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Variation in Form

Since different kinds of art have different possibilities for variation, I'm going to restrict my discussion to one particular type of art, namely, books. Now, what different kinds of sameness are there in books? To put it another way, suppose you're an artist about to create a new book, how could you make it new and different?

Actually, the restriction to books is a first kind of sameness … we can certainly imagine hypotheticals like the following. What if Cat's Cradle, say, had been art in the style of that guy who covers islands in plastic? Or, less implausibly, what if, say, The Last Picture Show had been a movie?

Books are also all the same in that they consist of a set of pages in linear sequence. Variation here leads to things such as the internet, and indeed this very site. I don't much like this kind of variation if performed for its own sake—if, for example, James Joyce had asked to have the pages shuffled randomly in every bound edition of Ulysses—but when it serves a purpose I think it can be worthwhile. For example, it might be interesting to write a hyperlinked novel in which each page represented a single event in space and time, with pages linked according to the forward and backward trajectories of the different characters. Physical reality could be cited as an example of this type of art; we just don't get to browse around in it as much as we might like. But I digress.

Once we agree that a book is a form consisting of a linear sequence of pages, there is the sameness of having words printed on the pages; variation here would lead to graphic novels, for example. However, this is the just the variation into other types of art in a new guise.

There is also the sameness of having the words be in order and form sentences and paragraphs. I don't have much enthusiasm for variation here—most works by e. e. cummings leave me cold, for example. On the other hand, I have to admit that Buffalo Bill's is brilliant, and would never have worked as regular sentences. Stream-of-consciousness narrative is another example of the same kind of variation, and it, too, mostly leaves me cold. (But again, there's an exception, in this case The Sound and the Fury.)

* * *

I figured out a reason why I don't much like variation involving words not forming sentences and paragraphs.

The problem is, there's bad dynamics going on. An artist—a poet, let's say—claims that vis unique vision simply can't be expressed in normal words, it requires violating the conventions of grammar or something. Then people see the work, see the novelty of it, and make a mistake: they confuse the idea that art requires novelty with its converse, and think that because it's novel, it must be art. Most likely it's just junk, but because of the mistake, the artist is successful, and others are encouraged to produce more of the same.

Thus, you can think of my dislike as a form of reaction against button-pushing. Because works with this kind of variation attempt to gain attention for themselves in such a direct way, they are suspect, and should usually be avoided. The few such works that are actually good you can usually identify as being the originals.

I also thought of a few more works with grammatical variation that I like. Leaves of Grass is great, especially if you can get hold of an early version. The variation is more in the content than the form, but I still suspect it bears some of the blame for starting the trend. The hellrides in the Chronicles of Amber are also great … one of the rare cases where there really is a unique vision.


  See Also

  Art as Novelty
  Variation in Content

@ April (2000)
o September (2000)