On an installation that became a romance novel and then a sculpture, and courting the NYPL’s acquisitions department.
I wanted to build a reading room devoted to visualizing obsolescence. So in 2006, I started collecting books that public libraries had discarded. Working with another artist, Maayan Pearl, I established an online database of this literature and held a concurrent exhibition at a gallery in New York. While culling through stacks of discarded material, I noticed that romance novels greatly outnumbered deaccessioned books of any other genre.
In the beginning, I was simply curious about the content of novels that had been deemed disposable: What characteristics and qualities, if any, defined deaccessioned love stories? I read romance novels to the point of saturation, searching for commonalities. Articulating the results of that research by writing my own manuscript seemed to be the logical next step.
Over the course of three months, I wrote the first three chapters of a romance novel, drawing the details largely from my own life. I hoped to submit the manuscript to publishing houses and collect the ensuing rejection letters, thereby insinuating myself into the process of acquisition and deaccession I had been investigating.
I eventually received six rejection letters, which I exhibited in a show titled “With, Drawn” at Cooper Union. A curator who saw the work approached me and offered to publish the book. Initially, I was not interested. But after talking about it with her, it became clear that writing a complete novel would allow me to go deeper into this process; rather than simply being rejected commercially, my book might actually get published and, later, deaccessioned.
Librarians are essentially curators of public knowledge. They strive to make their exhibition material universally available. This was especially true in the pre-digital world, when that knowledge could not be found elsewhere. I see the fiction collection of the New York Public Library as an alternative exhibition space. I couldn’t exhibit my work there if I didn’t publish the novel.
Originally, I had considered what I was writing to be pure content. I never planned on showing it to anyone beyond a few publishers, who would surely reject it. I thought of it primarily as a way of alluding to the private experiments all artists conduct as part of their practice. Originally, my novel was just part of the process by which I generally engage and refine the ideas for the work I’m making and will eventually exhibit. I planned on showing the rejection letters but nothing else. After going through this private process of writing the first chapters of the book, I would put the pages I had written through a conventional commercial mill, ending up with a single, two-dimensional, physical product. That document would be a reduction—and crystallization—of extensive cross-country travel, research, reading, and writing, not to mention a whole life’s worth of experiences and anecdotes—all boiled down to one irreducible object.
Libraries discard infinitely more works of fiction than nonfiction, because nonfiction titles are much more expensive and tend to have a lower circulation. What defines quality in a reference book is authority and timelessness. With fiction, the opposite is often true; people want the newest and hottest reads. I would wade through fields of romance novels to find five nonfiction books. There was something sad and exciting about that. On the one hand, these love stories had lost their luster. On the other, it meant people were actively reading and continuing to seek out new narratives.
The first three chapters were challenging; I wanted them to occupy a middle ground between a rejected manuscript and quality published fiction. I didn’t want to lose readers by spending an interminable amount of time writing about the Midwestern Lumberjack Championship, but I also didn’t want to refine the material to such a degree that it would clash with the casualness of the original sentiment.
After deciding to write the entire book, I did rewrite the first page entirely; I felt that was fair. Also, there wound up being a happy ending, which I was not expecting. Somehow, it seemed like the only way to wrap everything up. When you make autobiographical or quasi-autobiographical work, you have this chance to rewrite your own history as a series of happy endings. Of course, it’s also very true to the genre. Moonlit Madness Romance would never put out a book that didn’t have a happy ending.
Ultimately, my work is about shelf life. I’m interested in defining contemporary relevance through cultural detritus, examining objects that have become obscure after being popular. I hope Sexy Librarian isn’t destined only to be obscure.
Because the book is published as an unlimited edition, it’s impossible to track who owns it and where it goes. This was the first time my work has been placed outside a traditional exhibition model; not being able to control the context in which the work exists is at once liberating and frightening. I can never remove this work from circulation. You have to face your own death in that.
I imagine people who work primarily as writers struggle less with this anxiety. Ceding a degree of control over your work is inherent to the medium, and the idea of keeping it sacred in some way is unfathomable. I’d like to think my own work is democratic. But let’s say you publish something online and someone takes their laptop with them into the bathroom and reads your work on the crapper; that doesn't happen in traditional modes of exhibition for sculpture.
The latest iteration of this work is a site-specific installation in a window gallery in Chelsea. It includes a pile of dust I produced from grinding discarded public-library romance novels, some of which I then cast into solid wood. Over the course of the month, the dust disappears into the air, and the pile diminishes, the stories scattering, becoming less tangible. This echoes my experience of being a sculptor when the world is moving toward digital narratives. But mostly it’s about the desire to come into contact with the physical properties of a love story which itself has been eroded by time.
My step-grandmother, Irene Saunders, wrote romance novels, too. (The cover of one, Cornell’s Campaign, is featured in the installation.) You can buy her books now on Amazon.com for one cent, almost every book she’s written. She’s dead, and all these love stories of hers are dispersed across the world, existing in this limbic zone of accessibility; they’re nearly free, but Dreamboat Books still charges a penny for them. Dreamboat accidentally sent me Mountain Vengeance by Jason Manning with Irene’s The Difficult Daughter. When I informed them, they said to just keep both.
The project was designed to end when the NYPL acquisitions department evaluated Sexy Librarian. With typical bureaucratic sluggishness, it took six months for them to decide to accept or reject it. Their silence was maddening. I had friends request the book via email, with one writing: “I want to read the new romance novel Sexy Librarian. I have recommended it at your ‘Recommend a Book’ Web form, as have my friends. You still don’t have a copy. Why not?’”
I searched the catalogue compulsively, looking for my name. I even called the acquisitions department. The librarian said she couldn’t inform me of their decision over the phone, but right before hanging up she whispered, “It’s looking good.” On May 22, as I was checking the catalog, it happened. The library had not only accepted the copy that was sent to them, they had ordered three additional copies.
The public library in the town where the book takes place bought two copies. The reader-services librarian even blogged about the book, saying she wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. “If I could give this book zero out of five stars,” she wrote, “I would.”
Getting your $4.95 Harlequin paperback published and put in the supermarkets all over America for people you don't know to swoon over? What a weird goal that is.
—As told to Genevieve Smith
Images: Pure Pleasure Palace, Rochester, MN, 2006, digital C-print; I: “With, Drawn” installation view, 2007; deaccessioned library books from 25 US states; II: Sexy Librarian rejection letters, 2007, rejections on paper; III: “With, Drawn” installation view, 2007; discarded modified library desks as benches, collection of deaccessioned books; IV: The Size of Thoughts installation view, 2008; discarded-paperback-romance-novel dust pile, dust, and resin plank; V: Deaccessioned romance novels, Birmingham Public Library, 2006, digital C-print; VI: Moonlit Madness Romance electronic rejection, 2006, email; VII: “With, Drawn” installation view, 2007; discarded modified card catalogue; VIII: Study for Lumber #3 & #1, 2008, romance-novel covers framed in MDF; IX: Sexy Librarian book cover, 2008, design by Kristian Bjornard; X: Lumber (detail), 2008, discarded-paperback-romance-novel dust pile.