WHAT AM I WRITING?
Updated: Aug 7, 2020
When people learn I'm a writer, they invariably ask me what I'm writing. This is typically an easy question for an author: a novel, a memoir, a book of poems, etc. Unfortunately, the form I'm working in is a bit more complicated than that, so when people ask me what I'm writing, it usually goes something like this:
ME: "So...it's a canon of this imagined future culture, and I just finished their sort of foundational epic poem—well, the first part of it. It has a lot of notes and commentary. See, it's part of this bigger work that's sort of like a future civilization's study bible, and—"
THEM: "Wait, what?"
ME: "Well, it's not really a bible. It's in the form of a sort of bible. It's a canon, like a scriptural canon—but in an annotated critical edition."
THEM: "A what?"
ME: "A critical edition, like with notes and essays and whatnot."
THEM: "Wait, you're writing notes, to your own work?"
ME: "Well, sort of. There are many different authors—they're all different characters. The first volume, the epic, is by a guy named Julian, and then there's his initial editor, and then there's the critical edition's editor—"
THEM: "Wait... What?"
And so on.
Or not. Things usually end around there, and we move on to another topic.
The reality is, it's fairly impossible for me to give a one-sentence answer to the question "What am I writing?"
But, for any who may be interested, I thought I'd attempt an explanation through a few blog posts so that at least somewhere, to some degree, the general outlines of what I'm trying to do are at least partially sketched.
This post will explain the form of my work the Icon.
The Icon is not one book but many. It is being written in the form of a canon. Canons are collections of multiple books. The most famous is probably the Bible, which, even though it's almost always printed between two covers like a single book, is actually multiple books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.).
A canon isn't just any old multi-volume book series, though. Canons are collections of books written by various people over long periods of time, and usually considered classic or especially significant in some way. The word "canon" means "ruler" or "measuring stick," since a group's canon is considered the model or paradigm according to which things should be compared, and which other authors and books aspire to. The Bible has been the most influential canon in Europe and America, but other parts of the world have their canons, too. In the East, the canon of Buddhist scriptures, called the Tripitika, is one good example.
Not all books in a canon are regarded with the same authority. The Muslim canon includes the Hadith, or the sayings of Mohammad, as well as the Quran, though the Quran is more authoritative. Similarly, Jews have the Tanach, but also the Mishnah and Talmud, canonical commentaries that are very important, though less so than the Tanach itself.
Not all canons are religious, though. The "Western canon" is a term used to describe the collection of classic works of Western literature, and includes authors from Homer to Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf.
For any canon, its exact limits are usually disputed, and sometimes hotly contested. Some groups (say, Christians) might have variant canons depending on the subgroup (Catholic or Protestant). A book considered significant, but not necessarily canonical, is called apocryphal (or even "deutero-canonical" in some contexts!).
In short, canons are messy things. So writing in the form of a canon is going to be messy, too. For me, the mess is all part of the fun. Canons are endlessly rich with history, variation, cumulative interpretation and re-interpretation, internecine disagreement and debate, etc. Because they include books by numerous authors, writing a canon offers the opportunity to create numerous characters. Giving each character a different perspective, focus, attitude, and agenda is something every author aims to accomplish. I'm doing the same thing, except my characters aren't interacting in a novel or on a stage, but through their successive layering in the canon.
For example, in the Bible, the Book of Acts has Paul as a character, who is himself an author of numerous books of the Bible which reflect upon Jesus of Nazareth, who, in the Gospels, is a character who reflects on the Hebrew Prophets, who reflected upon the writings of Moses. And on and on. The biblical canon, it has been observed, was a true hypertext:
With the Icon, I'm aiming for a similar effect by using the canon as a form. So, for instance, the poet character Julian comes through in his epic poem, GOD, and is in turn discovered and edited by an academic named A. Severan, who is in turn commented upon by the philosopher of "The Midwife," and so on. The result, I hope, will be a huge, complex tapestry, a palimpsest of different voices all speaking to fundamental human concerns through a variety of genres and styles.
Now, that's all just the canon. I'm not just writing a canon, though, I'm writing an annotated canon—a canon published as a critical edition.
A critical edition of a work is one that presents the work as it is, but supplements it with additional explanatory or scholarly material, such as notes, essays, maps, glossaries, etc. Examples of annotated religious canons include study bibles like the Oxford Annotated Bible or the HarperCollins Study Bible, study Tanachs, and now study Qurans, while an example of an annotated literary canon might be the Norton Anthology of World Literature, or even the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Annotated Icon is a work like one of these.
I am treating these annotated canons like a sort of literary form in which to write creative fiction.
Creative writing that employs the metafictional tools of the editor or annotator is, in itself, nothing new. Postmodern authors like Nabokov and Borges used them to great effect, to say nothing of the brilliance of Kierkegaard's numerous editorial removes (but more on him in another post). Meanwhile, the footnote has become fairly common in contemporary literature, perhaps most interestingly employed by David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers. That being said, no one that I know of has yet written in the form of a canon, let alone an annotated one.
Again, though, none of that matters if it weren't for the fun of it all. As someone who has read and written academic works, I like that medium, too. (Being able to invent the books I cite is all the better!)
In terms of content and message, though, working in this idiom on top of the canon itself offers a unique perspective. The academic, the scholar, the annotator—they can be a very helpful guide through a complicated work (in fact, this is the whole reason for critical editions). That being said, the academic, the scholar, the annotator—theirs is also a limited perspective, one (sometimes myopically) focused on things like compositional history, sources, provenance, etc. These can be fun layers to add to a text, not least because the scholarly consensus is usually at variance with received legend and tradition. But what is one looking for when they pick up a study bible? For those seeking spiritual guidance, the scholarly notes are dry and ancillary; you skip them altogether. For those seeking a degree in religion, perhaps they're all you read.
On this last point, I will also have more to say in a future post. But I would be remiss if I didn't at least nod to this: that what an annotated canon ultimately becomes, at least in part, is a choose-your-own-adventure story. With so many voices, layers, hypertexts, can there be only one way to read it? Or does the book ultimately become a reflection of the reader?
But I have said too much. And yet, I hope I've said enough? To explain what I'm writing in a single sentence clearly poses a serious challenge for me (as well as for any prospects of pitching this ridiculous project to an agent or publisher). Fortunately, these things don't concern me too much. If you're reading this, you're one of the few intrigued and interested enough to spend the extra time, and I appreciate it.
RELATED POSTS: This installment was on the form of my work, The Icon. For my installment on the broader genre of the work, check out VISIONARY ART, VISIONARY FICTION.