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Book Syntax: In Conversation with Sally Alatalo

David Shook

Sally Alatalo is Founder and Director of Sara Ranchouse Publishing, perhaps the most intriguing small press in America today, exploring the relationship between the semantics and syntax of books—the relationship and interaction between their imaginary content and their physicality.

betweenclean122Two of the Press’ most exciting titles are “Between Clean,” (2008) a pantoum made of words found in a 1953 mechanic’s handbook—in this case, Alatalo’s father’s—printed on a long silver scroll curled around a bolt, sandwiched between its head and a single nut. Another, Love Takes Two & The Other Side, (2006) written by Alatalo under the pseudonyms Sal Clarke and Anita M-58, explores and subverts the similes and metaphors of contemporary romance novels.

I engaged with Professor Alatalo by email; she quickly created an open space to discuss the nature of book, the future of publishing, and  literary performance.

You’ve talked about our culture’s “tendency to legitimize” printed material—how does the legitimization process work compared to the fine art world? I mean, both have systems of critique, economies, conversational dynamics, but could you explain how you think they’re different?

I don’t operate much in the fine art world, so I’m not really able to compare. In fact, part of my motivation to use printed publications as a format comes from a desire to circumvent the fine art world and to situate the work, whether visual or literary, in a more populist space—that of the book.

betweenclean2You’ve also said that the form of production—in your case, most often the standard paperback format—influences the content of the work you publish. I think that brings up an interesting idea: the physicality of the book. I know that I have a tendency to think of a book largely as a collection of words, incidentally preserved in the format of the book. Is your perception of the book that its physical form is an important—even integral—part of what it is?

For me, yes. That is why different projects take on different formats, and why I’m not able to just hit the “print-on-demand” button. The shape of the book, the design of the page, the method of production, and how these all interelate, have significance and meaning.

Genre fiction is oftentimes considered a sub-literary pursuit—not of course without its occasional literary champions. What makes genre fiction so interesting to you?

I’m interested in its popularity, familiarity and availability, and in tapping into that. I like that the forms, both physical and literary, are easily approached, and so become a place to intercept and subvert without the intimidation that an art gallery or more literary tome might provoke.

Explain the concept of “book informants,” and their contribution to the production of formulaic literature.

I see the books as informing the content of the projects I’ve produced, the romances especially, in that the language is co-opted, reorganized and recontextualized as a means of writing. They rely on the extant texts provided by the books.

What’s the single best simile or metaphor you’ve found in a romance novel? Are there really as many phallic metaphors as we outsiders assume?

“The bookseller’s wife had arms like large hams.”

No, not as many phallic metaphors as you suggest might be assumed. Most of the similes have to do with the female protagonist, with whom the reader largely identifies.

betweenclean3I like your idea that “each [printing] technology has its own syntax.” What is the syntax of now, and what is the syntax of the future?

This is a hard question, and should be a dissertation!

Various print technologies, from movable type to photomechanical and digital, scribe images and text differently. Consequently, each has accrued its own measures and standards of quality, and most important, conventions of reading.

During the last couple of decades the photomechanical has gradually become obsolete in commercial production. We are now in a transitional period in which most of the printed material we see has been designed with digital interfaces, but may be printed either with offset lithography or digital technologies such as inkjet or laser printers.

How print is produced imbues it not only with particular physical qualities, but stylistic ones. These contribute to the way we see and understand the content, e.g., with an awareness of the social or historical context in which it was produced.

How will electronic devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader evolve that syntax? Do you think they’ll contribute to the conception of the book as a dephysicalized, immaterial object, or do you think that the devices will give publishers and authors just one more avenue to explore the relationship of semantics and book syntax?

I do not yet own a Kindle, but I’ve seen (in a kind of double irony) an online demonstration, on my computer screen, of its similarity to a printed page. I think that this purposeful mimicking of the physical book that we are accustomed to is probably a symptom of a transition in technologies, and that as we learn to and become more comfortable reading in this new way, perhaps different customs will evolve. I hope that designers, publishers and authors continue to carefully consider the physical means by which their work is transmitted, and how these may contribute to meaning.

Tell me about some of the performative play that Sara Ranchouse has engaged in.

The first performance I did, in conjunction with the release of The Continental Caper (Detective Series #2, 1993), was situated at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, during an opening for a group exhibition to do with artists’ multiples. The book was a critique of Raymond Chandler’s annoying habit of describing his female characters only by means of their hair (the redhead, the blonde, etc.). I tried to make the point that neither women, nor their hairstyles, are as homogenous as Chandler portrays. I also presented the paraphernalia of hairdressing, including diagrammatic drawings, sophisticated tools, and a particular kind of color theory, to suggest that the practice of this important popular cultural art is not so different from that of an artist or sculptor trained in an art school.

The performance consisted of me dressed as I imagined the actress Arlene Dahl might have appeared to sign her 1965 book, Always Ask A Man—Arlene Dahl’s Key to Femininity. (Prentice Hall, Inc.) The idea was to draw attention to the book by virtue of the performance of an ultra-stylized female character (as in Chandler), but whose elaborate and fabulous hair refused stereotype.

Incidental to this event, I discovered a great feeling of agency over the distribution and sale of the book, since, as the gallery was not prepared to do so, it became my responsibility to directly manage the monetary transactions along with the signing. This has provoked an enduring consideration of the entire operation of publishing, from concept to distribution, as a series of potential events.

Subsequent to this piece, I have used the space of the book signing as a means to perform the texts, most often in genre character drag. However, of late I have become more engaged with and reliant on the texts themselves—both the writing and reading of them—and less on the characters.

As with the paperbacks themselves, the book signing is an interesting space, and a familiar one to most people—more so probably than performance art or experimental theater, and so it has a built-in audience. Whenever I do a release I try to pair it with some kind of event, whether it’s a reading, or in the case of a book that is more visual, maybe a mini-exhibition of related work in the bookstore just for the duration of the signing. For the release of Alison Knowles’ book, we’re going to perform her paper and bean instruments.

September 2009

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