A Brief Comment for the Foreign Reader of Liberature
When in 1999 I postulated liberature as a type or genre of literature in which the text is
integrated with the physical space of the book into a meaningful whole and in which all
elements (from the graphic ones to the kind of paper (or other material) and the physical
shape of the book) may contribute to its meaning, I primarily meant my own work, which is
characterised by such features. When I looked closely into the basic definitions of literary
studies, such as “the literary work”, “form”, and “matter”, I became acutely aware that Oka-
leczenie 1, an unconventional triple-volume work on which I had been working for a couple of
years together with Katarzyna Bazarnik, evades nearly all traditional categories. That was
connected with the fact that the material form of the literary work, i.e. the book and its
typography (in its broadest sense) remained practically outside the scope of critical and
theoretical interest of literary scholars (and writers in general, as well). On the other hand, the
familiar category of “the artist’s book” remained outside the scope of my interests, as it would
locate my work (and similar books) rather in the sphere of visual arts than literature, which
would amount to a misunderstanding. We intended Oka-leczenie to be a literary work, only
expressed in a more complete form – in the form of the book – written and designed in all its
details by its authors, and not by typesetters and desktop designers employed by a publisher.
That is why I coined “liberature”, a term which seemed quite an adequate name for this kind
of integral, authorial works, the name which would point to a harmonious union of literature
and the book (from Latin “liber”).
However, it was immediately clear to me that the term might be useful in other
respects, and that the concept of “liberature” might be fruitfully applied not only to
contemporary works but also similar literary works of the past. It seems to me that none of the
terms functioning so far has been fully fitting for the kind of writing in which the word and
the material space of the book are integrated into an organic whole, and in which the shape of
the volume, colour of the page or number of pages are so important. Literary criticism has
always had troubles with such books. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Blake’s illuminated poems,
Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés Mallarmégo, Futurists’ books, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake,
Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, Saporta’s Composition No. 1, B. S. Johnson’s
Because of technological difficulties it was issued only in a prototype edition of nine copies in the year 2000.
Publishing House Ha!art is going to bring out a regular edition in its series “Liberatura”.
novels and some novels of the American postmodernists such as Gass, Federman, Sukenick –
all these works evade an adequate description within the framework of traditional literary
criticism, also because their material features leave literary scholars helpless and at a loss.
“Visual poetry” or “concrete poetry”, because of their limited scope, do not render specificity
and formal variety of these texts. The terminology associated with visual arts and bibliophily,
such as the above mentioned “artist’s book”, “the beautiful book”, “author’s book”,
“conceptual book” or simply “book-art”, is equally inadequate, as it locates these works,
informed by an attitude similar to my approach to the word, outside the scope of interest of
readers and literary critics, and consequently, outside literature. (In fact, numerous artists’
books can be labelled as liberature (unrecognised as such so far), so it is high time to take
them out of collectors’ display cases and galleries and encourage people to read them;
whereas the term “artists’ books” should be spared for the books which lack the essential
literary component, and which are closer to installations, sculpture or origami).
It is hard to specify in a definite way the generic status of liberature, even more to
forecast if the term will be widely accepted (although some interest has been signalled by
scholars from abroad, especially Joyceans and those studying iconicity in literature).
However, it seems that the seed of the idea has fallen into the fertile soil, as one can already
see some of its first fruit. The first Liberature Reading Room was launched in Krakow,
Poland, in 2002 (ul. Karmelicka 27, www.liberatura.pl), a book series „Liberatura” has been
published since 2003 by Ha!art, one of the most influential new literary and cultural
magazines in Poland. Interdisciplinary research is carried out in a few academic centres in
Poland, with the view to work out tools for a critical analysis of liberature and to accustom the
potential reader with this type of literature (the most significant work has been done so far by
Katarzyna Bazarnik of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, who has not only co-authored
liberatic books but also edited Od Joyce’a do liberatury (2002), the first critical book on the
subject, and by Agnieszka Przybyszewska of the University of Lodz). Since liberature is a
universal phenomenon (works characterised by the above mentioned features can be found in
any literature around the world) one can hope that results of this research and studies can be
also applied outside Poland, too. And only this will truly test usefulness of this new concept.
translated by Katarzyna Bazarnik
[Kraków, July 2008]
NOTE: This commentary was published under the title Post Scriptum – En kort kommentar til den udenlandske læser af
„Liberatur” in the Danish literary magazine „Den Blå Port“ no. 79, October 2008, with a translation of Zenon Fajfer’s first
essay Liberatur. Appendiks til en håndbog over litterære termer.