McQuade, Donald, and Christine McQuade. Seeing & Writing. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2000.563 pages. $40.50 paper. ISBN 0-312-18016-0
When I first looked at a review copy of Seeing & Writing, I was almost taken aback by its unapologetic focus on the visual and its more-than-usual emphasis on popular culture. As opposed to more traditional textbooks of writing, featuring difficult but thought-provoking essays on Balinese cockfights or writing as re-vision, for example, this new textbook overflows with photographs, advertisements, posters, comic strips, and art reproductions, in addition to a number of stories, poems, and compelling though suspiciously brief selections from Philip Lopate, Katha Pollit, and Susan Sontag, among others. It has been noted and argued that the proliferation of visual images in contemporary culture has significantly reduced our students' ability to read closely, in a linear fashion, with an eye for depth and complexity rather than speed and superficiality. Seeing & Writing seemed to me a strange and disturbing validation and authorization of the kind of values that composition courses to some extent attempt to counteract. Not that pandering to the actual interests of college freshmen is in itself an unworthy enterprise, but the editors of Seeing & Writing, in my initial opinion, failed to cross the line where entertainment stops and learning begins, offering a book that is colorful, flashy, accessible and, yes, interesting, though seriously lacking in its potential to cultivate students' respect for language and thinking. Many colleagues in my department shared my alarm and skepticism.
After teaching Seeing & Writing for one semester, as an experiment of sorts, I claim that the textbook works somewhat better than it looks; I am ready to consider it a praiseworthy effort. Its focus on the relationship between the verbal and the visual proves particularly attractive to first-year college students, especially when it also happens to overlap with their own professional interests, as is the case at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City where I teach. The book manages to achieve a sort of balance between texts (essays, fiction, poetry, etc.) and images (art, photography, cartoons, advertisements – the last two actually combining pictures and writing). The images themselves frequently offer as much opportunity for intelligent analysis as do more traditional texts. There is a danger here still, insofar as students may begin to disregard or discredit verbal texts on account of their being not as easily "absorbable" as the visuals and usually requiring more time and attention for response. It is crucial, therefore, that the instructor spend as much time on close-reading and interpreting the verbal part of the book as she would spend on discussing images. With a proper equilibrium of images and writing, Seeing & Writing can prove to be a rich and enjoyable reader with the ability to engage and provoke students in degrees previously unseen in many a composition course taught in American colleges and universities.
The topics around which the whole book is structured are particularly appealing to young people. These include "Observing the Ordinary," "Coming to Terms with Place," "Capturing Memorable Moments," "Figuring the Body," "Engendering Difference," "Constructing Race," "Reading Icons," and "Writing in the Age of the Image." The editors chose the kinds of subjects that are likely to cause lively debates and discussions in the classroom and, in most cases, their strategy brings good results. Though some topics work better than others (I especially recommend "Figuring the Body" and "Engendering Difference"), on the whole there is almost never a risk that students will fail to prepare or understand their readings – many of them told me afterwards how much they had looked forward to future reading assignments because they found them "so interesting." The level of difficulty also changes, but never as to prevent lengthy, sophisticated, and frequently heartfelt class discussions leading to intelligent written arguments. There is much to choose from here, from Wolfgang Tillmans's mind-boggling Ordinary Objects to Frank Fourier's picture of Omayra Sanchez accompanied by Isabel Allende's impressionistic response, from Don DeLillo's sketch Videotape to Lauren Greenfield, Ashleigh, 13, with Her Friend and Parents, Santa Monica, a perfect study for an introductory "close reading of an image" exercise at the beginning of the course. Old favorites, such Sontag's controversial essay On Photography, serve as good model essays as well as departure points for writing assignments, especially since students tend to agree and disagree with Sontag in equal numbers, which is usually the best formula for a successful class session. The incontestable merit of this textbook lies precisely in its ability to combine writing and pictures: I myself can think of no better idea than putting On Photography next to Duane Hanson's life-like sculptures satirizing American tourists, which promises even more opportunities for thoughts, arguments, and compelling essays. Every "text" in this book, whether verbal or visual, is followed by a pair of questions fashioned to provoke initial responses, usually drawn from students' individual observations or personal experiences. Another pair of questions encourages students to expand their initial findings and construct written arguments based on those texts and, frequently, on related "readings" from other parts of the book.
The book's emphasis on popular culture can also be turned into an advantage. Some topics and images are no doubt unnecessary, like the sequence of photos portraying Madonna's ever-changing fashion styles, the pair of snapshots revealing Cindy Jackson's face and body before and after her series of plastic surgeries, or even the album-cover representing the questionable appeal of androgynous Marilyn Manson. At the same time, we also find here samples of Tibor Kalman, Andy Warhol, and Art Spiegelman – sometimes the instructor's biggest task will be her ability to separate the good from the bad. The book also contains a great deal of material that aims at making students not only better readers and writers, but also better citizens. A whole section is devoted to the question of nationality and national symbols and ideals, such as the American flag, the right to free speech, etc.; the problems of class, race, and gender also given due attention. The reader offers more than enough opportunity to undertake both textual and cultural analysis and, because of its constant emphasis on context, facilitates the process of establishing links between particular "texts" and their social frameworks. In most cases, such procedures manage to extract meaning and value. In the age of obvious meanings and superficial values, the very possibility of searching and finding complex meaning or meanings in texts, of whatever kind, constitutes the best preparation students can have for their future lifetimes of thinking, reading, and writing.
Interestingly enough, the last chapter of the book is entitled "Writing in the Age of the Image," an uneasy elegy to the traditional book culture, or perhaps a warning against the risks and ramifications of the current age of info-glut. Essays penned by such critics as Sven Birkerts and Todd Gitlin are brilliant and passionate, but they seem oddly out of place in a textbook that should pride itself on being able to overcome the dangers these essayists signal. Seeing & Writing definitely marks a shift from the verbal to the visual, but it contains treasures and riches that are bound to please both teachers and students. No one who uses it will be disappointed.