HENRY: The Site Transforming How We Experience Literature

The idea behind HENRY is so simple it’s revolutionary: bring the act of narration — a private, emotional experience between author and audience — to the digital age. “It was born from a transformative in-person reading experience,” co-founder Katherine Bernard says. She and boyfriend (and fellow writer) Shayne Barr attended a reading from short story writer Gary Lutz. “I expected it to be devastatingly sad,” she recalls. Instead, they ended up amused. Why? Lutz infused his performance with a bolt of vulnerable wit, even laughing at times. It impacted everything they thought they understood about the story. “There was this strain of humor in it we just totally missed.” The experience showed Bernard and Barr how important the writer’s performance could be in how we perceive literature. Soon, they began to brainstorm how they could personally progress that connection between author and reader.

“Obviously, the question becomes: ‘how do we bring this online?'” Bernard says. “The natural creative space for people our age is on the Internet.” HENRY, a “literary video symposium,” brings the modern reading experience online via documentary fims of their favorite authors, including Thessaly La Force, Stephanie LaCava. Shaun Powers, and Scott Simon, simply reading aloud. They are careful to set up the appropriate atmosphere for each passage, as to provide cinematic enhancement. The author becomes performer. “The idea is to be able to have this intimate experience, which is usually live in a small, very specific space, on your own time, wherever you are” Bernard says. Think of it as the Netflix equivalent to literary appreciation.

HENRY is named for the protagonist of “The Dream Songs,” a poem cycle by confessional writer John Berryman, who used the name as a sort of alter ago. It was a source of ambivalence for the troubled poet. “He actually really despised the name Henry, so we kind of liked that tension.” Bernard also admits she liked the overall literary quality of the name Henry. It stuck.

Bernard said creating the aesthetics of HENRY was one of the first steps. Barr shaved the word into the back of his head; that instantly became HENRY’s logo. Bernard explains they wanted to mash up the aesthetics of streetwear and literature traditions, to give the site an irreverent, fresh and youthful feel. “We didn’t want it to feel like Masterpiece Theatre,” she jokes. Bernard’s background as a fashion journalist for Vogue and other publications gave her unique insight into the rules of imagemaking — and better yet, how to break them.

HENRY kicked off last fall with a crop of impressive young authors. Bernard says she and Barr (who received his MFA in writing at Columbia University) approached authors whose work they personally loved, underscoring the passion for the literary experience that makes HENRY work. “People were interested in the experimentation of it,” she notes. Author Alexandra Kleeman, in particular, involved herself in the conception of her own film, “Hollywood Snow,” an original HENRY story and installation video that used the metaphor of mutilated white bread for modern day consumption and destruction.

Bernard sees this sort of multi-disciplinary expression as crucial to the survival of the medium of literature. Luckily, it comes easily to younger creatives, who are mainly eager and curious in making the latest technology work for their art (and vice versa). As an audience, too, we’re used to being able to experience our pop culture as visual, aural and verbal stimuli. Existing in one sphere — being a narrow and deep specialist — doesn’t excite us. That said, the allure of reading will never die, even if our attention spans allow for a shallow, briefer consumption. Bernard agrees: “The written word is not going anywhere. The way a word sounds when you see it, or even if you Tweet it, is very powerful and affecting.”

Intentional or not, HENRY addresses the attention span issue neatly. The films are usually under 10 minutes and artfully shot. They are designed to be enjoyed at your convenience, and don’t require burdensome cognitive “work” from their intended audience (one of the many inconvenient barriers the easily distracted find in conventional reading). And Bernard and Barr endeavor to make sure the authors feel comfortable in their performance. Bernard jests: “Authors are not rock stars; this is not their mode of expression.”

Of course, with the nature of modern storytelling changing so rapidly, and with musicians actually having a lot to do with how we perceive narrative, who is to say that authors can’t be rock stars, too? Whatever roles future writers may experiment with, with HENRY, they have an ideal stage. So, sit back, relax, and stream the borderless transmissions of the New Raconteurs.

Photos: Michael Nika.

About the Author: Fernando Bendana