Why aren’t more novels illustrated?

Words and illustrations go together

As I sit here on my unmade bed surrounded by a few years’ worth of books, I ask myself first, how I ever came to collect so many volumes of literature, and second, who the hell is going to clean up this mess?

Among the teetering towers of words are hardbacks from Dickens, collections of short stories, several Mediterranean countries’ worth of Lonely Planets, and a colossal mound of tattered and mostly unread second-hand paperbacks – tributes to my unquenchable thirst for reading. And proof of my inability to get any done.

I flick through the pages looking for stray bookmarks and loose banknotes, and something strikes me: not one of the works of fiction contains an illustration. Not a sketch. Not a squiggle. Not even a photograph. (Squashed mosquitoes and pasta sauce do not count). They are but mere neatly-cut curtains of black and white, hundreds of worlds and many more characters compacted into millions of tiny rows, paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter.

Once upon a time, novels featured illustrations to increase their attraction; now, in modern works of fiction – both the long and the short, even the very long and the very short – the written word is the final piece, and the task of its interpretation lies with the reader. Why? Is it a conspiracy? Why don’t we see more of Tolkien’s original artwork in modern reprints of The Lord of the Rings? Publishers have access to a vast amount of design resources, including the top talents in typography, illustration and photography – just pick up any best-seller to see how much money they invest on covers. It’s hard to believe that none of these creative bodies has not put his or her hand up to say, “Hey, what about we include some cool etchings in the latest Stephen King horror? You know, to give it atmosphere, man.”

Fuel for the imagination

It’s true, a decent five-hundred-pager often provides us with a breather from the frilly, finger-painted stories of Hollywood, but readers of novels, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genre (as evidenced by the megatons of fan-artwork), sometimes have a desire to go deeper; to explore and flesh out the author’s cosmos. For them the novel is only the genesis of an expanding universe, one that is so compelling it must exist beyond the dimensions of the page.

There are many who claim that illustrations spoil the reader’s own depiction of the characters and setting. I agree. Too much art, especially in the genre of realism, removes all opportunity for creative fabrication. Harry Potter’s rich world of magic is the perfect example: how many of us have gone back to read the books only to have the actors’ faces pop into our heads every time we read their character names? Illustrations shouldn’t do this. Rather, I argue they should be suggestive of possibilities; they should be imprecise, atmospheric and not hinder the story’s ability to drag you into its realm. The right illustration keeps secrets from the reader, but offers just enough visual information to set our imaginations on a course we never thought possible. Take this picture of Hagrid delivering Harry’s body back to Hogwarts:

Hagrid and Harry - Art by http://sullen-skrewt.deviantart.com/
Art by http://sullen-skrewt.deviantart.com/

Are we being told any new information about Hagrid that we don’t already know? What are the colours telling us about the mood? The image is not presenting us with realism or evidence of truth; it’s giving us context, and a link between the world we’re storing in our brains, and that which is on the page.

This rant doesn’t limit itself to fantasy. There’s nothing to say that literary novels cannot contain graphic elements, or even classics for that matter. Authors who fear that their words will be misinterpreted are bleating up the wrong dung pile; novels are meant to be interpreted. I know a few tomes that might have reached a wider audience had they provided the reader with a little visual stimulation. Are you listening Crime and Punishment?

In the end, art creates art; whether it’s in your mind, or singing from a loudspeaker, or a bunch of lines organised on the page. While the word and the illustration are, at least in my opinion, pretty good bookfellows, I still read plenty of novels with no graphical components and, as you would imagine, they are immensely enjoyable.

I often wonder however, how awesome it would be to turn a page in an Iain Bank’s novel and see a double page sketch of that most magnificent of sci-fi creations, a Mind.

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