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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Matthew Stadler 'Covers' a Novel Like a Musician Would Cover a Song

Posted By on Thu, Jun 23, 2011 at 12:00 PM

Matthew Stadler (right) holds Chloe Jarren's La Cucaracha, a "cover" of John le Carré's A Murder of Quality.
  • Matthew Stadler (right) holds Chloe Jarren's La Cucaracha, a "cover" of John le Carré's A Murder of Quality.

Is the book dead?

I've heard this question so many times you'd think books were as impossible to find as dinosaurs. In peril is the publishing industry as we know it, not the book, and with the advent of print-on-demand publishing, some are finding new models to create and distribute books. One such innovator is Matthew Stadler, who appeared in conversation last night with author and curator Lawrence Rinder at Kadist Art Foundation. In 2009 Stadler cofounded the Portland-based Publication Studios with Patricia No. Now with six imprints spanning North America, Publication Studios offers a glimpse of the possibilities of independent outfits producing handcrafted books.

Stadler is also an innovator in literature itself. He discussed at length his new novel, Chloe Jarren's La Cucaracha, which is what he calls a "cover novel" -- much like a cover song, essentially writing over and expanding upon an established work.

It seems utterly bizarre that someone who devotes his time to handcrafting unique, one-of-a-kind books to order would simultaneously publish and promote a novel based entirely on the plot, timing, and language of somebody else. But this is one of the benefits of print-on-demand publishing: to each his or her own, and I was interested enough to hear Stadler's argument.

"A good cover is both a tribute to the original and its own new song," he said, and then argued that writers have much to benefit from "the ways in which pop music embraces the ambiguity about authorship."

Stadler applied his argument to authorship and literature:

"If we set aside questions of voice, originality, or invention, authorship can be seen, as it is here, simply a wholehearted devotion of time and attention to the space of composition. Authorship is not self-expression; it is participation in something that precedes or survives us. Everything we do or write is composed from something we inherit, and we always get it wrong. What matters or moves me in most covers arises from the inevitable failure of the cover artist to 'get it right' -- the singer's voice cracks, the guitarist's fingers cross and mess up, and thus a style is born."

To clarify, Stadler played a video of the Byrds' original song "Eight Miles High" (in the clip above) and then a video of Hüsker Dü's cover (in the clip below). Clearly, a cover novel would seek to function in much the same way (and if you watch both of those videos, you'll see what he means).

Rinder made a point of admitting that this very idea has been "one of the essential tropes of 20th- and 21st-century books and art in general," pointing to James Joyce's hyperconscious rerendering of Homer's Odyssey as a basis for the structure of Ulysses. Nevertheless, we then listened to Stadler read the first chapter of John le Carré's A Murder of Quality, on which he has based La Cucaracha, and then the first chapter of his work. You can watch Stadler read these first chapters, in sequence, below:

Stadler stressed repeatedly that he wanted to feel like, in writing this "cover," he was not doing anything wrong. Originally, he published the book using Lulu under the name Chloe Jarren. But when the book took of,f he appended his name. Somehow, Stadler never adequately answered how this move did not contradict his intention to achieve an ambiguity of authorship, and I left disappointed that we hadn't heard more about Publication Studio.

I have no interest in reading Stadler's cover novel. What does it mean to be an author if you are merely replicating particular tensions and filling in the plot dots? I admit this sounds like a fantastic exercise, but I don't see the merit in (or need for) distribution. But then I never cared for cover songs; they always make me feel like there are too many artists and not enough things to be said.

Is the book dead?

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Evan Karp


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