The problem for the reader is that — well — it’s text. It’s not writing. It’s expository, dense, informational, texty, text. There is no narrative. No story. No drama or conflict. No characters, no dialogue, no scenes, no setting, no action, no sense of time passing, no beginning, no middle, no end. Just chunks of information-dumping by some poor soul who had to sit down, probably late at night after a long day in the garden, and crank out another 500 words, whether they felt like it or not.
And my guess is that they didn’t feel like it. Because many–not all–of these books are written by people who are very, very good at something other than writing. Something to do with plants or design. And it seems that they should have a book, and a publisher agrees, and so they do have a book.
But really, what purpose does all that text serve? It serves as a frame for the photos; it glues everything together. It does express something–somewhere, somehow–that the author/expert feels is new and important and interesting. But if there is a message in there, where is it? And do you really expect me to wade through 200 pages of exposition to get it? When there are so many great novels to read?
Here’s what I think. First, admit that people don’t actually read all that text, and don’t make the poor garden expert write it in the first place. Assemble little chunks of interesting writing instead. Funny stories that involve people saying and doing things. Q&As with great, off-the-cuff answers. Interesting observations. Useful captions. Top ten lists. Arrows. Diagrams. SHORT plant lists that don’t go on for pages and pages.
And if this seems too hard to pull off, design-wise, it isn’t. Magazines do it every month. I suspect there are some process problems going on behind the scenes with these books–the writing and the photography can happen separately and have to be magically mushed together later in production–but processes can be changed. Publishers can create ways of helping creative people be creative together. At least, I think they can.
Second, leap into new media. I know–it’s scary and weird and nobody can figure out how to make it pay. Ads? A subscription service? I don’t have the answers. But these kind of books are just made for a digital format. Can I click on a plant name and see every photo in the book that includes that plant? Can I click a photo and watch a video that shows me a 360-degree view from that spot, or see the same spot at different times of the year? Can I hear an audio clip of the designer and homeowner talking about the new water feature? Can several books be integrated in this magical digital format so that I can leap from one to the next, comparing plants, designs, different approaches?
Hey! Can I get a subscription from a publisher that will give me my choice of six books a year, PLUS a password to the digital wonderland where I can romp through this sort of enriched environment? (I know–where does that leave our beloved bookstores? I don’t pretend to have all the answers.)
I offer all this up not to beat up on big pretty picture books. I LOVE big pretty picture books. I just can’t wade through all that flat, boring writing, and I suspect that most of you don’t bother with it, either.
So why keep doing it? Why not be brave and acknowledge what isn’t working and try something different?
Ideas, anyone? Brilliant exceptions that disprove my point? (I have a few, but I’ll save them for another day)
And seriously, do you read all that text or do you just look at the pictures? Be honest, now.Posted by Amy Stewart on September 29, 2008 at 5:23 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.