Monday, January 27, 2014

A Van Gogh opportunity!


Several interesting items came to me in the past few days, via Facebook and emailWith this post I'd like to share them with you.

Van Gogh Talking Painting Movie Project: UCA Honors College student Taylor Lea Hicks sent me a curious link, one that I just have to share with Creating Van Gogh readers.  It's an opportunity from Kick Starter not only to find out about a fascinating Van Gogh-themed movie project but to get involved yourself as a minor investor.  The plan for the movie is to tell Van Gogh's life story by having his paintings and drawings "come alive" and talk to the viewer.  Cool!  If you click on this link and watch the short video, you'll see an example of what the producers mean. Sounds like an exciting and extremely innovative project.

The "Van Gogh" photograph.  Could it be real after all? Several months back I first started posting about a controversial photograph, one that the historian of photography Joseph Buberger is convinced depicts the adult Vincent Van Gogh.  In a previous post, I passed on some evidence that suggests pretty strongly that the photograph was taken in Quebec, Canada by a Canadian photographer, making it unlikely that the photograph's subject could be Van Gogh, who never traveled outside of Europe.  But Joseph is still convinced and still seeks evidence to support his claim.  Last week he sent me two emails containing curious links.  Click on this link to see a colorized version of the photograph.  Very compelling.  The second link takes you to an article about Van Gogh in which Joseph's photograph is used, without comment, to show the reader what Van Gogh looked like.  Joseph's photo, despite the questions that surround it, certainly manages to stay in circulation!

Shameless plug/free stuff opportunity: Redacted Story, a just released, pleasantly perverse anthology from publisher KY Story, can be downloaded to your Kindle for FREE if you do so soon.  Click on this link to get the free download.  The 5-day free download deal began last Friday, which means there are only two days left!  Act soon!  As you probably guessed, the anthology includes a story of mine: a comic--even silly--sci-fi story about dogs on Pluto.  Yeah, that's right.  

Less shameless plug: On my other blog, Payperazzi, I've been carrying out a discussion about the 5 star rating system that is so often used to rate books.  The discussion has generated some Facebook and Goodreads discussion.  Click on this link to see my first post from last week and this link to see my followup post, featuring comments from reader Doug Luman. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

The right way and the wrong way


[This is a post I originated for my other blog Payperazzi, but I think might be of interest to Creating Van Gogh readers as well.]

If you stay in the creative writing game long enough you accumulate plenty of quirky, sad, disheartening, and even enraging publication stories.  Maybe about things that happened to you; maybe about things that happened to your friends.  But they happened.  In the unfortunate if inevitable tussles between writers, agents, editors, and publishers (take any combination of those four) sometimes things just go wrong--or they don't go at all.   In a previous blog post I mentioned that once I'd had a short story accepted for a themed anthology planned by a press who specialized in such, but that five years after the acceptance I was still waiting for the book to appear--until it became 100% clear, rather than merely 99% clear, that the book was never coming out.  Then I deleted the "publication" from my resume.   I'm going through something similiar now, except that it's taken a lot less than 5 years.   In Oct. 2012 I had a story--actually a short chapter from my Van Gogh novel--accepted for an anthology called The Man-Date: 15 Bromances which was being assembled by Prime Mincer Press, publisher of Prime Mincer literary journal.  The bromance thing seemed like a cute, trendy idea, one that might catch a lot of attention, make for a series of fun promotional readings, and hopefully generate some sales.  Although my piece was fairly serious--a picture of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh living together in a Paris apartment that was never intended for occupaton by two single men--I envisioned a series of comedic but literary, and maybe even moving, buddy stories.  The acceptance email I got from Prime Mincer made it clear they were proud of what they'd put together, so I eagerly anticipated the book, scheduled for release in "early 2013."

Well, the busy fall semester ended and a few weeks later the busy spring semester started.  I received no further communication from Prime Mincer, although I had no particular reason to be concerned.  In fact, at the 2013 AWP conference in Boston (last March) I spied Prime Mincer's table in the great big conference bookfair room, so I went over to introduce myself as one of the contributors to their bromance anthology.  The guy at the table was reasonably friendly, shook my hand, and informed me there had been some delays with publishing the book but that it would come out "soon."  No problem, I told him, and walked away, not doubting that what he said was true.  Turns out that would be the very last time I would ever hear a single word from anyone associated with Prime Mincer Press.  

Spring turned to summer; I started teaching a summer class, and then I took a trip abroad with my brother and his family.  I got back home to Arkansas and started preparing for the fall semester.  Fall semester began and things got busy and . . . You get the picture.  It wasn't until several months after the March AWP conference that it occurred to me to wonder, So where is that bromance anthology, anyway? First thing I did was go to Amazon to see if maybe it had been released already and I just hadn't heard (not likely), or if there was a future release date listed.  Nope.  No mention of the book at all.  It did not exist, according to Amazon.  I went to the press's web site and was more concerned when all I found there was the original call for submissions, with the same old damning information that it would appear "in early 2013."  We were well into the second half of 2013--about a year since submissions to the book were closed and all the acceptance notifications sent--and they hadn't thought to pull down the call for submissions from their web site?  I immediately emailed the managing editor of the press, just asking after the latest news.  I thought (or at least hoped) I might get an apologetic reply, with an explanation that the publishing schedule had changed again and the book would have to be out in late 2013 or early 2014.  But what I got was nothing.  Total silence.  This, of course, was bad.  Having one's emails ignored by someone in a professional setting is never a good sign--it's also completely inexcusable and the sure sign of someone with no real notion of what being professional means.

You know the end of the story.  When the semester was over, and I had time to breathe again, I did some more research on the anthology and the press.  This time I found not more information but less.  Prime Mincer's web site, rather than showing outdated information, had been pulled down completely.  It was gone.  Evaporated.  Meanwhile, the Facebook page for Prime Mincer, which previously had featured regular and enthusiastic news about the book, had not been updated since October 2012, around the time I received my acceptance email.  The web site for Prime Mincer's literary journal still existed, but it was advertising the last 2012 issue, long out of date by this time.   With nothing to lose I emailed the managing editor again as well as a different person who at one time--and I hoped still was--associated with the journal.   "What's up?" I basically asked.  Neither person responded.

So this appears to be the situation: Prime Mincer Press closed its doors, scuttled its very public plans for an anthology--and then didn't tell anybody!  And to this day they still refuse to tell anybody.  That is exactly the wrong way to handle an unfortunate turn of events.  Everybody knows things happen with small presses.  While they do great work, and serve an overriding need in the publishing industry, it's a struggle for them to survive.  Sooner or later many of them go belly up.  That is no cause for shame.  What is cause for shame is ignoring the very writers who helped you assemble your books.  What is a cause for shame is acting as if they don't exist or aren't worth even a two-second email.  What is a cause for shame is not taking responsibility for the project that you started.   And by taking responsbility I mean explaining to all involved what is going on.  I would never expect, don't need, and don't deserve a detailed explanation of the troubles that brought your press down.  What I do expect and deserve is a statement clarifying that your press no longer exists, that your book is not coming out, and mabye you feel sorry about it.  That's all.

That's not asking too much. 

In fact, that's asking for the bare minimum.  And yet too many publishers, like Prime Mincer, don't even do that.  What people need to understand is that writers, while being naturally disappointed by such a message, will appreciate being told, will appreciate being valued enough to be told.  Being told nothing--in fact, having one's attempts at communication ignored--isn't just disappointing.  It's maddening; it's infuriating.  It's utterly unprofessional and it doesn't make the situation better for anyone; it makes the situation worse.   (I happen to know, from my net-wide scrambling for info, that several writers who'd been accepted into the anthology put up excited posts to their blogs and web sites.  It's not just me who is being ignored but at least a dozen contributors, some of them highly established authors.)

I'd love to hear that the behavior of Prime Mincer is the exception when it comes to a failed press handling its lingering responsibilities, but I'm pretty sure it's not.  I'm pretty sure most presses, to say nothing of most businesses, handle their various demises exactly the same way: that is, by tucking in their tails and running, instead of owning up to the mess they left behind.  If you have a heartwarming story of a small press going down with dignity and taking care of its own, please share it!  It would make me feel a lot better.  And don't get me wrong, I've had fantastic relationships with many small presses in the past.  A great small press--Lavender Ink/Dialogos in New Orleans--is bringing out my short story collection Island Fog this year, and I couldn't be more pleased with how things are going.  Another small press--KY Story in Kentucky--is soon bringing out an anthology called Redacted that features, among several other pleasantly perverse submissions, a sci-fi story of mine about dogs being discovered on Pluto.  I've had nothing but frequent and open communcation with Ashley Parker Owens, the founder and chief editor of KY Story.  She's running KY Story exactly the right way.  So while I adore small presses--they are usually run by writers and out of a devotion not to profit but to the word--it's a simple fact that sometimes a small press fails; and thus a ballyhooed book by that press won't ever appear.  That's a real life situation.  Then the question for the press becomes: Are you going to handle it the right way or the wrong way?  I wish the correct answer was as obvious to others as it is to me.

Monday, January 6, 2014

2013: Historical year for historical fiction


I've been thinking for several years now that we are living through a golden age for historical fiction.  Of course I realize that almost since novels have been written writers have played with the idea of setting their stories in earlier historical periods.  But I can't think of an era in which the ambition to do so is as widely embraced by solid, literary writers--even young literary writers--as it is now.  Again, I'm talking about literary historical fiction, not historical romance novels or historical mysteries, which have been popular for decades and will continue to be so.  I'm referring to literary fiction written by mainstream contemporary authors, authors who aspire to write serious, realistic books regardless of the era their books are set in, but who happen more and more to be setting their novels in the past.  And there may be no more evident proof for this trend than the awards-giving season just passed.  Four of the six books shortlisted for the 2013 Man-Booker Prize are historical fictions (including the eventual winner).  At least two of the five finalists for our own 2013 National Book Award are historical fictions (including the eventual winner).  And if you are of the ilk (as many are) to argue that historical fiction isn't just a matter of an author writing about a period of time before he or she was born but writing about an era of special historical interest (even if the author lived through it) or a period far enough in the past that it must be approached as an historical period not merely "the way we live now," then we should also count Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers (set in 70s New York) as historical fiction, bringing the total for National Book Award finalist up to 3 out of 5.  Furthermore, just last week I was listening to the radio show Here and Now on NPR while book reviewer Lynn Neary offered up her unranked recommendations for the best fictional reading of 2013.  Neary named seven books in all, six of which--that's right six out of seven--qualify as historical fictions.  And she didn't even include two of the more prominent historical novels from 2013: Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland and Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.   Both of those are quite accomplished books, with The Luminaries, in my opinion, ranking as completely spectacular, one of the most memorable reading experiences I've had in a long time.  (Soon to come on this blog will be my own proselytizing  review of the book.) 

So what's going on?  Accepting my premise that we're living through a golden age of literary historical fiction, naturally leads to the question of Why.  Why are so many literary writers, both the young and the established, turning to previous eras for inspiration?  One obvious reason is implicit encouragement from publishers.  Just as, in the years following the astonishing success of the Harry Potter series and then the Twilight series, many writers thought to try their hand at YA--and, by the way, in college writing programs these days it's not uncommon to meet student writers seeking to specialize exclusively in YA, an unknown trend when I was a student in  a college writing program--as publishers let go their prejudice against historical fiction as a merely a matter of pretty costumes and exotic houses, as more of these books get published and earn acclaim for their authors, up-and-coming authors become increasingly influenced by and enthusiastic about the genre.   This simply must be the core reason.   

But it's not the only reason.  One can be successful (or not) and earn acclaim (or not) with almost any kind of book.  I think just as important a compulsion is the sense that writing historical fiction marks one as a writer who likes to take on serious, ambitious, even lofty challenges.  Every good literary novel will be serious, of course, but there's something about a historical novel that strikes readers, rightly or wrongly, as especially serious, and writers can't help but be influenced by this realization.  Perhaps it's all the research that typically accompanies the writing of a historical novel; perhaps it's the challenge of using that research to credibly represent the past; perhaps it's the challenge of turning that research into story.  For whatever reason, writing a historical novel is a special pleasure for those who do so.  It touches on so many different parts of our imaginative and intellectual  and even academic selves.  Every fiction one writes is (or can be) a source of pleasure, but the satisfaction of composing a good, successful historical fiction is unique. 

And I think maybe this leads to a final reason for historical fiction's emergence, a reason that ties back to the first I mentioned.  In an era in which--as agents and publishers have been telling us for too many years--the reading of literary fiction is on the decline and the selling of literary fiction is as hard as it's ever been, having a historical premise for a story sets it apart, makes it seem unique, gives it a recognizable and extremely useful identity: to agents, to publishers, to marketers, to booksellers, and to readers.   Finally, it might just be that historical fiction not only is a unique satisfaction for the one who writes it but makes for a more unique,  sexy novel on the bookstore shelf.  As a lover of the genre, if this means an increase in the number of good, commercially viable literary historical novels, I'm all for it.  After all, it's lead us to this current Golden Age, and I couldn't be happier.  

Sidelight: In case anyone reading this blog is a fan of sonnets as well as of historical fiction, you should check out my other blog, Payperazzi, in which I am currently providing a report on last semester's Sonnet Writing Workshop class, including the e-anthology we put together.