Using 40,000 text fragments from women's magazines, British artist Graham Rawle challenges the conventions of the novel
March 16, 2008 | RYAN BIGGE | Toronto Star
Intellectual property, a term that barely existed 35 years ago, along with peer-to-peer file-sharing have become flashpoints in the debate around the nature of ideas and innovations in the 21st century.Time magazine’s selection of “You” (a reference to the people behind user-generated content on the Internet) as their Person of the Year (2006) may be viewed as the tipping point of Internet participation. Blogs and podcasting are challenging traditional media and information-delivery models. Time magazine’s decision to spotlight the participatory Internet leaves little doubt that the issue has moved from the edges of cyberspace into the mainstream. But in order to create new works, artists need to build upon works from the past. And according to representatives from the Canadian publishing, music, television and film industries, Canada is far too lenient when it comes to protecting the intellectual property of its artists.
Let’s stop right there. Notice anything strange or curious about the opening paragraph? Not so much the groovy colours, but the sentiments expressed by the text? You would if you were Toronto Star reporters and contributors Chris Young, Michael Geist, James Motluk or Brett Popplewell. Because the above paragraph is not my own. The first and third sentences belong to a May 22, 2005 article about fair use and creative expression by Young. The second and fourth sentences come from Geist’s Jan. 8, 2007 column about copyright legislation. The fifth sentence is from Motluk’s Jan. 2, 2008 article about free of expression and corporate trademarks. And the final sentence is courtesy of Popplewell, who wrote about Canadian laxity toward piracy on Jan. 25 of this year.
The Toronto Star's digital archives, plus a bit of nip and tuck, allowed me to graft together a reasonably coherent paragraph about intellectual property and its relation to Web 2.0. Now, try to imagine writing an entire novel in this fashion, by physically cutting and pasting words and phrases taken from more than 1,000 British women's magazines of the early 1960s. British artist Graham Rawle did exactly that. The result is Woman's World, a full-length novel consisting of 40,000 text fragments.
Rawle began by writing a rough draft of Woman's World in the traditional way, using computer and keyboard. At the same time, he started collecting bits of text from his collection of magazines, organizing them by theme into a large, numbered scrapbook. He then transcribed the magazine text into the computer, tagging each sentence with the appropriate scrapbook page number. A million words later, Rawle had an electronic database to work from.
Next, he began to replace his own words with approximate matches from his found-text database, a few words at a time, changing tenses and swapping "she" for "I." Once his story had been overwritten by the magazine text, he gave the resulting manuscript to his publisher for editing to ensure the novel held its own. "If the story doesn't work, then it is the most spectacular waste of time known to man," he explains from his studio in London, England. "It's like you've built the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks."
After editing, Rawle started pasting together the book, using the page-number tags imbedded in his word-processed version of the novel as a kind of map to help retrieve the fragments of text stored in his scrapbook.
From start to finish, Woman's World took five years, including 18 months of paste-up, each page requiring three days. While laborious, this final stage was, Rawle found, the most rewarding; he likened it to knitting. Since every word had already been decided upon, he was merely eking his way toward The End, one tiny piece of paper at a time.
"THE WHOLE POINT of doing this, I think, is that you have to be more inventive in the way that you construct a sentence," explains Rawle, 52. "You put two seemingly unrelated sentences together and they come together to say something completely new, something that neither of those sentences had intended to say originally."
Rawle, a graphic designer and artist who teaches at the University of Brighton, admits that the constraints he imposed on the creation of Woman's World forced him to be more creative and inventive with language.
At the same time, he had to avoid the temptation of relying too heavily on the curious language of the recent past.
This is not the first time Rawle has incorporated magazine text into his prose. His previous book, Diary of an Amateur Photographer, is a murder-mystery that includes fragments of found text to supplement the musings of a slightly crazy fellow. In putting together Diary, Rawle started to wonder if it was possible to write an entire book from magazine text.
Divided into 23 short chapters, Woman's World catalogues the adventures of fashion-obsessed Norma Little and her delivery-truck driving brother, Roy. Rawle recombines bits of advertising text, fashion advice, and housekeeping tips into a charming and suspenseful tale involving a job interview, a burgeoning romance, a creepy photographer, and a nosy neighbour.
Eventually, it is revealed that Norma and Roy are the same person, and Roy struggles to suppress his transvestite tendencies in order to woo the girl of his dreams.
Part of the reason for using the language of woman's magazines is that protagonist Roy is trying to find a female voice for his alter ego Norma. As Rawle points out, a transvestite living in suburban England in 1962 would otherwise find it difficult to discover how to cross his legs demurely or properly apply lipstick.
"But when you look at women's magazines from the time, they're pretty much a how-to manual for cross-dressing men."
While the novel's narrative arc is relatively smooth, the words on the page are the visual equivalent of jazz, resembling fridge-magnet poetry or an old ransom note. Font types and sizes, along with upper and lower cases, swap every few words, creating a herky-jerky rhythm and tone, akin to listening to an audio book that switches narrators and volume every couple of seconds.
The novel echoes the famous 1956 collage "Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?" by British artists Richard Hamilton, John McHale and John Voelcker. "So Different" features a male bodybuilder clutching an enormous Tootsie Pop, while a burlesque dancer in a lampshade vamps before a coffee table with a large tin of ham on it.
Collage, with its unexpected juxtapositions, was, in the words of the 19th century French writer Lautréamont, "Beautiful like the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table." It has been a dominant motif of 20th century art, playing a central role in avant-garde movements such as Dada and Surrealism. As Low Life author Luc Sante writes on his blog, Pinakothek, collage "was a symbolic enactment of revolution: taking apart the detritus of the old order and refashioning the pieces into constituent elements of the new."
But since the 1990s, our digital culture of remix and Photoshop has inured us to the revolutionary potential of cut and paste. The result is what Sante calls "denatured surrealism." It's now more difficult to explain why the umbrella and the sewing machine don't belong together than the inverse.
Literary collage, revolutionary or not, is rarer. In the 1960s, William S. Burroughs experimented with cut-ups, which involved taking paragraphs or chunks of his work (and others) and rearranging his thoughts at random. In 1966, inspired by Burroughs, British artist Tom Phillips spent four years re-writing W.H. Mallock's 1892 novel, A Human Document, scratching out words in the original book with a pen and painting imagery to create a new text he called A Humument. Since then, Phillips has continued to rework the book, adding new layers of text and image.
During the 1990s, oddball actor Crispin Glover published Oak Mot and Concrete Inspection, books that reworked texts from the 1800s with overlaid ink drawings and new words.
More recently, Montreal comic-strip artist Julie Doucet has incorporated the occasional word or phrase taken from newspapers or magazines into 365 Days, her frenetic visual diary, which was released late last year. The cover of her book has the title arranged in newsprint letters and, as she writes beside it, "I have spent hours trying to find a 3 that would fit with my 6 and my 5. No joke."
While Rawle's cut-and-paste aesthetic makes reference to artistic strategies of the early 20th century, his work also reminds us of just what it is that makes today's fiction so postmodern, so appealing (or, perhaps for some, so unappealing).
WITH ITS BORROWED language, Woman's World makes literal the arguments of literary theorist Roland Barthes' influential 1967 essay "The Death of the Author." He argues that every piece of writing, or text, is a palimpsest of hidden influences, drawing inspiration from a variety of cultures, slang, modes and styles of writing.
That the author of a novel appears to create a seamless and unified voice is, for Barthes, a fiction in itself. As he writes, "The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture."
To be clear, Barthes is not accusing all authors of being plagiarists, but instead suggesting that an author cannot dictate or assume a fixed, singular meaning or interpretation of their text by readers.
While we're on the topic, I should admit that using a plagiarized paragraph to make a point about cut-and-paste culture is, well, also a kind of plagiarism. Last year in the February issue of Harper's, novelist Jonathan Lethem published "The Ecstasy of Influence," an essay that weaved together the writing of David Foster Wallace, William Gibson and Lawrence Lessig, among many others, to argue against the restrictive aspects of intellectual property enforcement.
Lethem even admits that he is not the first to redeploy the quotations of others to create a collage text, citing Walter Benjamin's unfinished The Arcades Project, the collage-novel Kex by Eduardo Paolozzi, and the essays of David Shields.
Rawle's next project is a coffee-table edition of The Wizard of Oz, featuring L. Frank Baum's original text from 1900, and illustrated with pictures of miniature sets populated by old toys and dolls.
Meanwhile, he's waiting patiently for Woman's World to appear on the big screen. Optioned by Columbia (his book was published in Britain in 2005 but is only now appearing in North America), a script is in the works, with Jean Doumanian (a former executive producer for Woody Allen) as co-producer.
No word yet if the film will be cobbled together from existing bits of film stock.
(Woman's World excerpts courtesy Graham Rawle)
Graham Rawle's website
Richard Hamilton at the Metropolitan Museum
Graham Rawle's cut-and-paste novel Woman's World includes phrases from more than 1,000 British women's magazines of the early 1960s. As a result, the book is full of colourful metaphors and similes, along with anachronisms, new idioms, and the plain, old weird, including:
- "With my heart racing like a little boy in a sack race."
- "My voice a light and airy soufflé, straight from the oven."
- "Red rage rose within me like mercury in a toffee thermometer and I knew I had to leave before I reached the boiling point for fudge."
- "Roy nodded encouragingly, though his concentration had drifted out to sea in a small dinghy."
- "His words had flung open the French windows of my mind and forced me to step out on to the balcony of indiscretion."