Category Archives: art

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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)?

 

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A dip into the waters of our culture

I’ve been having an interesting run lately with narrative nonfiction ideas that speak to a larger cultural conversation. I recently sold a book about breastfeeding by Kimberly Seals Allers that began as an idea after my first daughter was born seven years ago called The Big Letdown: The True Story of How Politics, Feminism, and Big Business Changed Breastfeeding, and I’ve just begun working on another parenting book that will explore the topic of angry parenting that appears to be pervasive in our society.

Then I saw this piece in The New Yorker that talks about several new parenting books and looks at why American kids are so spoiled, and how other cultures parent arguably more successfully than we do. The projects I’ve been working on also speak to a dysfunctional parenting culture in America, and open up the conversation to talk about how we got here, and more importantly how we can improve our lives. A couple of years ago there was a stir caused by a New York Magazine piece by Jennifer Senior (which will be coming out as a book at some point) called “I Love My Kids, I Hate My Life” which delves deeper into this topic. The success of the Tiger Mom tapped into this issue as well, and proved there is a large audience for books that approach parenting from the right angle.

All of this got me to thinking about whether there are other areas of our culture outside of parenting that have not yet been dissected in book form – science, food, politics, pop culture, education, and the arts to name a few. I’m curious to hear from our readers if you have any ideas or topics that would warrant further discussion. Anything you’d like to see on the market that isn’t already out there that you would find interesting, or useful? Let us know. There are so many subjects, issues and ideas to ponder!

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Fine art and books

Hope everyone saw the great piece by Geoff Dyer in the Times Book Review this past Sunday by on the use of Victorian paintings for the jackets of the Penguin Classics back in the 1970s. Yes, it’s quite a stroll down memory lane, but I was really struck by Dyer’s point that the paintings featured on the jackets not only did their job of getting him to read the books, but that they afforded Dyer an introduction to fine art and art history as well. And I love the idea of him joyfully stumbling upon his favorite book jacket images in art galleries and museums!

Coincidentally, I’d been kicking around a blog post on the intersection of books and fine art for a while now, though at a slightly younger level. Through the generosity of my children’s book editorial friends (and my raiding the shelves at Penguin before I left), we’ve got a number of picture books at home that feature fine art—James Warhola’s Uncle Andy’s, Babar’s Museum of Art, and the first Olivia, to name a few. And one of the proudest (and cutest) moments of fatherhood for me so far was when we took our son to MOMA and he recognized not only Warhol’s Marilyn from Uncle Andy’s, but the Jackson Pollock painting that Olivia could do “in about five minutes”—luckily, our boy didn’t pull an Olivia and try it at home!

More seriously, I’m hopeful these book/art connections will instill a lifelong interest in fine art as much as reading. And like Dyer, I’m counting on the Penguin Classics to further this interest for my son as he gets older. Moreover, in this age of eBooks, where book covers have the potential to go the way of record jackets in the CD age, I think it’s a strong argument for publishers to continue producing intelligent and intellectual book packaging.

Okay, let’s have some fun—if you were picking a fine art masterpiece for your book jacket, what would it be?