Galerie de Difformité

Galerie de Difformité (hybrid novel, to order click book from Northwestern University Press):

  • Awarded Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize
  • Named a Nobbie Best Book of 2011

What a work! This complex, mutable, shifting text is criss-crossed with self-referentiality and acts of deformance. Gretchen E. Henderson’s graphical imagination turns original work into found work and pastiche into performance on the page. The “book” explodes across distributed platforms and media, with a digitally networked existence that simultaneously builds on and destroys the integrity of the print object. Henderson’s Galerie is at once the quintessential meta-book and the radical un-making-of-the-book, a fascinating romp and an engaging reflection on how we make what we read in the current environment.

~Johanna Drucker, author of The Century of Artists’ Books and The Alphabetic Labyrinth

Galerie de Difformité is a cabinet of curiosities of things deformed, disabled, reformed and enabled.  A choose-your-own adventure that advises and counsels the reader how to change the work itself. Deformity becomes a modality of exploring the literary, the body, and the cultural through various lenses of historical periods and ideologies in which, for example, Dante’s Beatrice metonymically becomes the inspiration for writing ugliness in a series of displacements —a stolen part of remains is turned into a pen which then travels through history to inscribe various kinds of deformity. A book that combines the metacriticism of Tristram Shandy with the randomness of a complex video game, Henderson has created a unique work that aims at being extraordinary, arcane, and eminently accessible.  A book you won’t forget.

~Lennard J. Davis, author of Enforcing Normalcy and Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions

A totally enjoyable book! While the Galerie de Difformité speaks for itself, it does so in a raucous chorus—each page a patchwork of questions, prompts, ventriloquisms, and extra matter—the sum of which is uncountable—an ongoing challenge to the finality and good hygiene of the book. I love the messiness in Gretchen E. Henderson’s invitation to visit her, and any number of other ghosts, online, in galleries, and on the page. Got something to derange? Any miserliness a reader feels quickly mutates into an abundance of play.

~Thalia Field, author of ULULU (Clown Shrapnel) and Incarnate: Story Material

At this time of high anxiety about the future of the book—and consequently of reading—some innovative artists and publishers have been looking to the history of that seemingly imperiled object for inspiration in charting its future, a future that, fortunately, remains bright, my friends, brighter even than your new iPad’s backlit screen. Gretchen Henderson’s work reminds us that the history of the printed book, like the histories, or rather histoires, of exploration that emerged all around it, histoires of journeying and discovery, of first meetings and paradigm-shifting innovations, of the revolutionary development of a Republic of Letters, of the cross-pollination of cultures and ideas, and all the questions about who we think we are that attend these, begins not with mass-market bestsellers, rolling off an industrial press, but with handmade, irascible, and novel volumes, filled, like the first museums, with wonders and singularities. Already you may be thinking that this collective collection of histories is not nearly past, but rather that it sounds something like our World Wide Web-based, contemporary technological moment, that disembodied, all-seeing, always on, digital future with which we are intimately already engaged, right now, that Next that is both constructed by and revealed to us with every text, every tweet, every post, every tweak of our increasingly shared digital life. “What’s on your mind?” Maybe better to ask, “Who are we now?” which is precisely what Galerie de Difformité is doing. A novel, an essay, a sequence of poems, a museum catalog, a website, a physical and conceptual space, a cross-genre, cross-platform, neverending, ever-opening inquiry into the natures of deformity: Gretchen Henderson’s remarkable and uncontainable Galerie is all of these things and much, much more. It is, in fact, whatever you, reader, collaborator, subscriber, want it to be. It is, that is, what you, quite literally, will make it. Galerie de Difformité, that is, is the idea of a book as a reflection of its reader, a reflection of its reading, of reading, as much as writing, as a unique and widening network of cultural production and reproduction that, like meaning, reflects us back to ourselves, reflects to us our assumptions, not just about books, but about their content, about us, about each other, individually and socially, and how—like our bodies, like our books and our buildings, like all our technologies—our seemingly stable certainties, are, rather, constantly changing over time, making the once beautiful, for a time, ugly, and revealing that the varied processes of deformity are the true sublime.

~ Michael Mejia, author of Forgetfulness: A Novel

Cross the form of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book with fragmented, cut-up, torn-up, stretched, and unconventionally printed text. Skip the “of” of an English title and give it a French name, using the “de” form. Bend book into blog. Deformity here includes transgressing the boundaries of authorship and inviting “user-generated” fascicles. Work the book’s text into something despicable or respectable: Fill out the form. Click to put Ye Ugly Face on Facebook. The story’s play of conspiracies and resurrections resonate with the transformations of the reading process that book and reader enact. Further, the exercises in textual topology – and lettered exhibits calling for further deformation – show that remixing is not just for one-note works such as Dramatic Chipmunk. The book, and indeed this thoughtfully developed artist’s book, can also serve as seed for elaborate transformation and convolution.

~ Nick Montfort, President of the Electronic Literature Organization

[I]ntertwined with the contemporary Gloria Heys and an inter-intextual Gretchen Henderson [the presumed publisher], the Galerie de Difformité reinvigorates a tradition of classically motivated innovative fiction that directly involves the reader as complicit in the process of evaluation. We witness this Galerie as viewers stroll through a museum of curiosities or “freaks”: it is our gaze that mobilizes the meanings of the text, which comes to us in a variety of formal devices. There is the history of a heart-shaped bone fragment (“Lineage of a Bone”) along with various injunctions as to how to read/unread or view/unview the collected works (“Caution!!!!”)….The sheer diversity of voices at work in these “exhibits” (academic, poetic, instructive) and the learned application of so many compelling themes, creates a printed gallery of great expanse and possibility. This work is a bestiary of Enlightenment- and Renaissance-era aesthetic thinking, updated and applied to a world with rapidly changing ideas regarding the post-humanist legacy.

~ Davis Schneiderman, from The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing

Any way one looks at it, Galerie de Difformité is a prodigious undertaking… It takes the metaphor of the novel as a “baggy monster” to a whole new level… The emerging field of disability literature is not only about recording personal experiences of disability through memoir and poetry or even countering negative or paternalistic images of disability that have persisted in literature since the beginning of written language, it is also about using language and perceptions culled from the disability experience to create new forms. In that regard, Gretchen E. Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité makes a real contribution. It provides a seedbed for new ideas of how disability might be thought about and the forms that it might take. Beyond any appeal to the post-modern sensibility, Galerie de Difformité is sheer fun and, addictive, at that. Whatever it is that drove you as a child to want to keep returning to those “create your own adventure” stories is going to grab you here as well, but on a deeper and much more multi-layered level.

~ Michael Northern, Wordgathering

As [Julio Cortázar‘s] Hopscotch was for me the epitome of experimental narrative “order” some forty-five years ago, so Gretchen E. Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité & Other Exhumed Exhibits: A Declassified Catalogue has now become the paragon of experimental postmodern texts. It employs an amazing number and variety of reestablished and innovative techniques focused not simply on the book’s structure (the text even leaves the page as it calls for its own dismemberment, destruction, desecration, radical extension, etc.), but even disrupts the notion of a passive readerly text while qualifying that of the presumptive author’s presumptive authority. The most discernable and basic structural technique, in fact, explicitly disallows a straightforward reading of this gallery, giving instead a set of alternate choices for continuance at each section’s end, generally. But beyond Galerie‘s dazzle and display, tight-wire plunges and vertigo recoveries, like Cortázar’s, Henderson’s text is subtly varied and extraordinarily well written.

~ Skip Fox, from “You Can’t Step into the Same River Even the First Time,” Toad Suck Review


Traces of many books masque themselves inside the Galerie de Difformité (winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize, also named a Nobbie Best Book of 2011). With the head of a novel and the body of a poem, this book sphinxishly interrogates the nuanced concepts of deformity/normality, ability/disability, voyeurism/ exhibition—all with a wry sense of self- representational humor. Stories-within-stories take shape through the mysterious “Undertaker”—a deformed reincarnation of Dante’s Beatrice, entwined with the contemporary Gloria Heys and a fictional Gretchen Henderson, the presumed publisher. Lushly designed with crowdsourced images, text deconstructions, and enough narrative tomfoolery to make Tristram Shandy blush, the Galerie is both funhouse and curiosity cabinet, art catalogue and “choose your own adventure.” This bestiary of the novel-as-poem-as-essay-as-art grows outside of the bounds of the Book and, in the process, redefines deformity for the digital millennium. Collaborative deformation of the book is invited at:

Note: The book includes QR (or Quick Response) codes: barcode matrices that can be scanned with mobile devices to send readers on a digital exploration that extends the material book into digital realms, and back again, via the online gallery (including a 10-minute film, an e-book of related archival papers, and other supplements). The online gallery continues to grow the through collaboration, alongside a burgeoning electronic archive of collaborative chapbooks, with plans for a future exhibition of deformed copies of the published book, to travel in the tradition of an antiquated freak show (like this recent venture at Kenyon College):

If you are interested in learning more, participating individually or collectively, engaging friends or involving your class, please view the online gallery and the chapbook library, then contact me. Additionally, you can find syllabi from a variety of universities that have incorporated the book here. For a page-turning, sneak peek at the book, check out the book unbound.

To read more about Gretchen’s publications, or to read about Gretchen’s other books, visit Ugliness: A Cultural HistoryOn Marvellous Things Heard, Wreckage: By Land & By Sea, or The House Enters the Street.