her forthcoming book, "Threats," while she clung to the back of a moped driver. "Traditional readings are like an exercise in going to church."
The effect Plasek hopes to achieve by placing poets in salvage yards and grocery store aisles is that of a more communal experience.
"I like the thought of taking something sacred and transplanting it elsewhere," he says. "And a passerby can bump into the reader, and suddenly they're part of the story, too."