The first books I read in my childhood contained images: five kids talking to a large policeman (Enid Blyton); a child looking in horror at a man who has escaped from prison, in the light of a fire (an abridged Charles Dickens); a tiger and a snake (Rudyard Kipling). Those dark pictures held so much drama; they lingered in my mind even after the pages had been turned. But I rarely find pictures in the stories that I read now as an adult. Why is this so?
Drawings and photographs run the risk of making everything literal. In books for children, they mostly are mere illustrations, directly representing the ideas on the page. Virginia Woolf once wrote about paintings: “A story-telling picture is as pathetic and ludicrous as a trick played by a dog.” But it is possible to imagine a more complex dialogue between art and narrative. Writers can use images to question the truth instead of simply underlining it.
Take John Berger’s strange and powerful novel, G., about a young man’s search for sexual satisfaction amid the upheavals of the early 20th century. Roughly a hundred pages in, the narrator argues that language is foreign to the act of sex. Below two crude drawings of genitalia are the following words: “Through these drawings, what I have called the quality of firstness in sexual experience is perhaps a little easier to recall. Why? Being visual, they are closer to physical perception.” The images are like diagrams, far too schematic to portray any sensual feeling. But that’s the point; the whole matter of sexual experience, as well as the idea of writing about it, remains elusive and ambiguous. As readers, we come to understand that neither the prose nor the pictures can represent the totality of a sexual encounter.
Ambiguous images can invite the reader to become a more active participant. In Citizen: An American Lyric, a work combining poetry, essays, and pictures about the nation’s wretched race relations, the writer Claudia Rankine describes a therapist’s racist outburst: It was “as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech.” On the facing page is the image of a mute half-animal, half-human sculpture that Rankine commissioned from the sculptor Kate Clark. A reflective silence grows in the white space between the text and the image. You have read the angry words spat out by the therapist, and your eye travels to the cowering form: The body is that of a deer but the face appears human, the eyes staring back at the page we have just read. The meaning of this interaction is neither given nor fixed; as readers, we supply it from our imagination.
Over the past decade or so, I can think of only a handful of literary books that have had any business with seeing. Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, a memoir made up of written snapshots and paintings about a life spent in Olympic pools and other bodies of water, is a particularly deft example, not only in its narration but also in its experimentation with art. But most genres other than graphic novels still lack this kind of rich interplay.
Imagine, for instance, how art could shape Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Anyone who has read that book will know of Lily Briscoe, an artist among the guests at the Ramsay summer home. We see Lily struggling to paint the view before her. Another guest at the Ramsay home declares that “women can’t paint, women can’t write.” But at the novel’s end, Lily’s painting is complete—“with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something.” Am I demanding that when we read Woolf’s novel we should also be able to come across Lily Briscoe’s painting, in glossy color? No, no. Although I have often wondered about how Lily’s painting looked, I’m more than happy to remain only with Woolf’s descriptions of it. But I can also imagine the richness of a faded black-and-white picture. Of what exactly? Maybe the gardens leading down to the sea, or one of the pictures hanging on the wall, or the towering waves, the grain of the image like undifferentiated krill. In a novel about the meaning and mystery of the everyday, these quiet images could deepen the feeling of unsettled sorrow.
I’ve been trying to use pictures this way in my own work. Over the past several years, I wrote a novel about fake news. I began to draw on and alter images I saw in the news and in obituaries printed by The New York Times. If images help us convey the depth of human experience in literature, I reasoned, perhaps they can also deepen our understanding of the world—which often reaches us in the form of news. Grappling with the worsening pandemic, I created the painting above, and captioned it with a quote taken from a report in the Times. It was a ditty sung by kids in Philadelphia during the influenza pandemic of 1918: “I had a little bird / Its name was Enza / I opened the window / And in flew Enza.”
Visual art has the powerful ability to complicate truth without obscuring it. In a painting of a Texas detention center, for example, the Chicago-based artist and art critic Dushko Petrovich obscures the faces of his subjects so particularly, so intentionally, that it makes the viewer slow down and pay attention. We cannot bathe the faces with our pathos or sentimentality. That is the purpose, I feel, of the blank white shapes: They grant the people an iota of privacy by keeping our privileged selves at a distance. Of course, this isn’t a case of image working alongside text. But it’s an example of what I want to do in my own writing, and what I think more writers could afford to do: create a dialogue with images that resist rather than surrender to easy interpretation.
The writer Janet Malcolm made exceptional collages. Once, in an interview she gave to The Believer magazine, she said that this hobby was “more related” to her writing than the interviewer was supposing. And she offered this priceless line: “To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling.” I’d go further and say that the alter ego might want to step into the pages of the text now and then.