Category Archives: art

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My love affair with Ann Patchett

I think Ann Patchett is amazing on so many levels. She’s so uniquely talented, is incredibly prolific, and writes nonfiction as well as fiction. I loved her beautiful tribute to Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty, as much as her wonderful novels like Bel Canto and State of Wonder.  And I’m a bit biased at the moment because she recently made a large donation to my small town library, which I talked about recently on this blog.

I was pleased to find an article on writing based on her book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, for brainpickings.org that offers such interesting and lovely advice for writers from one of the masters of her craft. In it she talks about how writing nonfiction for her has been easy, while writing fiction has always been more challenging. She talks about the importance of learning to forgive yourself in creating art, which she feels is critical. She uses metaphors that resonate, even if they initially feel a stretch of the imagination.  Why do writers so often feel they can send early work to The New Yorker when musicians would never think they could play at Carnegie Hall after just a month of practice!

Words of wisdom here from a magnificent and gifted writer who not only writes beautiful books, but is so open to sharing her knowledge and skills with other writers. She’s a true gift. Enjoy!

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#READBOOKS

I won’t lie, one of the biggest reasons I was so excited to get a smartphone (it’s been a little over a year, happy anniversary!) was because I wanted to see what this “Instagram” business was all about. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I think it was the first thing I downloaded onto my brand new iPhone and promptly forgot about all the other cool things the phone could do.

But, I digress. Because what I really wanted to highlight was the absolute beauty that are the Instagram accounts of publishers, booksellers or simply the literarily-obsessed. Books, as we know, are wonderful things mainly because of the stories they tell, the gorgeous writing, the action, suspense, emotion and wonder.

But books are also pretty. Readers are enigmatic. Jokes and signs about books are witty and fun. Authors are real people with interesting lives. When I saw this Huffington Post compilation of top notch literary Instagram accounts, I promptly explored each and every one—and then dove into the search even further, so pretty much my entire feed for a little while was pictures of and about books. Which, if I’m being totally honest, it totally a-okay.

What I also found in my search was that aside from being purely visually entertaining, these posts and photos can actually be really, really helpful in figuring out what books to read next, discovering new authors and getting news about what the next big literary sensation is going to be.

Searching hashtags with author names, publishers and imprints, genres, or more specific ones like #FridayReads, #BookClub, #WhatShouldIRead is both really fun (it’s like a research adventure!) and informative.

Social media has become a huge factor in the way books and authors are marketed and promoted and the ways to do it are becoming more and more diverse and manifold. Where Facebook, Twitter and even Tumblr can be seen as obvious go-tos, Instagram is less of a first thought. In reality, it’s rich with possibility. Books are visual, tangible objects and that, as well as the calming image of an open book or someone reading, should be celebrated.

Do you guys have any great bookish accounts you can recommend me? I’m always looking!

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Of Mice and Franco

franco5

…and the crowd goes wild.

Last week I attended the current Broadway production of Of Mice and Men and was a little skeptical going into it. I love Steinbeck. And I was skeptical of whether Mr. James Franco – Hollywood hotshot, Gucci model, MFA-addict, director,  novelist, selfie apologist  – could bring to the role of George the gravitas and subtlety it deserves. I mean, the man is stepping into Gary Sinise’s shoes. And no one can compare with Sinise, not in my book (and not in the audiobook, which he narrates. I digress).

But maybe I should’ve given young James a little more benefit of the doubt. After all, a common literary thread runs through a lot of his endeavors, random and egomaniacal though they may seem – Faulkner is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps maybe pursuing other creative interests is of benefit to a writer’s abilities. Perhaps directing a movie develops a writer’s understanding of narrative pacing. Maybe taking on different roles as an actor enhances a novelist’s ability to bring different characters to life on the page.

Who I am I to look askance on anyone who runs whole-heartedly after their interests, even if those interests don’t seem to line up neatly. Maybe our culture is learning to appreciate Renaissance men – and women – and in future we won’t be so eager to identify people (or ourselves) with “doctor” “poet” “teacher” “painter, sticking them inside a box labelled with one vocation.franco4

And I have to admit – the show was great. Franco conducted himself admirably as one of a very talented cast. Maybe the real reason behind my anti-Franco bias is that I’m jealous of him for having more than one talent! The only thing I’m good at is selfies. At least we have that in common.

What do you think? Does it make you a better writer to pursue other creative outlets? Or do you view that as time that could be better spent on your writing?

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Stereotype versus Archetype

Earlier this month, at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference, I was part of a panel discussion on “ethnic” writing with four very talented writers, Adam Stumacher, Qais Akbar Omar, Jennifer DeLeon, and Celeste Ng.  As you might imagine, I was—for better and worse—the designated voice of the “marketplace,” and I tried to address the commercial considerations of publishing books that John Cheever didn’t write.

At one point, the issue of cover design came up, and Ng, whose novel EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU comes out from Penguin Press this June, said she felt fortunate that her publisher created a cover refreshingly devoid of elements (bamboo leaves, jade figures, gold coins) that seem to be the go-to images for books by Asian writers. I noted that there is an analogous complaint about books that engage Islam, an overwhelming number of which feature the image of a veiled woman. A couple of days ago I spotted this blog entry that illustrates, quite effectively, that “all books about Africa have the same cover.” This same entry also cites blogger Marcia Lynx Qualey, who provides a gallery of covers featuring ladies in burqas.  

Book covers perform a function; their job is to be visually arresting, instantly evocative and appealing to a consumer. Most rely on archetypal imagery that stands in for larger ideas, and broadly communicates a book’s themes and settings. A cover design is effective not because  (or not only because) it is original or “accurate,” a cover design is effective if it sells the book.  And yet, inasmuch as I am a voice of the marketplace, over-reliance on the same set of images—images that reflect back and shape our own imperfect notions of a place, a faith or a culture– seems problematic. I think publishers need to be careful to avoid trading in stereotype, rather than archetype.

What do you think? Do you see similar done-to-death themes in other “ethnic” or international literature? 

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Illustrators at Dystel.com

In case you haven’t seen it yet, I wanted to use my blog time today to alert readers to a new feature on our website: illustration samples!

Over the past few years, we’ve added a good number of author/illustrators to our list. And so we thought it would be useful to have a single page where readers could see samples of our clients’ work without having to click over to a slew of personal websites. (Though of course we encourage that, too!)

Hence, please check out our DGLM author/illustrators, either from the menu on the right or directly at http://www.dystel.com/illustration-samples/. You’ll find a wonderful breadth of styles and techniques here, not to mention a whole lot of cuteness!

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Less is more

I judge books by their covers. Literally. And so does everyone else.

Lately, I’ve handed down some pretty harsh judgments. Not many covers have really called to me in recent months. In fact, the covers that catch my eye tend to be the least obnoxious, the ones with the simplest designs and quietest colors.

For instance, check out Boris Kachka’s HOTHOUSE.

 

 

I mean, c’mon. That’s a pretty cool cover. Nice color contrast and some fancy text. This book has absolutely everything going for it. Check out Jane’s post, and you’ll see what I mean.

 

What about this one?

 

 

Chad Harbach’s THE ART OF FIELDING has a pretty similar style to Kachka’s HOTHOUSE, and again, I love it. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong designing a book cover with some nice colors, and flowing script.

 

Once again, less is more:

 

 

One of my all-time favorite reads, too. But I’ll get to that in another blog.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: this guy just doesn’t like book covers with pictures. Wrong!

 

 

One chair leaning against another chair: that’s some real stuff. Simple yet beautiful.

And the minimalist cover to end all minimalist covers:

 

In case you missed it:

 

Who wouldn’t want to pick this book up and see what it’s about? ONE RED PAPERCLIP by Kyle MacDonald may just have the best cover of them all.

So I guess I’m a minimalist. (What would my parents think?) How about you guys? What are some of your favorite book covers?

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Goosebumps

Not long ago, I was reading a piece in the New Yorker that gave me chills—Hisham Matar’s account of returning to Libya after many years of exile. His father, a prominent member of the opposition to Muammar Gaddafi, had been arrested and imprisoned in 1990.  Matar never saw his father again, and aside from two letters (smuggled out of the prison six years after his capture), had no word from him either.

The piece was harrowing, beautiful and moving. Since I was wearing short sleeves, I could watch the goose bumps rise in waves across my arms.  I paused for a moment, reflecting not only on the power of good writing—which both thrills and reassures me in an existential sort of way—but also on the absolute weirdness of this physiological response. Why do we have physical reactions to the awe-inspiring? Fear I understand—the autonomic nervous system kicks in, preparing us to fight or flee—but as an aesthetic reaction the function is not entirely clear.  Probably because I spend a good deal of time reading, it’s usually a written passage that sets my scalp tingling, but I get a similar reaction to music (the Goldberg Variations), to poetry (T.S. Eliot’s the Hollow Men or Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach), even the color of blue on some clear evenings just after twilight but before night has properly fallen.

What about you? What’s the last thing (besides a cold snap) that gave you shivers?

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Behind the scenes of a picture book

It’s been a while since I did a picture book post, much less one that focuses on artwork. But when I came across this blog post on Caldecott Medalist Eric Rohmann’s artistic process, I knew I had to share. For one, the artwork here is simply spectacular—and who doesn’t like to look at pretty pictures? And second, if you want to be humbled, check out the stages of the relief print technique, of which Rohmann is a master.

Furthermore, I’m always fascinated by an artist’s process, especially when the artist is illustrating an outside author’s words. In particular, I was struck by the fact that Rohmann inserted the text into his very first sketch—even though the text is simply “Whoopee!” It show the respect for the words that’s crucial for a successful picture book collaboration.

And taking it one step further, Rohmann is clearly concerned not only with leaving enough space for the words to read, but for placing the words for maximum visual effect.  It’s notable in some of the other finished spreads how much room he leaves for the text to stand out. As an editor, time and again I’d struggle with designers to cram text into over-decorated pieces of art. It truly speaks both to Rohmann’s art and to his modesty that he would design his pages to give the words so much prominence.

Of course, there’s a lesson here for picture book authors, too—write short! Obviously, Rohmann would be a lot more limited if he had to navigate a lengthy text. And going back to design, look at how the onomatopoetics become part and parcel of the artwork—by playing with fonts and sizes, the words become one with the art. Perhaps that’s the handiwork of a good designer, but I’d like to think the author had something like that in mind at the start!

 

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Books as Art

The outrage surrounding MTV reality starlet and YA author Lauren Conrad’s destroying some of Lemony Snicket’s books on her DIY craft show to make them into storage containers has reignited the debate over books being used as non-reading materials. Rebecca Joines Schinsky of Book Riot posted about this and makes some really great points worth considering if you find yourself appalled by Conrad’s actions. For one, Schinsky notes that people love books for the stories, not the medium in which they’re delivered—most evident nowadays in the success of digital publishing. On top of that, she quotes Rachel Fershleiser—author, former bookseller and publicist, who has the publishing experience and no-nonsense attitude required to set the record straight—that books that don’t sell are often recycled. So, why shouldn’t creative people use them as they see fit?

Now, there are a couple of things that certainly don’t help Conrad’s case. The books she destroyed were Lemony Snicket’s. Lemony Snicket, people. The girl writes YA and doesn’t appreciate a modern classic children’s author? And storage containers? Really? Not the most original or useful endeavor. If, however, you don’t see the problem with that, check out The Repurposed Library by Lisa Occhipinti or Playing with Books by Jason Thompson for some truly great ideas.

And if you’re as fascinated by a celebrity feud as I am, take a look at Lemony Snicket’s amusing response here.

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Judging an eBook by its Cover

 

With an increasingly digital marketplace for books, is cover art no longer a priority? According to Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director for Alfred A. Knopf, cover design is a dying art.

This recent piece from NPR explores the idea that as eBooks increase in popularity, the importance of a great cover is waning. (As a side note, Chip Kidd is responsible for some iconic book covers, including JURASSIC PARK and NAKED.) Kidd says that people often check out a specific eBook because of a great review or a recommendation—not because of the cover design. So in a rapidly digitizing world, a great cover is no longer a priority. (And there are some really, really bad ones out there.)

A bad cover leaves me with a bad impression about the book—if you can’t bother to put the effort into making sure your book looks good then why would I want to read it? And that is something I always emphasize to authors in our eBook program—a bad cover will never help your sales and even turn readers away. So I find Kidd’s words kind of surprising. Do you think eBook covers are still important? How do they influence your ultimate decision to buy (or not)?