Justin St. Clair
Justin St. Clair | Professor
Specializes in sound studies and contemporary fiction.
|What, exactly, is a soundtracked book? Quite simply, it is a book — a physical, print publication or its digital analogue — for which a recorded, musical complement has been produced. First patented in 1917, "books that sing" have been hiding in plain sight for more than a century. Offering both a short history and a theoretical framework, this project is the first extended study of the soundtracked book as a media form. Early examples were primarily developed for the children's market, but by the middle of the twentieth century, ethnographers had begun producing book-and-record combinations that used print to contextualize musical artifacts. The last half-century has witnessed the rapid expansion of the adult market, including soundtracked novels from celebrated writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Kathy Acker, and Mark Z. Danielewski. While they are often dismissed as playthings or gimmicks, soundtracked books nonetheless represent an interesting case study in media consumption. Unlike synchronous multimedia forms, the vast majority of soundtracked books require that audience activity be split between readtime (the duration spent visually accessing the print component) and runtime (the duration of the musical recording). These competing timelines not only define the user experience but often shape the content of singing books as well.|
|This study examines postmodern literature — including works by Kurt Vonnegut, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Ishmael Reed, and Thomas Pynchon — arguing that one of the formal logics of postmodern fiction is heterophonia: a pluralism of sound. The postmodern novel not only bears earwitness to a crucial period in American aural history, but it also offers a critique of the American soundscape by rebroadcasting extant technological discourses. Working chronologically through four audio transmission technologies of the twentieth century (the player piano, radio, television audio, and Muzak installations), this project charts the tendency of ever-proliferating audio streams to become increasingly subsumed as background sound. The postmodern novel attends specifically to this background sound, warning that inattention to the increasingly complex sonic backdrop allows for ever more sophisticated techniques of aural manipulation — from advertising jingles to mood-altering ambient sound. Building upon interdisciplinary work from the emerging field of sound culture studies, this book ultimately contends that a complementary, yet seemingly contradictory double logic characterizes the postmodern novel’s engagement with narratives of aural influence. On the one hand, such narratives echo and amplify postwar fiction’s media anxiety; on the other hand, they allow print fiction to appropriate the techniques of aural media. This dialectical engagement with media aurality — this simultaneous impulse to repudiate and to utilize — is the central mechanism of the heterophonic novel.|
Articles and Book Chapters
- "Sonic Methodologies in Literature." The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sonic Methodologies, edited by Michael Bull and Marcel Cobussen. Bloomsbury, 2021.
- "Notes on Soundtracked Fiction: The Past as Future." The Edinburgh Companion to Literature and Music, edited by Delia da Sousa Correa, Edinburgh University Press, 2020.
- "Music and Sound." Thomas Pynchon in Context, edited by Inger H. Dalsgaard. Cambridge University Press, 2019.
- "Literature and Sound." The Routledge Companion to Sound Studies, edited by Michael Bull. Routledge, 2018.
- "The Reality of Fiction in a Virtually Postmodern Metropolis: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge." The City since 9/11: Literature, Film, Television, edited by Keith Wilhite. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016.
- "White Noise and Television Sound." Journal of Sonic Studies 3.1, Fall 2012.
- "Mahfouz and the Arabian Nights Tradition." Approaches to Teaching the Works of Naguib Mahfouz, edited by Waïl S. Hassan and Susan Muaddi Darraj. MLA Approaches to Teaching World Literature, 2012.
- "Eat Your Fried Mush: The Curious Case of Wee Willie Shantz." Big Muddy 11.2, Fall 2011.
- "Binocular Disparity and Pynchon's Panoramic Paradigm." Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, edited by Jeffrey Severs and Christopher Leise. University of Delaware Press, 2011.
- "Soundtracking the Novel: Willy Vlautin’s Northline as Filmic Audiobook." Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies, edited by Matthew Rubery. Routledge, 2011.
- "Borrowed Time: Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and the Victorian Fourth Dimension." Science Fiction Studies 113 (38.1), March 2011.
- "An Antidote to Orthodoxy." Los Angeles Review of Books, June 1, 2021.
- Review of Neil Campbell's Under the Western Sky: Essays on the Fiction and Music of Willy Vlautin. Western American Literature 54.3, Fall 2019.
- "Rereading Thomas Pynchon: Postmodernism and the Political Real." Los Angeles Review of Books, March 4, 2015.
- "Thomas Pynchon Understands the Power of Conspiracy Theories." Salon, September 25, 2013. [Reprint of LARB review.]
- "Pynchon's Postmodern Legacy, or, Why Irony Is Still Relevant." Los Angeles Review of Books, September 21, 2013.
- Review of Michael W. Clune's American Literature and the Free Market, 1945–2000. Modern Fiction Studies 57.2, Summer 2011.
- "The Business of Art: An Interview with Kevin Gordon." Sense 1.8, March 2011.
- Entry on Mark Z. Danielewski. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Writers and Their Work, edited by Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones. Facts on File, 2010.
- Entry on A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Writers and Their Work, edited by Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones. Facts on File, 2010.
- "Generic Computations." Review of Mark L. Brake and Neil Hook’s Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science. Science Fiction Studies 107 (36.1), March 2009.
- "The Opposite of Literature." Review of Ken Gelder’s Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. Science Fiction Studies 101 (34.1), March 2007.
- "Celebrating Reproduction: Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain." The Iowa Review, Online Edition, 2002.