A week or so ago I stumbled onto TriQuarterly Online, and into a trove of “video essays”—and I was intrigued: What could this mean, what might this be? I looked and listened to a few: Joe Bonomo’s beautiful “Beatle Girl, Where Have You Gone?” ; Angela Mears’ astonishing “You Are Here”; Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s “The Lightning”—lyric and mysterious; and Dinty Moore’s compelling History, which breaks the rules to mirror the writing process itself, the metaphor discovered and revealed in a kind of collage, whereas the others feature a writer reading aloud over a static, single image, the one that inspired their essays in the first place.
And who came up with the constraints? According to an interview on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, editor John Bresland gets credit for the project, and it’s he who says: “We basically set out to scare the bejesus out of writers by altering the rules of literary engagement. No printed words, just voice. And no continuous video, just a static image animated by thought. The idea was to get writers to explore the range of possibilities that digital media affords. In retrospect, it’s not a huge surprise that writers can make sense of the image.”
Well, no, it wouldn’t be: Think Rilke and Barthes. Consider more recent work from Geoff Dyer, Judith Kitchen, Mark Doty, Guy Davenport, Patricia Hampl, and Charles Simic—to name only a few—some of whom who have included the ‘inciting’ images for their readers in their published work, many of whom who have not—who are willing, determined even, to let their readers recall or conjure from their own imaginations.
Not that there’s anything wrong with providing an image. Not that providing an image cannot deepen the experience of the work; nor would it be fair to say that an essay couldn’t be just as rich, just as nuanced—only differently—if its audience were left to her own devices.
I should admit straight out: I loved TriQuarterly’s video essays—loved hearing Bonomo, and Wilkinson, and Mears, and Moore, fine readers all, and both voice and image enhanced my experience, though in the end I’d actually have liked to have seen the words on the page. I even closed my eyes, imagined them there, and admired them—the words—for making music and pictures in sentences and paragraphs: for their allegiance to the image at hand, and also for the ways in which they departed from that image, whatever it was. That was worth seeing, yes—that was something I might not have taken into account had I instead, as is usual for the reader, been encouraged to come up with my own associations. Still, how not to wonder and hope—and, in the case of these four writers, conclude—that these essays were meant to hold up as essays; that they are written, albeit written to be heard.
And why would that scare the bejesus out of anybody? Isn’t all writing meant to be heard? Aren’t writing and reading aural in nature? Leonard Michaels wrote that “sense follows sound.” And Louis Menand, in his intro to Best American Essays 2004, said that writing is closer to singing than speaking. And it’s Donald Hall who insists, “You hear a poem in your mouth.” Which must be why we have all been advised again and again to read our work aloud. If a public reading is a treat for writers and readers both, it isn’t exactly a radical idea, is it? So who said it was? you ask.
Well, over at TriQuarterly you can find “On the form of the Video Essay” by Marilyn Freeman, in traditional font, in which she quotes Theodor Adorno, harks to him again and again—“The essay’s innermost formal law is heresy,” he wrote—as if to imply that the video essay is a ground-breaking form: That to write from an image is novel; that to read the work out loud is an act of dissidence! For goodness’ sake, as if none of us ever heard or aspired to read an essay on NPR. As if nobody ever gave or attended a lecture with power point, and before that slides.
Images as inspiration and/or illustration have been around as long as any of us, and reading aloud is truly nothing new.
Am I thrilled about publishing online? Yes! And delighted by the possibilities of mixed media. Also keen, thanks to TriQuarterly, to come up with a video essay of my own. But to pretend this is revolutionary—dangerous or cutting edge—I’m not buying it. Why do we insist on sensationalizing the genre, as if it isn’t already sensational? As if it isn’t already challenging and brave to write as well as we know how about what we see, feel, think, remember, experience?
And it’s for that, that I applaud these writers; kudos to them and TriQuarterly for using new media effectively—for finding another way to celebrate the essay, to deliver it in all its original integrity to an audience with more sophisticated outer if not inner resources.
Now—go on over to Youtube and check out “Girl,” written and recorded by the Beatles in 1965, before the music video was a twinkle in your eye. Consider the sylph in the field of flowers: Does she detract from the song? Make it better? Up to the audience, I guess, though in the end I’m certain the words and the melody carry the day, how about you?