Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Is a picture worth a thousand words? by Julia Jones


          Last weekend I arrived bright and early at the Orwell Hotel, Felixstowe, Suffolk expecting to put a few handouts on seats, deliver an optimistic box of books for sale, shove a memory stick into a laptop and waltz away for coffee with a friend before returning to spend a happy hour talking about 'Boats and Books' whilst flicking contentedly through my Power Point presentation.

          It wasn't quite that simple. This was the first Book Festival event of the day in the wonderfully named 'His Lordship's Library,' and the sound engineers were hard at work. They were perfectionists; the rest of us were a trifle ad hoc and possibly de trop. The festival organiser had loaned us her laptop and it needed to be woken from deep slumber before it could be persuaded to link to the projector. There was a wireless mouse which would only squeak in one direction – either I could go forward through my presentation or I could go back. I couldn't pop backwards and forwards. The speaker (me) was on a dais with three microphones and the recalcitrant mouse: the screen was on the floor. It was a long narrow room. Anyone sitting in the back row would see my furrowed brow okay – they would also hear -- but they wouldn't see any illustrations at all. 

          "Could we put the screen up on the window ledge?" asked my friend, the writer and picture-researcher Philippa Lewis.
          "No you can't," said the early birds who'd already got their leads gaffer-taped to the ground.
          "Yes you can," said Manuel, the hotel's duty manager in answer to our desperate appeal.
          Up went the screen and then Manuel began hefting out piles of His Lordship's leather-bound vols to raise the projector to a corresponding height. All was well until the images began to blur and no-one could discover how to adjust the projector's focus ...
          "Oh, I wish we were back in the days when invited speakers just came and TALKED!" snapped the sound engineer.
          "Sorry, didn't really mean it," she added, looking at my dejected, coffee-less face.
          "S'rright," I mumbled. "It's just that I'm not sure I know how to do it that way any more."

          I used to. I used to yomp round the lecture rooms of the WEA (Workers' Educational Association), talking uninterrupted for hours on end, dishing out my printed sheets and reading aloud from the pile of reference books stacked on the desk.
          Now it's just me and my memory stick and the pictures thereon. The sequence of images acts as my cue-cards and also, I fondly hope, helps give the listeners an additional focus for understanding what I'm trying to say. At least they keep the audience's eyes open for longer than they used to in my lecturing days. **
(** Important tip: NEVER underestimate the person in the back row who appears to have slumbered throughout. Their eyes will flash open like paparazzi lenses just when you're ready to pack up and they'll nail you with a string of killer questions which should have them starring in Silk.)

          I would never have expected to be working in this way. If there was an equivalent phrase to 'word-blind' or 'tone-deaf' for visual non-responsiveness, I would have applied it to myself without a twinge of embarrassment. Sight-mute, maybe? It's not only in speaking, blogging, facebooking that I've changed the habits of a lifetime, I now want pictures in my stories as well. There's plenty of historical precedent but is it a form of dumbing-down? And, if it is, do I care? The most recent reviewer of Jan Needle's Wild Wood classifies it firmly as 'Literary Fiction' (quite right too - cf Animal Farm) and goes out of her way to comment on the contribution made by Willie Rushton's "exquisitely crafted illustrations beautifully observing facial expressions and individual character nuances." (The Bookbag 23.6.2014) 

          When I was researching the working life of Herbert Allingham (1867-1936) for Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory I realised how significant illustration had been in making fiction accessible a century ago. The first use of the phrase 'a picture is worth a thousand words' is usually dated from 1911. Printing technology had surged ahead in the later decades of the c19th making pictures so much easier and cheaper to insert into even the lowest grade of penny periodical. At the same time literacy levels were rising with the second and third generations of children affected by urban living and compulsory schooling. Allingham's most successful pre-WW1 outlets were the ha'penny comic-and-story papers, hybrid productions intended for the least secure readers -- men and women as well as boys and girls. They were an odd blend of primitive strip cartoon, comic short stories and Allingham's immense melodramatic serials. "Don't forget to work in a good dramatic subject for illustration in every instalment," his editor reminded him in a letter of 1908. 

          After WW1  print had to contend with the growing dominance of cinema, then with wireless and television. Times were hard and publishers were determined to keep costs down. Penny and ha'penny papers became tuppennies and Wikipedia cites 1927 as the date for the revised phrase 'a picture is worth ten thousand words'.

AR's endpapers for
Swallows and Amazons
          The editor of Mixed Moss, the journal of the Arthur Ransome Society, was playing devil's advocate recently. "Why should authors want drawings in their novels?” he asked. “Are the words not enough?" I wonder he dared! Ransome felt so strongly about the drawings in his books that he sacked the professional illustrator of the Swallows and Amazons series after the first two volumes and supplied them all himself -- insisting that he be paid 'trade rates'. 

          I too feel strongly about the drawings in my Strong Winds series and cling to Claudia Myatt's skill and professionalism as to a liferaft in mid-ocean. Her pictures are not just decorations -- though there's nothing wrong with making a page look good, whether on paper or a screen -- they increase the accessibility of the text. All those different boats and their associated vocabulary are made obvious to the merest lubber and her maps locate the action. (I've taken to writing with a chart and a set of tide tables beside me to make sure I don't allow myself to cheat.) I think that their most important function is to give the reader moments to pause and reflect. The blank space at every chapter end does this naturally, of course. Claudia's sketches offer a quiet commentary on the action which is her own artistic contribution. She calls it "thinking with a pencil".

a 'safe water' mark
by Claudia Myatt
From Ransome's day to the 21st century printing technology has been revolutionized again. Pictures fell out of older children's fiction as the twentieth century progressed -- largely due to the practicalities of mass production and perhaps the feeling that children who wanted pictures were plentifully supplied elsewhere. Certainly there'll never again be the hunger for visual stimulation that there was a hundred years ago. In fact we are so surrounded by images today that I can already hear some readers muttering grumpily "Picture worth a thousand words, pshaw! I'll trade a thousand unedited digi-snaps for a single well-chosen word." 

          All the same, the new freedom offered by digital printing techniques -- where essentially the layout of the document as a giant PDF is more like magazine publishing than the rolling spools of text -- can be interpreted to make each book, whether e- or paper, a more varied, individual and attractive artefact. My friend Philippa Lewis (she of the Felixstowe Book Fest emotional support team) has just published Everyman's Castle: the story of our cottages, country houses, terraces, flats, semis and bungalows. Apart from being an excellent and expert account of vernacular housing it's a model of good quality book production with paintings, photographs, maps, plans, advertisements flowing seamlessly throughout. Every image is positioned exactly where it's most effective. 

          Everyman's Castle is currently only on paper and is published by Frances Lincoln, a 'traditional' publisher committed to good design. For independent (or small press) e-book excellence I'd cite Kathleen 'no relation' Jones's biography of Katherine Mansfield. It's published by her and her husband Neil Ferber at The Book Mill and production values are high. Pictures are interspersed through the text exactly as required and every chapter heading is given space and ornamentation, 'printers flowers' culled from the days of letterpress. We have that freedom now.

          I loved being part of the Felixstowe Book Festival -- I knew I would, I'd met Linda Gillard there last year -- and I loved them especially for sending me to visit some of the local primary schools. A few days after the anxieties at the Orwell Hotel I was standing next to a headteacher as she too struggled to persuade her laptop to accept my memory stick so that I could do an assembly for the children. There were three hundred and seventy of them aged 4-10 waiting patiently on the hard floor of their school hall and I only had a couple of flags and three books in my bag if the electronics didn't co-operate.
          Chastened by the nuisance I was becoming I apologised for being a speaker who needed pictures to help her speak.
          "Oh good heavens, don't worry about that! This modern technology's an absolute blessing. I was teaching a class about William Morris last week when I was called out to deal with an incident in another part of the school. So I simply left all of them exploring his work through websites. They'd got so much done by the time I was able to get back. I can't think how we managed without."
          William Morris -- arts and crafts movement, Kelmscott Press, designer, poet, activist -- perhaps you should become the patron saint of imaginative and beautiful e-book design. The best of the old nurturing the new.



12 comments:

madwippitt said...

Love illustrations accompanying the words! And look what a great tradition we have of them too - from the earliest illustrated manuscripts and books of hours to Tenniel, Boz, Phiz, to Rackham, Ardizzone, Heath Robinson, Ambrus, Blake - well the list is endless, it really is. It's nice to see that finally people are getting the hang of putting them on digital books!

Dennis Hamley said...

Yes, William Morris for sainthood! I'm still unapologetically a book and talk man: I dipped out on visual presentation when I realised the overhead projector was a machine of the devil and since then I've seen too many powerpoint presentations turn into embarrassing farce. But I couldn't agree more about the glory of good illustrations. The originals of the wonderful Meg Rutherford's stunningly beautiful illustrations for the four books we did together hang from our walls so I can see them every day. A reviewer once said they 'lifted the book to a higher artistic plane' and he was dead right. But Ransome was right too. Steven Spurrier's ersatz Victorian whimsy endpapers for Swallows and Amazon's are entirely wrong. Ransome's own rather amateur efforts match perfectly the spirit of the stories.

Kathleen Jones said...

I love illustrations too. They add so much. Thanks for Katherine Mansfield mention Julia - I'm glad you like the way Neil designed it. What puts people off using images is the high cost of permissions. We got round it by using a lot of our own photographs of locations etc. There are also lots of 'free' sites for images out there now and they are a real boon for 'indie' authors (and power point presenters!). Having had a similar experience at a litfest, I now take my PP in 5 different formats on 2 different sticks with my own lap top as back up!

Susan Price said...

To those mentioned I'd add Berwick, Bilibin, Beardsley, Sendak...

Putting illustrations and words together is like putting music and words together - get it right, and you reach a whole other level.

I don't know why illustrations came to be thought of as 'only for children.' Was it simply the expense of printing?

julia jones said...

I love that comment Sue - that putting illustrations and words together it like music and words. I'll remember that one. Thank you

claudia myatt said...

Nice one, Julia - and thanks for the mention. I find that illustrations are a potent visual anchor for words and it's a shame they are now only allowed in children's books (with a few exceptions, like Alexander McCall Smith). My memories of favourite books like the Narnia series are forever linked to the line drawings in the books. When I finally, as an adult, saw a film version of Lion Witch and Wardrobe my first thought was - 'that's not what the white witch looks like!'

julia jones said...

Mmm, I like the idea of illustrations being a "visual anchor" for words. Thanks Claudia

Jan Needle said...

william, arthur ransome, aubrey de selincourt, dozens of books about pirates - what would they have been without the pix? i figure i might even believe in god if the bibles i was presented with had had a picture or two of the great mon. and as for wild wood (thanks julia) i couldn't BELIEVE how wonderful the pictures were when willie first showed them to.

Jan Needle said...

showed them to me, that should've been, of course. i was overcome with emotion!

Lydia Bennet said...

I think it did become expensive to use illustrations, I know that poets who worked with artists on projects ended up with prohibitively expensive books to sell, back in the day - another advantage of ebooks! Twitter told me in a vid the other day that tweets with pix get far more clicks and RTs - even though you can't see the pic without clicking the link. I've used powerpoint for my performances when I'm showing my sci-art installations, and pictures can enliven a presentation, but power point in general causes groans of anguish. I've sat in meetings eg arts orgs, while someone shows slide after slide of lists or notes and just reads them out - they could have just emailed us all the PP file! Interestingly I very recently read about the pre-Raphs and William Morris, in the autobiography of Angela Thirkell, granddaughter of Burne Jones - virtually all the furniture they'd designed for their homes was horrifically uncomfortable!

julia jones said...

I think the Rushton pictures are so adult (as well as perfectly okay for kids of course) - what I really liked about the Bookbag review was seeing it categorized as "literary fiction" and then being praised for the illustrations (as well as many other fine qualities of course)

julia jones said...

My powerpoint presentations are simply a selection of pictures usually 2 - 3 to a slide + a title. There's a structure to the selection but otherwise it leaves me completely free to talk off the cuff as I'm gauging audience interest or the passing of time. Definitely never the same talk twice.