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Reading and Seeing: The Artistic Use of Visual Features in

Contemporary Novels

Bradley Elicker

Philosophy and Literature, Volume 44, Number 1, April 2020, pp. 19-34 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/phl.2020.0001

For additional information about this article


[ This content has been declared free to read by the pubisher during the COVID-19 pandemic. ]
Bradley Elicker



Abstract. Recent decades have seen an increase in novels artistically

utilizing their printed features, such as font and formatting. However,
the artistic possibilities of visual features in printed literature meant to
be read to oneself are rarely discussed as philosophically or artistically
interesting. I identify and dismiss two attempted justifications for this
omission and locate their origins in modernism and its insistence on
medium purity. I argue that this view of the purity of the text should
be abandoned. Finally, I examine several border cases that may pose
problems if we take seriously the artistic role of the visible in literature.

O n reading Irvine Welsh’s novel Filth for the first time, I quickly
noticed that something was amiss. I followed the apparent food
poisoning of amoral Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson all the way
down page twenty-three. Then, as I turned the page, something entirely
unexpected happened. The text became obscured by what appeared
to be the black outlines of intestines. What’s more, though Robertson’s
first-person account of his own illness was obscured, a new narrative
voice appeared within the intestines: “I am alive. . . . I am soft and weak.
. . . I must grow. . . . I must eat. . . . I must grow strong . . . eat . . . eat
. . . eat . . .”.1 Welsh’s novel was no longer simply words on a page. Its
visual features were playing an artistic role in the work by becoming the
voice of a tapeworm living in the gut of the increasingly uncomfortable
detective sergeant.

Philosophy and Literature, 2020, 44: 19–34. © 2020 Johns Hopkins University Press.
20 Philosophy and Literature

Welsh’s novel is not an outlier in contemporary literature. Jonathan

Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close uses visual presenta-
tion to explore themes of ephemera and loss related to the death of a
young child’s father, killed on September 11, 2001. In Jennifer Egan’s
award-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, an entire chapter is
formatted in a way that visually resembles the slides of a PowerPoint
presentation. The jarring and unpredictable font and formatting in Mark
Z. Danielewski’s haunted house novel, House of Leaves, feel as though the
book itself is a haunted text. Novels as disparate as Cormac McCarthy’s
Blood Meridian, Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, Salvador Plascencia’s The People
of Paper, Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, and Matthew McIntosh’s
theMystery.doc use visual features specific to the printed text in unique
and artistically important ways.
Though such works are regularly discussed in literary journals and
reviews, philosophy of literature has largely overlooked these works and
the artistic, visual possibilities of literature meant to be seen and read
to oneself. One notable exception is Thomas Munro’s 1957 taxonomy
of the arts, where he describes the printed text as an art form that is
“now mainly used as means for the visual presentation of verbal com-
positions, including literature. Thus, literature can become an art of
visual presentation. . . . They are visual arts, rather than mere utilitar-
ian devices for ordinary communication, only when they involve some
artistic refinement and development.”2 Munro’s claims were met with
resounding silence until Richard Shusterman returned to the artistic
importance of visual features in literature twenty-five years later in his
essay “Aesthetic Blindness to Textual Visuality.”3 And again silence,
except for brief mentions of this practice as it relates to the comics and,
recently, an account of “picture” or “pattern” poems in Anna Christina
Soy Ribeiro’s “The Spoken and the Written: An Ontology of Poems.”4
After demonstrating that such visual features are important artistic
features of their respective literary works, I identify and dismiss two
attempted justifications as to why philosophy of literature might safely
ignore these works and the role the visual can play in inscribed literature
read to oneself. First, one may think that such works are relatively rare in
the history of literature and are neither common nor important enough
to necessitate serious consideration. Second, one may argue that these
novels are mixed-media works fundamentally different from traditional
novels. I identify the motivation for such claims in the lingering effects
of modernism and, specifically, Clement Greenberg’s appeals to medium
purity in the arts. Greenberg’s views regarding medium purity, in turn,
Bradley Elicker 21

lead to the belief that the visual presentation of novels is always merely
a property of a specific copy of the novel, while the properties of the
novel itself are identified only as its sentences and sentence fragments.
If we move away from this insistence on medium purity in literature, we
can better recognize the visual, artistic potential of novels in conjunction
with their sentences and sentence fragments. Some may be concerned
that, if we abandon medium purity, we have no way to distinguish lit-
erature from visual artworks like René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images
or Barbara Kruger’s I Shop Therefore I Am, which happen to include lin-
guistic as well as visual content. I end by demonstrating that abandon-
ing medium purity does not mean such works should be considered
literature. Also, acknowledging that literary works can have artistically
important visual content may allow us to reexamine the literary value
of related genres like comics and electronic literature.

Font, format, and the visual features of the printed text have tradi-
tionally been viewed as properties of copies only and not artistically
important features of literary works. For instance, I can change the font
of Toni Morrison’s Beloved from Helvetica to Courier and I have not
affected the work in any significant way.5 Likewise, Morrison’s novel is
the same whether its formatting is right-justified or left-justified. Within
reason, font and formatting can typically be changed without affecting
the work and are not properties of the work itself. However, as in the
above-mentioned works, font and format sometimes do contribute artisti-
cally to their respective works. Their presentation affects how a reader
apprehends and appreciates these novels. In this sense, it is tempting
to refer to them as “paratextual” features. In his work Seuils, Gérard
Genette defines paratextual features as those features that affect one’s
apprehension and appreciation of a literary work while not themselves
being strictly part of the work itself.6 Genette identifies cover art, author’s
name, publisher identification, and any genre information provided as
paratextual features.
Can the same be said of creative uses of font and formatting? I don’t
believe that it can if we examine Genette’s key term, “seuils,” which, in
this context, can best be translated as “thresholds.” Genette describes
paratextual features as analogous to the doorway into a house. He writes
that features like the cover art, author’s name, and publisher exist in
an “imprecise zone” (zone indécise) and act as a “vestibule” into which
22 Philosophy and Literature

the reader may enter or remain outside. Just as a doorway exists above
a threshold between the exterior world and the interior of a house,
these features do not belong entirely to the interior of the work or to
the exterior of the world that surrounds the work (S, p. 8). However,
the visual features artistically utilized in contemporary novels do not
exist in this “imprecise zone.” I now examine the role of the visual in
two novels to show that these artistic decisions are wholly interior to
their works and are essential to each work’s proper apprehension and
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a collection of narratives involving indi-
viduals in and around the independent music industry across several time
periods. A major theme of the work is the passage of time and the toll it
takes, not only on one’s body but on one’s conception of self. The title
of the novel comes from an off-the-cuff remark made by the character
Bosco who, on finding himself growing older and less relevant, asks,
“How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares
about?. . . . Time’s a goon, right?”7 Because the narrative moves both
forward and backward in time as the novel progresses, Egan argues that
time in this novel should be viewed as something that moves laterally
as opposed to linearly.8
The formatting of chapter 12 as a PowerPoint presentation is a
microcosm of this nonlinear theme with regard to the passage of time.
Written from the perspective of a character’s possibly autistic daughter,
we see in each slide a brief glimpse of a home life. Each is self-contained,
fragmentary, with no sense that, as one moves through the pages, one
is moving temporally in one steady direction. One could also interpret
the PowerPoint format as an extremely regimented and orderly method
for the daughter to organize and make sense of her world. However
one interprets this section, Egan’s formatting presents this chapter
without the chronology we find in traditionally formatted novels, and
the choice of formatting is clearly related to the narrative voice of the
young child. Were her formatting omitted in a copy that only preserves
the words of this chapter, artistic value would be lost. Egan’s formatting
is an intentional, artistic decision rather than some trivial printing deci-
sion unrelated to the artistic value of her novel.
Hailed as a postmodern horror story, Danielewski’s House of Leaves
contains visual features that are even more unusual and striking. The
putative subject of the novel is the Navidson family. The father, photo-
journalist Will Navidson, originally sought to film the day-to-day hap-
penings of his family as they settle into a new home. However, it quickly
Bradley Elicker 23

becomes clear that something is terribly wrong. The dimensions of

the house are not static: new doorways and rooms often appear, while
the dimensions of existing rooms change without notice. Danielewski
utilizes the formatting of his novel to mirror the metamorphosis of the
house itself. Like the changing lengths of hallways and staircases within
the house, the number of pages it takes to read certain passages often
varies drastically. While a reader is moving along with the narration in
traditional Western-style formatting, she is suddenly confronted with a
large number of pages containing only a few words each so that the
reader must move through many pages in order to read a relatively small
amount of text.9 What could have been written in one to two pages of
traditionally formatted text is stretched out over fifty-five pages. In other
instances, text is written upside-down or diagonally across the page (HL,
pp. 464−65). Text is shaped into various patterns and sometimes written
forward on one page and then backwards in the same position on the
next, creating the illusion that the text was printed on a transparent
surface (pp. 139−40).
Though the specific visual features vary across the work, their common
theme is the destabilizing of what a reader sees as the physical reality of
the novel as a static, unchanging artifact. One character’s experience
with the house describes our feelings regarding both the plot and the
visual features of Danielewski’s novel. Danielewski writes, “Out of the
blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are
not how you perceived them to be at all. Then no matter where you are,
in a crowded restaurant or on some desolate street or even in the com-
forts of your own home, you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance
you ever lived by” (HL, p. xxiii). Without Danielewski’s visual features,
a reader would not feel this uncertainty and destabilization so acutely.
Visual features play an important, artistic role in both novels. If these
features are omitted, artistic value is lost. This distinction is what sepa-
rates them from paratextual features as defined by Genette. They do
exist in a precise zone wholly interior to the work There is no ambigu-
ity here. Egan’s choice to present a chapter as a series of PowerPoint
slides relates to and affects our interpretation of the work in a way that
the font and formatting of Beloved do not. Likewise, there are obvious
parallels between the house and the visual presentation of House of
Leaves. The font and formatting allow Danielewski to mirror some of
his characters’ emotions in his readers. In these works and many, many
others, artistic visual properties exist, not on the threshold but entirely
24 Philosophy and Literature

inside their specific works. They are properties of the works themselves
and not merely ancillary properties of copies.

Given the relatively recent trend of novels artistically employing
their visual features, one may assume that the works of Danielewski,
Egan, and Welsh are simply a passing fad existing on the fringes of
contemporary literature. An unspoken assumption in much philoso-
phy of literature seems to hold that, as of yet, such works are neither
common nor important enough to warrant more critical attention. In
fact, the practice of including artistic visual features in literature can
be traced back to the Greek bucolic poets Theocritus and Simmias of
Rhodes around 300 BCE. Their works, such as Axe and Shepherd’s Pipe,
were formatted so that the shape of the texts resembled their titular
objects. Later European carmina figurate, such as George Herbert’s “Easter
Wings,” typically combined religious themes with poems formatted into
various religious icons. More recent, secular examples of pattern poetry
include the war poems of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes and the concrete
poetry movement. In his comprehensive survey Pattern Poetry: Guide to
an Unknown Literature, Dick Higgins reflects on the ubiquity of pattern
poetry across different cultures and time periods, and comments that it
would be undoubtedly quicker to list cultures throughout history that
have no tradition of patterned literature.10
We also find historical instances of the artistic use of visual features
in prose literature meant to be seen and read to oneself. Samuel
Richardson’s epistolary novels Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded and Clarissa:
Or, the History of a Young Lady are presented visually as a series of let-
ters, allowing the reader to feel as though she has been given access to
private correspondences. The most unusual artistic use of formatting in
a novel of this era (and the most well known) is Laurence Sterne’s The
Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. More recently, Samuel
Beckett makes artistic use of font and formatting in Murphy and Watt,
while the growing popularity of offset printing in the mid-twentieth
century allowed authors greater control over font and formatting than
was possible in earlier eras. These works include Brigid Brophy’s In
Transit, Ann Quin’s Passages and Tripticks, Marc Saporta’s Composition No.
1, and Roland Sukenick’s 98.6: A Novel, as well as certain works of Kurt
Vonnegut, such as Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick.11 The artistic use
of the visual features in literature has carried over into genre work as
Bradley Elicker 25

well. The young adult novel The Neverending Story makes creative use of
font color, while the science fiction work The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
is a contemporary take on the epistolary novel.
Works with artistically important visual features are so common across
different time periods, genres, and literary movements that they warrant
closer attention simply because of their ubiquity across the history of
Western literature. However, the consideration paid to these works in
literary circles demonstrates that they are not only significantly com-
mon but also significantly important and deserve critical attention and
recognition. A Visit from the Goon Squad, for instance, was awarded a
National Book Critic’s Circle Award in 2010 and the Pulitzer Prize for
fiction the following year. House of Leaves was presented with the New
York Public Library’s Young Lion Award in 2001 and Danielewski’s visu-
ally engaging novel Only Revolutions was a finalist for the National Book
Award in the fiction category in 2006. What’s more, the artistic role that
visual features play in these works is widely recognized in reviews and
critical discussions. Interviews with Danielewski and Egan address the
visual presentation of these works and discuss their artistic importance.
Essays published in prominent literary journals recognize the artistic
role that visual features play in works of printed literature. Comparative
Literature, Contemporary Literature, and Poetics Today regularly publish
essays on pattern poetry, concrete poetry, and the types of contempo-
rary novels discussed above.12 In fact, the journal New Literary History
devoted an entire issue, curated by Genette and Marie Maclean, to the
artistic role of font and formatting in literature.13 Though Genette’s
Seuils lays the groundwork for a conversation regarding the importance
of extralinguistic features, others have sharpened the focus with regard
to artistic visual features. Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext, Katherine Hayles’s
Writing Machines, and Glyn White’s Reading the Graphic Surface all focus
on the artistic role of these features in printed literature.

Perhaps these works are overlooked not because they exist on the
fringes of literature but because they are mixed-media works. One
might claim that the novels of Danielewski, Egan, and Welsh combine
the linguistic medium of novels (sentences and sentence fragments)
with something else, something visual. If this is the case, philosophy of
literature might not be the appropriate forum to discuss such works. You
wouldn’t expect to find philosophy of literature discussing the works of
26 Philosophy and Literature

Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger, even though all of them have impor-
tant linguistic features. So we shouldn’t be surprised that philosophy of
literature avoids critically examining concrete poetry or contemporary
novels with artistic visual features. One might intuitively think that visual
properties are always merely properties of copies or that these works
are fringe literature because of an underlying assumption that language
alone is the medium of literature. This view can be traced back, in con-
temporary art criticism, to modernism’s insistence on medium purity.
It is interesting to note that, at the same time offset printing was
ushering in a new era of visually interesting literature, Greenberg was
crafting a strain of art criticism whose continued impact would do the
most to marginalize such works. In “Modernist Painting,” Greenberg
situates the birth of modernism in the late eighteenth century. He writes
that “having been denied by the Enlightenment all tasks they could take
seriously, [the arts] looked as though they were going to be assimilated
to entertainment pure and simple.”14 The arts, in order to justify their
continued relevance, must demonstrate their value and what they alone
can offer the world. Likewise, each art form, in order to do the same,
must focus on what is uniquely valuable in their specific medium.
According to Greenberg, each art form should use its unique charac-
teristics to “entrench it more firmly in its area of competence” (“MP,”
p. 67). In painting, for instance, this would be the art form’s characteristic
flatness. Modernist painting, therefore, should seek to highlight flatness
and avoid any trompe l’oeil that may mask or minimize this unique fea-
ture. For Greenberg, Manet becomes the first modernist painter in his
frank acknowledgment of the painting as a flat surface. This modernist
tendency continues through Impressionism and Cubism, and finds its
purest articulation in the hard-edge and postpainterly abstraction of
Piet Mondrian, Helen Frankenthaler, and Ellsworth Kelly. Greenberg
values the works of these artists for using the medium of their art form
in its purest sense (pp. 69–70). If one were to apply this type of medium
purity to literature, the purity would refer to language. Artistic expres-
sion through words and sentences is what is unique about literature
among all the art forms. One might say that the novel is unique in the
ways prose language is used to express a narrative. Its specific medium
is the use of words and sentences to craft long-form narratives of events
and actions.
Thus, a novel that includes any medium other than language to inform
that narrative violates the modernist sense of uniqueness. Modernist
conceptions of medium purity would lead one to conclude that works
Bradley Elicker 27

like A Visit from the Goon Squad is a mixed-media work. It is not pure
literature, but rather literature combined with a visual medium not
traditionally or essentially associated with literature. This sense of the
violation of Greenberg’s standard of medium purity provides supposed
justification for philosophy of literature to overlook such works. Medium
purity demands that the properties of the inscribed work, like font and
formatting, should never be viewed as artistic properties of literary works
themselves. The lingering impact of Greenberg’s modernism and its
medium purity seems to lie at the heart of philosophy of literature’s
inability to recognize the artistic, literary, and philosophical value of
the visual in printed literature.
Whether or not medium purity was ever an appropriate standard for
any art form, its grip on the visual arts has clearly loosened since the
times of Pablo Picasso and Mondrian. Even as Greenberg was articu-
lating his modernist philosophy, artists like Jasper Johns and Robert
Rauschenberg were undermining this view with works that exploited the
spaces “between the arts.”15 Contemporary painters like Njideka Akunyili
Crosby and Laura Owens continue to explore such spaces and the pos-
sibilities of painting beyond the restrictions of its traditional medium.
Y. David Chung’s Turtle Boat Head and Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx are
examples of the types of instillation works that create immersive envi-
ronments utilizing multiple media. In literature, the critical attention
and recognition garnered by the aforementioned literary works indicate
that contemporary literary criticism has also abandoned medium purity.
Quite simply, purity in the arts is no longer the obvious standard, and
appeals to this standard can no longer justify overlooking novels with
artistically important visual features.

Some may fear that we lose an important distinction between literature
and other art forms if we abandon this standard of medium purity. If we
allow that works of literature can have extralinguistic artistic features,
we may admit too many disparate works into the category of literature
simply because they possess some linguistic feature. If this happens, the
term “literature” loses all meaning. Do we want to claim that Magritte’s
The Treachery of Images, Kruger’s I Shop Therefore I Am, Marcel Duchamp’s
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Green Box), Jenny Holzer’s
For the City, Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos, X-Men #1, Bruce Nauman’s
The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, Rob Wittig’s
28 Philosophy and Literature

The Fall of the Site of Marsha, and Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam are
all literature simply because they use some combination of visual arts
and language? In some cases, at least, we instinctively want to say no.
However, if the use of artistic visual features is not, in itself, disqualify-
ing, by what criteria can we distinguish literature from works in other
art forms that happen to have some linguistic content? Medium purity
seems like the obvious method of doing so. Therefore, I would like to
end this essay by demonstrating that, in moving away from modernist
medium purity and admitting that artistic visual features do not dis-
qualify a work from being literature, we can still preserve a distinction
between literature and other art forms with literary features while,
perhaps, being in a better position to reexamine related art forms, like
comics and electronic literature, that possess both artistically important
linguistic and visual features.
So, how might we claim that the specific works above are not literature
without appealing to medium purity? Some might claim that such works
are not literature due to the minor role that the literary content plays
in comparison to the visual. Because the use of language in Magritte’s
or Twombly’s work is a relatively minor component, it is best to think
of these works as paintings rather than literature.16 I don’t believe argu-
ing about what percentage of a work is language and what percentage
is visual is particularly helpful. We shouldn’t be claiming that Fifty Days
at Iliam isn’t literature simply because language only makes up, say, 12
percent of the entire work. Language dominates the works of Holzer,
Kruger, and Nauman even if we don’t consider those works literature.
However, even in these works, the language used is a brief sentence
or two. Might we use the length of the linguistic features themselves
to distinguish these works from literature? The obvious problem here
is that some works by Holzer and Kruger are longer than haikus, and
Duchamp’s The Green Box is 93 pages, certainly longer than the typical
poem, short story, or novella. So, the amount of language used, either
in total or as a percentage of the whole work, is not a good measure of
differentiation between literature and other art forms.
While most of the above examples are single-instance works, mul-
tiple collotypes and etchings of Duchamp’s The Green Box and Goya’s
Caprichos, respectively, certainly exist. In this sense, they are perhaps
similar to House of Leaves or Filth in that they are all multiple-instance
works consisting of both visual and linguistic content. One might dis-
tinguish novels from printmaking by using Nelson Goodman’s or J. O.
Urmson’s distinction between autographic and allographic works. The
Bradley Elicker 29

Green Box and Los Caprichos are each capable of being forged and are,
therefore, autographic. Despite their multiple copies, only instances
of The Green Box made from Duchamp’s original collotype plate will be
authentic. Making a photocopy of Duchamp’s work will not create a new
authentic copy. However, photocopying my copy of House of Leaves does
create a new, authentic copy of the novel. Novels are not capable of
being forged and are, therefore, allographic. Despite not being capable
of being forged, inscribed novels seem to have more in common with
printmaking than they do with other allographic works, like theater and
scored music, that are identified by their performance instances. Both
Goodman and Urmson recognize this difficulty in grouping printed
literature together with other allographic performance art forms. For
Goodman, allographic instances are typically created by following a
notational system, while instances of inscribed literature only require the
reproduction of a notational scheme.17 For Urmson, inscribed literature
does not have the executant artist required by performance instances
of allographic works.18
In that the work possesses no notational system or obvious executant
artist, House of Leaves might be more similar to The Green Box than it is
to performance-instance allographic works. However, we can still dis-
tinguish nonperformative, allographic works like printed novels from
multiple instance autographic works like printmaking by examining
what counts as an authentic instance of House of Leaves compared to
what counts as an authentic instance of The Green Box. The criteria of
authenticity in inscribed literature are sufficient for distinguishing such
works from both single-instance autographic works like The Treachery of
Images and Fifty Days at Iliam and multiple-instance autographic works
like The Green Box and Los Caprichos.
Rather than focusing on a notational scheme or an executant artist,
David Davies distinguishes between autographic and allographic works
by examining what counts as an authentic instance of works in each. In
“Multiple Instances and Multiple ‘Instances,’” Davies identifies two dif-
ferent types of instances. These are epistemic instances and provenential
instances. Provenential instances (p-instances) are those instances of a
work that are causally connected to the work’s “history of making.”19
Epistemic instances (e-instances) are those instances of a work that
possess the requisite experiential qualities of a provenential instance.
The instance of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night in New York’s Museum
of Modern Art is a p-instance of the work, since it is obviously causally
connected to van Gogh’s intentional creation. Any copy or recreation of
30 Philosophy and Literature

van Gogh’s work on a poster or in a textbook that has the same experi-
ential visual properties of the original will count as an e-instance. Here,
being an e-instance of a painting only depends on what a work looks
like. However, being a p-instance depends on where that instance came
from. In literature, Danielewski’s original manuscript is a p-instance of
House of Leaves and any subsequent copy, whether printed by Random
House or photocopied at Kinko’s, will count as an e-instance provided
it possesses the novel’s linguistic and visual properties.20
For autographic art forms like painting and printmaking, only
p-instances are authentic. Though nearly visually identical to van Gogh’s
original painting, no authentic copy of Starry Night is available at the
poster stand in my university’s quad. For literary works, all e-instances
are authentic. Any copy of a novel, regardless of its provenance, is
authentic provided it possesses the requisite experiential properties.
If we value an author’s manuscript, we do so only for its historical or
monetary value and not because it is somehow more authentic than a
trade paperback of the same work. So, if I photocopy my copy of Beloved
or House of Leaves and give it to a friend, that friend now possesses an
authentic copy of the novel. That it was made on a photocopier does
nothing to threaten the copy’s authenticity. The Treachery of Images is
not literature because only p-instances are authentic. Magritte’s work
is not literature—not due to its visual features or its limited use of lan-
guage but because its e-instances lack authenticity. Works like The Green
Box and Los Caprichos are multiple p-instance works. However, if I take
one of Duchamp’s collotypes and photocopy it, I have not created an
additional authentic instance of The Green Box as I have with Beloved or
House of Leaves. Obviously, the requisite experiential properties differ
here. Recreating the words and word order is enough for Beloved, while
House of Leaves requires that the visual features be recreated as well.
Between autographic works like The Green Box and allographic works
like House of Leaves, comics and graphic novels are true borderline cases,
and much ink has been spilled regarding how one should categorize
such works. While recognizing the role of the visual in some novels does
not end such debates, it does point to where possible solutions may
lie and where we might have made errors in our assumptions regard-
ing the differences between comics and literature. Traditional views
using medium purity to argue that comics are not literature have been
unsuccessful. David Kunzle’s well-known early definition of a comic as a
“preponderance of image over text” encounters the same problems as
the above attempt to measure the ratio of literary to pictorial content.21
Bradley Elicker 31

It also leads to counterintuitive claims that works like Batman no. 663
might not be comics due to their preponderance of text with relatively
little image.22 Other attempts to distinguish comics from literature by
introducing a pictorial condition are challenged by Aaron Meskin in
his seminal essay “Defining Comics?”23
If we abandon medium purity, it does seem that some comics could
qualify as literature. Moving away from medium purity and taking the
visual seriously in literature does strengthen a line of thought used by
Meskin in “Comics as Literature?” Meskin argues that comics are not
literature, not because of the relationship between or ratio of pictorial
and literary content but because literature has authentic e-instances
while only p-instances of comics and graphic novels are authentic. I
happen to disagree and think that a photocopy of Action Comics no. 1
is authentic in every sense except as it relates to historical or monetary
value. Even if I disagree, Meskin correctly frames the argument and
avoids focusing on the ratio of literary to visual content or some neces-
sary visual feature that sets comics apart from literature. Instead, if one
wants to argue that comics can be literature, one would need to defend
the authenticity of their e-instances. Conversely, and in line with Meskin,
if one were to argue that comics cannot be literature, one would have
to explain what is lacking in an e-instance that would make such an
instance inauthentic.
But what of Wittig’s The Fall of the Site of Marsha and other works in
the genre of electronic literature? A recent explosion of new literary
works explores extralinguistic digital methods of communication and
presentation. Beginning in 2006, the Electronic Literature Collection
has centralized three large volumes of electronic literature. Like most
works in the genre, The Fall of the Site of Marsha combines the types of
visual features found in the above novels along with some degree of
interactivity. Wittig’s work is visually constructed to resemble a self-made
“Angelfire”-type web page common in the late 1990s. Fictionally cre-
ated by the titular Marsha, we interact with the work based on which
of Marsha’s links we choose to follow. Depending on our own explora-
tions, we are either privy to the story of a woman harassed by malevo-
lent entities or gaslit by her husband and best friend who are having
an affair. Wittig’s narrative is told nonlinearly; the reader interacts with
the website and chooses what parts of the site to explore as the story
unfolds at her choosing.
Again, philosophy of literature’s lack of critical attention to electronic
literature may indicate that the art form is not considered literature in
32 Philosophy and Literature

the traditional sense. However, if we remove linguistic purity as a cri-

terion of literature, what feature of these works would disqualify them
from being literature? One might say that they are interactive in ways
we do not find in literature. We typically experience or follow a literary
narrative without controlling how that narrative unfolds. Yet, though
certainly not common, many literary works require some degree of
reader interactivity. The young adult “choose-your-own-adventure” novels
come to mind. But interactivity is not limited to adolescent works. Many
of Milorad Pavić’s novels—such as Dictionary of the Khazars, Landscape
Painted with Tea, and Last Love in Constantinople—require some degree of
reader participation in order to advance the narrative. What we find in
electronic works like The Fall of the Site of Marsha is a combination of the
interactivity common in some works of literature and the artistic visual
features common in others. Like the visually artistic novels above, these
digital works are already taken seriously as literature in critical studies
such as Aarseth’s Cybertext and Hayles’s Writing Machines, where they are
referred to as “hypertext” literature to denote their interactive nature.
Once we recognize that literature can possess important artistic fea-
tures outside of its linguistic features, I hope to see a greater focus on
these digital works by my peers in ways that contribute to the conversa-
tion about such works already taking place in contemporary literary
theory and literary criticism. I do not mean to suggest that the view of
literature presented here solves all the problems of borderline cases but
only that treating the visual as an artistic possibility in printed litera-
ture allows us to view these works of visual art, comics, and electronic
literature free from old assumptions about the purity of the text and
the linguistic limits of literature.
Even if the lingering influence of Greenberg’s modernism has led
philosophy of literature to overlook the value of these works and the
artistic role played by their extralinguistic features, linguistic purity need
not be the standard by which we define literature. However, moving away
from this standard does not seriously threaten our definition of a liter-
ary work. Literature is still an allographic art form distinguished from
autographic art forms like painting and printmaking by their authentic,
epistemic instances. An instance of a novel will be authentic so long
as that instance contains the requisite experiential properties of the
work. In the novels discussed above, those experiential properties are
the work’s words and sentences, as well as those artistically important
visual features. The font and formatting of House of Leaves, A Visit from
the Goon Squad, and Filth are all artistic features of the works themselves
Bradley Elicker 33

and cannot be dismissed as ancillary properties of various copies of these

works. The ubiquity and importance of these works argue against their
marginalization to the fringes of contemporary literature. When we
hold an expectation that a work of literature will be seen and read to
oneself, visual features like font and formatting can become artistically
relevant features of these literary works.

Rowan University

1.  Irvine Welsh, Filth (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1998), p. 24.
2.  Thomas Munro, “Four Hundred Arts and Types of Art: A Classified List,” Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism 16 (1957): 49.
3.  See Richard Shusterman, “Aesthetic Blindness to Textual Visuality,” Journal of Aesthetics
and Art Criticism 41 (1982): 87−96.
4.  Anna Christina Soy Ribeiro, “The Spoken and the Written: An Ontology of Poems,”
in The Philosophy of Poetry, ed. John Gibson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp.
5.  Within reason. Obviously, the tone of Beloved would change were a copy printed in
Comic Sans.
6.  Gérard Genette, Seuils (Paris: Édition Points, 1987), pp. 6−7; hereafter abbreviated S.
7.  Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (New York: Random House, 2010), p. 127.
8.  Heidi Julavitz, “Jennifer Egan by Heidi Julavitz,” BOMB 112 (2010): 84.
9.  Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (New York: Random House, 2001), pp. 194−265;
hereafter abbreviated HL.
10.  Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1987), p. 168.
11.  For a more exhaustive list of these works, see Glyn White, Reading the Graphic Surface
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), pp. 209−10.
12.  For example, see Mark B. N. Hansen, “The Digital Topography of Mark Z.
Danielewski’s House of Leaves,” Comparative Literature 45 (2004): 597−636; Julia Panko,
“Memory Pressed Flat into Text: The Importance of Print in Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark
Texts,” Contemporary Literature 52 (2011): 264−97; and Dick Higgins, “Pattern Poetry as
Paradigm,” Poetics Today 10 (1989): 401−28.
13. See New Literary History 22, no. 2 (1991).
14.  Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in The New Art, ed. Gregory Battcock
(1966; repr., New York: Dutton, 1973), pp. 67−68; hereafter abbreviated “MP.”
34 Philosophy and Literature

15.  Roxie Davis Mack, “Modernist Art Criticism: Hegemony and Decline,” Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52 (1994): 346.
16.  Even this is debatable. I’d say “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” is central to the meaning
of Magritte’s work.
17.  Nelson Goodman goes into great detail regarding notational systems and notational
schemes in the fourth chapter of Languages of Art (Hackett: Indianapolis, 1976).
18.  J. O. Urmson, “Literature,” in Aesthetics, ed. George Dickie and Richard Sclafani
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977), p. 337.
19.  David Davies, “Multiple Instances and Multiple ‘Instances,’” British Journal of Aesthetics
50 (2010): 413.
20.  Some have argued that any instance, regardless of its provenance, eventually can
be traced back to an artist’s creative activity and is a p-instance of its work. See Jerrold
Levinson, “Autographic and Allographic Art Revisited,” Philosophical Studies 38 (1980):
375. Enrico Torrone has countered by arguing that allographic works can instantiate
“freestanding e-instances.” Though I’m suspicious of his claim that a p-instance of Pierre
Menard’s Don Quixote is also a freestanding e-instance of Cervantes’s novel, I find Torrone’s
work intriguing even if I am not afforded the time for further exploration here. See
Enrico Torrone, “Appearance and History: The Autographic/Allographic Distinction
Revisited,” British Journal of Aesthetics 58 (2018): 74–75.
21.  David Kunzle, The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European
Broadsheets from c. 1450−1825 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 2.
22.  For a robust defense of Batman no. 663 as a comic without appealing to pictorial
or literary content, see Roy T. Cook, “Do Comics Require Pictures? Or Why Batman #663
Is a Comic,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69 (2011): 285–96.
23.  Aaron Meskin, “Defining Comics?” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65 (2007): 374.