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What’s the Matter with Meta? Reflections of/on the Book in J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S

Alexander Starre, Freie Universität Berlin

Preparing the famous Benjy-section of The Sound and the Fury for publication in 1929, William Faulkner quibbled with his editor over the issue of typography. He thought it best to use “colored ink” to indicate the abrupt time shifts in the chapter. Having to settle for italicized printing instead, he conceded in a letter: “I think it is rotten, as is. But if you wont have it so, I’ll just have to save the idea until publishing grows up to it.”[1] In 2012, the London-based Folio Society finally granted Faulkner his wish, producing a deluxe limited edition of the novel with fourteen different colors of ink. Departing from this episode, my paper provides an outlook on a peculiar slice of contemporary American literature. On par with Faulkner’s design ethos, a growing number of authors have started to integrate the printed artifact into their poetics, spawning novels and other literary works that form a challenge to the ingrained, text-centered methodologies of literary scholarship. While this development is tied closely to the perceived digital revolution, it also forms another stage in the gradual co-evolution of literary forms and material media.

This digital chasm in media history has wide-ranging consequences, as Roger Chartier claims: "Our current revolution is obviously more extensive than Gutenberg's. It modifies not only the technology for reproduction of the text, but even the materiality of the object that communicates the text to readers." [2] Since every text now faces a choice between screen and book as its potential distribution channel, authors and readers need to distinguish whether the material medium belongs to the inside or the outside of a literary work. Writers such as Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Reif Larsen have created complex “book fictions” that push the reality effect outward into readers' hands. Fusing language and design, such book fictions emphasize the act of reading as an embodied cultural technique built on specific material artifacts. My study Metamedia, on which this paper builds,attempts to attune literary studies to its medial context so as to better grasp the place of printed artifacts within the contemporary media ecology. With the material text at its center, literary analysis can begin to observe and explain the systemic functions of publishing houses, book design, and the tactility of reading.

After some methodological and historical reflections, my paper will engage with the recent novel S (2013), written by Doug Dorst and co-produced by writer-director J. J. Abrams. S is not a meta-fiction, but a meta-medium: it entangles the levels of discursive content and material form to a level at which neither component has precedence over the other. Through its lavish design, the novel radicalizes the concept of the editorial fiction, as familiar from such classic titles as Nabokov’s Pale Fire. S speaks to the ongoing effort of American authors to probe beyond the concerns of postmodernism.


[1] qtd. in Noel Polk, “Introduction,” New Essays on The Sound and the Fury (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 8.

[2]  Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1995), 15.