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
Modernist Press
Paperback,9780983221005, 424pp
July 2011



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12 Responses to “‘Art From Art: A Collection of Short Stories Inspired by Art’ edited by Stephen Soucy”

  1. ericthomasnorris 29 November 2011 at 3:48 PM #

    I must confess. I liked the sentence “Pints of stout arrived like undertakers.” I have been carried out of bars more than once–stiff as a corpse–by such gentlemen.


  2. Stephen Soucy 30 November 2011 at 5:30 PM #

    Yikes. Can I get a second opinion here?? :-) For anyone interested, Art From Art was reviewed in Gently Read Literature by Sam Kerbel and here’s what he had to say. Steve

    For an artist to reveal his or her muse is to disclose the inner workings of an aesthetic work. In other cases, or perhaps simultaneously, the work itself exposes the artist. When Lord Henry Wotton asks Basil Hallward in the first chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray why he refuses to show his painting, Basil replies, “I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.”

    The short story collection Art From Art, edited by Stephen Soucy, puts these competing notions on full display. A Los Angeles-based writer/filmmaker and founder of Modernist Press, Soucy has assembled thirty-eight short pieces of fiction that draw their inspiration from works of art both real and imagined. The nature of these relationships, however, proves more complicated than they may seem. Does knowledge of the influencing artwork or art form reveal the most important aspects of the story it inspired? Or is analyzing the story itself the key to understanding the relationship between writer and art?

    A fervent postmodernist may cite Barthes or Foucault and claim that this dilemma is entirely irrelevant, since both involve the identity of the author—who is, of course, dead. But if one replaces the author with the story’s characters, this equation suddenly becomes intriguing. The question then becomes whether a pre-existing knowledge of the artwork at hand provides meaning for the story, or whether the story itself has more to do with the art as it interacts with the principal characters.

    Consider Tracy DeBrincat’s exhilarating story “Call It A Hat,” whose action takes place primarily at a performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As the story progresses, the emotional state of the protagonist, Lydia, becomes seamlessly intertwined with that of the music, obviating the need for any knowledge of the pieces in question. As she listens to a concerto by Shostakovich, for example, the narrator observes that Lydia “slipped away on the opening flourish for trumpet and piano, then down the broader, darker themes underscored by the strings and the solo trumpet’s solemn sustained notes.” By the time Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is performed, Lydia’s mind has fully assumed the agitated qualities of the piece:

    The music crashed and thundered with jarring percussion and offbeat rhythms. Lydia’s mind leapt to one possible future. Some Saturday afternoon, with her husband Franklin out returning videos and Lydia home in her pajamas, holding a fan of glossy Polaroids of anonymous body parts, red, shiny, engorged; opened and spread by manicured fingers, wrists with gold watches. Quick! What kind of watch did Franklin wear? A brown leather band. Was is cracked? Crocodile? A gold face…

    The Shostakovich and Stravinsky fuel Lydia’s dizzying state, which in turn perceives the music as increasingly frenzied. Lydia does not simply coexist with the music; the two form an intensely symbiotic relationship that gradually generates a similar effect on the reader.

    While Art From Art explores the relationship between art and audience, it does not totally ignore the role of the author. Along with bios, Soucy includes brief statements by the authors describing the pieces of art that triggered their writing and the circumstances in which the stories were composed. And like scholarly introductions to famous works of fiction, these concise declarations may limit the scope of the reader’s experience if read before the story itself.

    Despite this caveat, the author statements serve a critical purpose: rendering the artistic process in action. The brilliance of Art From Art as a concept lies both in its presentation of the inter-relationship between art and writing as well as its exploration of how human beings experience art. In some pieces, including “Call It a Hat” and Richard Zimler’s breathtaking story “Stealing Memories,” art plays as overt a role as Dorian’s portrait in Oscar Wilde’s novel. In others, like “Flesh, Blood, and Some of the Parts (Le sang du monde)” by Marshall Moore, art exercises a more subtle yet equally powerful influence, both regarding the story’s plot as well as its style.

    Soucy notes in the introduction that “it was easy to discern the best of the bunch” from all the submissions he received. But among the present selection, several works stand out in their treatment of the artworks that inspired them. Besides the three aforementioned stories, Anne Whitehouse’s “A Visit to the Stock Exchange” and Sean Padraic McCarthy’s “The Man Who Walks Beside the Sea” rank among the most compelling and well-crafted in the collection. At almost four hundred pages, Art From Art could have benefited from more serious cuts.

    Nevertheless, the result is a pristine volume that presents itself as an aesthetic object. Filled with stunning visual art, Soucy’s collection defies the digital allure of the e-reader age (if there is one) in its exquisite presentation. This is not an accident. Another story, “Scanner Days, Starry Nights” by Martin Rose, depicts a world where digital museums—financed by global banks—incinerate original artworks. Rose’s personal statement may as well be Art From Art’s raison d’etre: “In our virtual world, we have lost our connection to fearless, artistic sensibility, and seek to destroy it.” Whether self-aware or not, this warning validates the need for more books like Art From Art, sounding the call to preserve artistic authenticity in the digital age.


    • Billy O'Callaghan 1 December 2011 at 4:15 AM #

      My name is Billy O’Callaghan, and I was pleased to contribute a story to this anthology.
      Firstly, I’d like to say thanks for taking the time to review it. As you say, no one likes a bad review, but at least you bothered.
      However, I am not sure I quite understand the points you make in this review. The book is called, Art From Art, as in Stories inspired by a work of art. But why should Mr. Soucy need to define art? Why do you demand such a limitation? Within a couple of sentences, you yourself admit that “Yes, art can be anything.”
      At the outset, I was led to understand (by the submission guidelines) that the idea behind the book was to collect stories inspired by works of art. My story, ‘The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind’ was inspired by a Jack B. Yeats painting. In reading the story, you’ll find no particular evidence of this, but that painting was the spark that led to the story.
      Everyone will interpret art in their own way, I think, and it was the atmosphere of the painting, the wildness, loneliness and determination of it, that resonated with me. That is all. It was as vague as that. If I had written a story based purely on the scene of the painting, if I had tried to tell the story of the characters involved, the result would have been purely derivative. Art, surely, has to exist beyond limits. I’m not trying to claim that my story is a work of art; it was simply the best that I could do. And as for the image that accompanies my story, I feel it was well chosen in that it certainly captures the story’s mood.
      I think Art From Art, aside from being impressive as a product (which it is, especially the full-color hardback edition), works extremely well as a concept.
      It is a pity that you did not enjoy the stories and that you could only find negative things to say about the book, but again, thank you for taking the time to read it and to post the review.
      Regards,
      Billy O’Callaghan


  3. Lisa Rentz 30 November 2011 at 10:02 PM #

    the ‘my work has a meaning to me/interpretation’ quote– that’s mine, from Glove, read the full thing at Modernistpress.com/linked above, and if you’re in London on Dec 13, hear my story, The Chimney, performed by the Liar’s League, or catch it later on their site. ho ho ho, on donner on blitzen!


  4. Richard K. Weems 30 November 2011 at 10:15 PM #

    In the spirit of full disclosure, a story of mine appears in the above anthology. I hope my comments are taken in the spirit of guiding a reader towards what might make for an interesting, insightful review.

    The obligatory ‘I don’t want to sound racist, but…’ opening aside, a common flaw amongst almost every failed critique is the tendency of the critic to view the work in question through the thick veil of his or her own limits. Art, by this critic’s reasoning, is mere category. Thus, this anthology suffers for not choosing one category (visual, music) and thus follows ‘unrelated’ paths. (Mind you, the accusation that an anthology of works by different writers is conceptually varied is downright laughable.) While air, to use the critic’s similarly thin analogy, CAN be broken down into objective components (i.e., nitrogen, etc.), the point of this anthology is to expand and not compartmentalize. Apologies to our critic for not providing illustrations in a picture-book fashion. Let the editor be damned for not drawing straight arrows and roadmaps towards the easiest conclusions. Our critic asks the right question (What are we trying to do?) but was too involved in his own categorizations to pick up on the proper emphasis: what ARE we trying to do? Nosh on that, and you, dear reader, will find a lot to digest in this book.


  5. Marshall Moore 30 November 2011 at 11:23 PM #

    In this review, Krach has three main arguments against the book: that it fails to achieve unity around its theme, that the artwork is problematic, and that the stories are — across the board — basically crap. Disclaimer #1: I am the author of one of the stories. Disclaimer #2: one of the lines quoted in the review is also mine. I am not writing this response out of pique that Krach apparently disliked my story but out of disappointment with the flaws in this review, some of which are the same flaws that Krach attributes to the book.

    If Krach feels that the collection lacks unity around its art theme, and can back it up with logical reasons, which he does, then that’s fair criticism. His opinion that the artwork in the book should be reproductions of the images that inspired the stories also doesn’t cross the line. I actually agree that it would serve the book better, and it’s unfortunate that including these images was not feasible. However, calling the illustrations amateur is unwarranted. As an established artist, Krach is allowed to dislike the work but he contradicts his assertion that it is amateur by name-checking the designer Soucy commissioned to create it.

    Where Krach really goes off the rails is in his sweeping dismissal of all the stories, and in his choice of using single lines from individual stories in an attempt to justify his point. Even allowing that a couple of the ones he quoted were clunky (as an editor, I’d never have let them pass), the quotes are different enough from each other that they don’t cohere, which is basically the same flaw he is criticizing the book for. Realistically, no collection as long as this, containing work from writers of this caliber, contains nothing but sloppy stories. Even if he hated mine, which is also allowed, by not putting the one line he quoted in context, by not crediting the author and title, and by not saying something along the lines of “Moore’s story is full of not-funny lines like this, which make his revolting, failed-satiric premise even more unpalatable, as if that were possible,” the criticism carries no weight.

    At the beginning of the review, Krach frames his comments as potentially useful feedback meant for helping “writers and editors create better books.” However, he fails to establish any points of comparison or contrast within the book: stories he thinks stand out, stories he thinks might best exemplify what the book should have been about, more of this, less of that, etc. In fact, he provides no positive feedback whatsoever, and by not saying that at least some parts worked on some level and by undermining the logic of two of his three main arguments, there’s no learning moment and thus no cause for taking the criticism seriously. Possibly Michiko Kakutani can get away with this sort of straight-up evisceration of a book, but Aaron Krach is not Michiko Kakutani. In the future, if he finds a book this deeply problematic but cannot find a way to offer authentic criticism, he should recuse himself from writing the review.

    My final point is that if Lambda Literary exists to promote LGBT literature, it’s irresponsible of them to let a review like this — which could harm sales of the flagship release from a new independent press — be published.


  6. Andrew Hook 1 December 2011 at 5:29 PM #

    Well, it’s an interesting review. I personally don’t agree with it – the book doesn’t seek to define ‘art’, but simply uses various pieces as springboards for stories. Also, this is an independent press and a very ambitious undertaking particularly for one of their first titles. Personally, I think the focus of the review should have been on the fiction itself. We’ve all had good and bad reviews, and it’s always interesting to get fiction critiqued which unfortunately this review fails to do. Anyway, I’m happy to ‘out myself’ as the author of ‘Ennui’, and whilst I’ve yet to read the anthology in it’s entirety I was very glad to be part of the project.


  7. Martin Rose 1 December 2011 at 8:22 PM #

    I can’t fault Mr. Krach for his opinion of the work. I review books for Shroud Magazine, and so I do, to some extent, know what it is like to be in his shoes. It is an opinion he backs with his observations. Opinions are borne of a lifetime of experience, our edges roughened and softened by hate or love in their turns. And I will guarantee you that Krach has seen his share of scathing rejections, both as artist and writer. And if I am wrong in this, I welcome him to tell me otherwise.

    If your work was featured in Art From Art, take a bow and know that even scathing reviews can prove beneficial — after all, you are important enough to enjoy the pain of criticism. There are plenty who never get that far, who still put their dreams on a shelf and consign them to darkness.

    My only confusion stems from the idea that there should be a more narrowed focus in what defines art for this collection. As a writer with a degree in visual arts and graphics, I know what it is like to have an intellect pulled between a thousand disciplines, condemning myself to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. So too, is this book pulled in many directions. Perhaps Mr. Krach can find it in himself to relate. Life is messy. So is art.

    I would, however, argue that Mr. Krach is wrong when he suggests these stories have nothing in common other than the paper they are printed on. Clearly, they all have something in common — Mr. Krach didn’t like any of them.


  8. Anne Whitehouse 2 December 2011 at 5:04 PM #

    I am honored to have a story, “A Visit to the Stock Exchange,” collected in Steve Soucy’s beautiful anthology Art From Art. Therefore I read with interest Mr.Krach’s review of the collection. Mr. Krach criticizes the editor for not narrowly defining what “art” is and then selecting stories that satisfy that narrow definition. For me, as an author and as a reader, one of the aspects of the anthology that I admired the most was its broad perspective about what constitutes art and writing about art. I love the wide sweep and inclusiveness of the anthology. I think that Steve Soucy’s vision is what makes Art from Art the unique anthology that it is–very different from other anthologies that feature fiction about art.
    Over the years, I have reviewed hundreds of books, including literature and art books, for major newspapers throughout the U.S. Of course every reviewer and every reader for that matter is entitled to his or her opinion, but I wish that Mr. Krach had taken the opportunity to review the individual stories themselves, instead of limiting himself to a discussion of what he didn’t like about the vision behind the anthology.


  9. Benjamin Robinson 3 December 2011 at 6:53 PM #

    For the record, I am happy to out myself as a contributor to Art From Art.

    The unattributed quotation in Mr Krach’s review “Pints of stout arrived like undertakers.” is taken from my short story ‘The Bridge House’, which was inspired by Richard Serra’s sculpture Torqued Torus Inversion. For his prompt and succinct exegesis of this quotation I am grateful to Poet, Eric Norris (first commenter). If I might briefly explain, the context of the quote is a point in the story where the two main characters are being ushered into the underworld, being taken under the influence (of alcohol), with the arrival of said pints of stout. As a metaphor the image reverses the more usual – you might say clichéd – application of using a tangible image to represent something less tangible or intangible, which might account for our reviewer’s confusion. For the movement from sobriety to inebriation via stout fortification is one in which such indeterminate undertakers are indispensable. And as Mr Norris rightly pointed out, this is a process akin to passing over to the other side.


  10. John Morgan Wilson 5 December 2011 at 11:01 AM #

    Yes, I’m yet another writer who had a story in Art from Art, one of three anthologies I managed to sneak my worthless prose into in 2011, among a handful of nonfiction pieces published here and there, while working on my eleventh novel. When the opening lines of a book review apologize for what’s to follow (as the reviewer attempts to pre-empt and disqualify any negative reader feedback), you can be sure you’re about to read a one-sided hatchet job that’s almost certain to reveal more about the “critic” than the the book’s contents. More often than not, I’m able to take away something useful from a review of my work, good or bad, when it’s balanced, fair-minded and constructive. But Mr. Kratch found not one positive thing to say about any of the thirty-eight stories in Art from Art, many of them written by writers far more productive and accomplished than Mr. Kratch. That doesn’t mean the stories are great, or that the reviewr has to like them. But when one reads a nasty little review like this, it’s hard not to suspect envy might have been at play, or perhaps anger because the critic, in this case an artist and budding novelist, was not asked to contribute a story himself. Because the review appears designed as a personal attack on editor Stephen Soucy, one also worries about possible personal motives, even potential conflict of interest, since that kind of thing unfortunately happens from time to time in the publishing trade. Or maybe Mr. Kratch was just having a bad day, and needed to write something venal to get it out of his system. Whatever his reasons, his vicious spew is useful in one respect — as an example of how how not write a review until one is experienced and accomplished enough as a writer or editor to do it with some resonable sense of fairness, humility and self-discipline. Critics should never be above criticism themselves, and if ever a review deserved to be held up to scrutiny, it’s this one.


  11. Stephen Soucy 2 January 2012 at 3:54 PM #

    Very proud to announce that Art From Art was an honorable mention (Compilations & Anthologies) for the New England Book Festival – awards to be given out in Boston on January 14th, 2012. More back-up that suggests this reviewer missed the uniqueness, and beauty and elegance of this project.

    COMPILATIONS/ANTHOLOGIES

    WINNER: Put The Needle on the Record – Matthew Chojnacki

    RUNNER-UP: Mug of Woe – Kyle Cranston/Jenn Dlugos

    HONORABLE MENTIONS:

    * American Georgics – Edwin C. Hagenstein, Sara M. Gregg, Brian Donahue
    * Art from Art – Edited by Stephen Soucy
    * Dream of a Nation – Edited by Tyson Miller/Designed by Kelly Spitzner
    * Intensity: The 10th Anniversary Anthology from WriteGirl – edited by Keren Taylor
    * Beyond the Shadow of My Pagoda – Daniel Burch Fiddler



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