Thursday, June 25, 2009

Commercialism in Art

A couple of years ago Francoise Cachin, the head of all France's museums including the Louvre and the Musee National d' Art Moderne, and granddaughter of painter Paul Signac, lost her place on the national museum committe because of her views concerning the commercial use of art. Cachin, now 73, is an outspoken critic of such use of art in her country. According to ARTnews (September 2007) she said, "Morally, ethically, I am shocked to see the commercial and promotional use of art - of our national heritage, of masterpieces in the collection of the French museums. We should be protecting our patrimony." She says she has suffered some retaliation from the arts establishment as the result of her outspokenness.

Friends, it is this same sentiment that I bring to my discourse on American literature. Of course a piece of great literature must be promoted - its praises should be sung from the rooftops - but this spending of millions to promote the next banal piece of mediocrity is just plain foolishness. I think it was Mark Twain who said that one who does not read great literature has no advantage over the one who does not read at all. With a straight face and without any intended irony Stephen King said that reading Harry Potter was preparing a future generation of Stephen King readers. It is nearly impossible to find anyone who reads at all, let alone has read the classics of literature.

And yet how quickly we fall into that pit. "Well," we say, "we have to keep the industry afloat, so that the great literature at least has the chance to get noticed." Perhaps we should let the industry collapse, just as abuses have led to the collapse of our economic system, so that we can start again. Still, there is nothing I can do about that. I continue to read and attempt to write something great. That is all I can do for now.

I have just finished reading 'Revolutionary Road' by Richard Yates. It is all the rage lately with the new movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (with Kathy Bates thrown in for good measure). And, while the movie is disturbing in its subject matter (is anyone safe from the angst of modern life?), I found it equally disturbing that Richard Yates was largely unknown in his lifetime. Perhaps, instead of writing this great American novel, he should have aimed his sites at something more commercial, like Harold Robbins or one of the other giants of that day. (Who? this generation might rightly ask). Exactly! There is no reason to remember him. There will be no reason for Harry Potter or the latest Stephen King to be remembered, either.

Here's hoping you are reading good and well and true. Pay no attention to that commercial trash behind the curtain. Stick with what you know to be great.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009


My reader friends,

I keep a notebook of interesting book sites and publishers and anything related to books. It is one of those hardcover composition books that have a hundred pages or so. (Some have already been torn out). It has the photograph of one of my brother's paintings - a great looking lion - on the cover. It has paperclips to mark various sections and has pages ripped from magazines and what-not stuffed in it. I like to think about that old book of history (Herodotus), that was full of clippings and paintings and such in 'The English Patient'. Anyway, I am constantly looking things up that I find there, and ripping out pages and crossing things out as they no longer hold my interest.

I have found some interesting book blogging sites along the way that I thought I would share. You can go and look for yourself so I won't spend too much time on them, and I'm sure there are many other good sites besides these. (Could you recommend some)?

I like to look in on the U.K. because it gives me a different perspective, so these first three are from there. is mostly about books that they offer as a publisher, but is more general and is a personal place for this long-time literary man to write what he thinks.

In the U.S. you might check out Pat Holt (another long-time publishing personality) at Then there is one I really like about the classics at and finally a book blog community for those who read books, blog books, and promote books at It has some 2200 members with groups, events, and forums about books.

Hope you'll take a look. And even more I hope you'll pass along some other good sites. I'm always interested.


Saturday, June 6, 2009


Joseph Conrad wrote, "A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as the single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life, what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential - their one illuminating and convincing quality - the very truth of their existence."

Since I have taken upon myself the stand that art in literature must be held to a high standard, I would like to share some of that struggle with you. It is one thing to write about classic literature, as I have done in 'American Masters' (and have tried to raise the level of nonfiction there also), but it is another to attempt it ourselves. 'The Struggle' is my novel in progress. It is the story of a man in an Eastern European country caught up in the war to liberate his people. Their rebellion, however, is crushed completely after many years of fighting. What emerges in the aftermath of that war, however, is a different kind of struggle. It is the kind of struggle that was fought by Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. (among many others - myself included). It is the way of nonviolence that emerges when a people grow tired of resorting always to violence to solve its problems. I'm not going to give away the whole story, of course, but I think you can see where I'm headed with this. I'm going to attempt to justify my art in every line.

On my desk I have two reminders: "Create Community" and "Tell The Story". It has become more and more the responsibility of the author to create a communtity around his/her work because a publishing house is simply not going to spend much to promote an unknown author or work. Sorry, that's just how it is. They will spend millions to promote someone who is already a bestseller and so does not need the boost. But they will spend only pennies on an unknown. Small wonder most authors, even very good ones, slip into oblivion.

Second, tell the story. That is a reminder not only for my work (see yesterday's blog about plot); but to let my readers know what story I'm trying to tell and how I am struggling with the material to get it into the shape in the form of 'art'. That is what I'm about here. I am not really in the position to offer advice - your way to art is just as valid as mine - but I would like to share some of the struggle I am going through.

Hope you'll stay tuned as that is all played out here on my blog site. Please post a comment whenever you are moved to do so.

Yours, Jim

Friday, June 5, 2009


The July/August issue of Writer's Digest has an article (Inkwell - edited by Zachary Petit) by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, author of 'Make a Scene' called 'Confessions of a Plot Junkie'. In it the writer confesses, "I am a plot junkie." The reason for this, is that Jordan likes a story to move along and not get hung up on long, even-if-well-crafted descriptions of scene, or a sentence that is written for its own sake.

I often wonder why this has to be an either/or proposition. (And some writers sit around wondering and wondering without ever getting anything on paper - I am cautioning myself here). My last post quoted some lines from 'The Snows of Kilamanjaro' by Ernest Hemingway. (Hemingway is a great author to blog about because some people really love him, and others are deeply offended by him). The main thing I can say about Hemingway in this context is this: he showed us how to fuse plot and great literature. In fact, it would seem odd if we read any Hemingway that wasn't plot-driven. He had a close eye to on the story line always, 'and' on the story he was telling.

I am not a fan of our postmodernist approach to literature, though in some instances I have enjoyed the creativity of it. I am not a fan of artists of any stripe who throw something on a canvas in the hope of getting a reaction - even if it is horrifying. There is enough that is horrifying in the world for us to write or paint, without becoming a part of the horror ourselves. But you see where wondering and wondering takes us - I have gotten off track.

Of course a story or novel (and I believe even nonfiction) should have a plot. My daughter Holly gave me a Storyteller and it sits on my desk even now. A Storyteller is a Native American ceramic of an adult with many little people crawling on him/her. These, presumably are the stories that person has to tell. I keep it right there to remind me of the importance of telling the story. Even in nonfiction (especially in nonfiction), we have the responsibility to do more than simply relate facts and information. If we do it right, in fact, nonfiction should be even more creative and more 'truthful' than fiction; though it almost never is presently. That narrative imperative is exactly what I have tried to write into 'American Masters', a popular history of great American literature from the colonial period to modern times.

I forget who told me this, but it still applies to every writer, "Start at the beginning, tell the story, and then stop." That is the plot. What you do with it is your business. Don't throw out plot because it will seem more 'literary' to do without one. I have just started a novel about war and peace (no, not 'that' novel). I am finding that I can be forgiven a multitude of sins if I just keep the story moving forward. Of course I'll have to write out the sins in the re-write.

Keep reading and keep writing,