for March, 2012

March 16, 2012

Shaking it up

Molly Crabapple, a wonderful artist who I interviewed for Don’t Go Back to School, is doing something right now that’s shaking up the conventions of the traditional gallery system.

Molly is an incredibly hardworking artist who makes a living with her work in as many ways as she can. She’s an illustrator, she’s done book projects, she’s been hired to paint elaborate murals in swank restaurants, just for a few examples. Her work has a respectable following, and she’s the founder of “Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School.”

Molly hasn’t yet been able to find a gallery to represent her and sell large works on her behalf. That means it’s a real challenge–and financial risk–to give up time from the work that supports her in order to make those paintings. So she found another way. She’s funding her gallery show, called Shell Game, on Kickstarter, without a gallery, and she’ll rent a storefront to display and sell the paintings (if they’re not all sold already) when they’re done. Backers of the project at various levels get things like ephemera, prints, access to the process of creation, and, at the highest levels, the paintings themselves.

The one thing you can’t exactly do DIY has to do with the reputation and recognition that being represented by a gallery confers. Writers have the same dilemma. For a lot of us, the idea of publishing our work Creative Commons is really appealing ideologically, and has the potential for wider circulation. It’s not the loss of potential revenue that stops people–that’s not what stopped me, anyway. As a first-time novelist, I wanted the stamp of approval and legitimacy points that being published by a ‘real’ publisher confers, and ended up getting it. Follow Me Down came out last summer.

A while back, Robin Sloan took a different path. He used Kickstarter to modestly fund the writing of a novella, which he produced in hardcopy for backers and released Creative Commons for the world. It’s a great piece of literary science fiction, and as it gained momentum, it also scored him a book deal, for an expanded version, with FSG, one of the most prestigious big publishers around. The book will be out in June. Of course, that’s helping Robin in the legitimacy department, but I think the lesson of his project, and of Molly’s Shell Game, is that legitimacy and reputation can increasingly be conferred by communities of what you might call informed fans. This isn’t just sheer, unadulterated page-view populism. This is the idea that when a discriminating community of consumers of a genre think something counts as ‘real,’ it does.

That’s a liberating sea-change for everyone.

March 14, 2012

I read something incredible today

I read something incredible today, and then I read the first thousand words of it again aloud to Bre, my voice breaking over the last few lines. It’s a story of tragedy coming, and then of the tragedy itself, one of such magnitude it cannot be absorbed.

What I read is “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy,” by Michael Paterniti, about the crash of Swiss Air flight 111, published in Esquire in 2000. I saw a link and took a peek at it on my phone, and then stopped the four other things I was doing and read every stunning word. I don’t read on my phone. But the prose was so astonishing and the story so well told that I couldn’t stop long enough to find it on a bigger screen.

Sometimes when I read writing this good, it sets in motion writing of my own. And sometimes it simply does the thing that words can do. It makes me feel the story in my own flesh.

I write fiction now, but I didn’t start out that way. I used to think the real world was so interesting, how could you ever stop just writing it down. Why would you make it up? I started out wanting to write like Michael Herr and Joan Didion and Truman Capote and Tim O’Brien, beautiful, brutal, and true. Now, there is a deep and complex conversation among writers and readers of nonfiction about writing truth and telling stories and which matters most and how the two meet and depart and entwine. I don’t know exactly when I shifted over into the realm of invention, but I do know that my writing is still driven by wonder at the things that are most real. And driven too by wonder at how the smallest molecules of what is real can be coaxed by a pen into bonding differently than they did when you first saw them.