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One thing is certain: no one likes a bad review. Critics take no pleasure in writing them and authors do not like receiving them. Readers don’t want to read them either. They have better things to do with their time. The only reason to publish a bad review is if it can—at the expense of hurt feeling—become a learning experience for author, editor, and reader.
This review of Art From Art (Modernist Press), edited by Stephen Soucy, is one of those hopefully-useful bad reviews. The collection of short stories is so poorly conceived it doesn’t warrant lengthy discussion except as an example of what not to do. It is with this goal—to help writers and editors create better books—that we should take a closer look at what went wrong.
First, the initial concept for the book is fatally flawed. Soucy wanted to collect “stories inspired by works of art.” Except Soucy failed to define “art” for himself or his writers. The result is a collection of stories with absolutely nothing in common but the paper they are printed on. Yes, art can be anything. We know this. But without narrowing the definition to visual art or music or film, the collection follows many roads; each author writes in a different conceptual language; and the illustrations—one for every story—follow their own unrelated and unmarked path.
Imagine a conversation about air. I am talking about carbon dioxide pollution and my boyfriend is talking about steam. Both of us are talking about air, technically, but we are not having the same conversation. This is what happened to Art from Art when Soucy failed to set any creative guidelines for himself or his authors.
The result is a free-for-all collection of stories about various artistic themes. A few are inspired by well-known paintings such as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” One is related to film. One is inspired by a museum, though not an art museum. One story is about the style of a famous author (Nathaniel Hawthorne) though how is unclear to me. Other stories veer further away from any kind of art. One is about wrestling, and a particularly inert story is about the author’s own failed attempt to write the story we’re trying to read. I cannot explain how disheartening and un-illuminating it is to read a failed story about failure.
Second, the illustrations should have been simply pictures of the art being written about or the art that inspired the stories. Instead the book is filled with dozens of amateur photographs and digital graphics. For example, a story about a painting by the French cubist Fernand Leger should be accompanied by an image of that painting, not a childlike collage of Leger-inspired bits. This image inspires one response: Why? Acquiring the rights to reprint an actual painting may have been cost-prohibitive. Well then try a photograph of the painter. Or don’t publish an illustration at all. Anything but a picture of the “real thing” only draws attention away from the story.
In Soucy’s introduction he writes: “The visuals featured in this book were inspired and created after the stories had been accepted for publication. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dan Marcolina and his staff…” No, stop. There is no excuse for the inappropriate and cliché illustrations. Though Soucy, I’m afraid, deserved part of the blame. If he had chosen one kind of art to make the book about—painting and sculpture, music or theater, literature or film—he could have asked Marcolina for an equally focused concept that carried through all of the illustrations.
Lastly, the writing. The stories themselves contain mixed metaphors, cliché, unfunny attempts at satire, and sections of sheer incomprehensibility.
For example, and these lines are all from different stories:
“My work has a meaning to me that is of no use to anyone else, just like an interpretation (‘A nisus ofAmericana, oil-based economies, and self-indulgent beauty products…’) has no impact on that meaning of mine.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be eaten in a good restaurant than a bad one?”
“I’d been promiscuous in the 1970s and had therefore caught AIDS. I’d stolen the painting because I didn’t want to admit that I had the disease and desperately needed to make hospital payments.”
“Pints of stout arrived like undertakers.”
“Using the image search function in Google, Malevich [not the painter, but the narrator’s high school teacher] took me on a guided, virtual tour through all the great works of centuries past.”
You’re right. I have not named the author’s names. Perhaps I should. They are as much to blame for writing such dribble in the first place. But it is an editor’s job to choose appropriate writers for a collection, to edit the stories into a coherent series of paragraphs. But just as it feels unfair to blame the designer for doing lackluster illustrations when not given a clear assignment, it feels wrong to blame the writers for not delivering good work.
Next time, hopefully, everyone in publishing (myself included) will be sure to ask themselves one thing before starting a project: What, exactly, are we trying to do?
Art From Art: A Collection of Short Stories Inspired by Art
Edited by Stephen Soucy