Can mere words catch and pin art?
As anybody who has read much of Doctor Strangemind has probably noticed I’m not exactly cutting edge. None-the-less I’m not entirely unaware of the cutting edge of controversy (especially if said edge cutting is happening on File 770). And so it is that I’m aware of how Terry Goodkind recently described his latest novel, Shroud of Eternity, as ‘…a great book with a very bad cover. Laughably bad…’ and later on claimed he disliked Bastien Lecouffe Deharme’s cover because it was ‘sexist’.
I’ve seen the cover in question and while it doesn’t wow me it doesn’t strike me as ‘Laughably bad…’ In fact my only complaint is that I’m not keen on the colour scheme which is a bit too grey and brown for my taste. As to whether the complaint of sexism holds up I’ve no idea given I’ve not read this or any other of Terry Goodkind’s novels. As such I’ll leave that question to those of you better equipped to make a case one way or the other.
What I can do is point out that author discontent with output of those artists contracted to illustrate their work is nothing new. As it so happens I recently discovered some interesting comments in regards to this very topic in Mithril #4, published by Dennis Stocks sometime in 1973. (You knew I was going to dive back into the dear, distant past at some point, didn’t you?) As a starting point for a convention panel titled SF Illustration… A Dying Art? Stocks asked various professionals for their opinions. Unfortunately while it’s clear from the responses that Dennis Stocks posed two, or perhaps three, questions I can’t find any mention in Mithril #4 as to what he asked exactly so I can’t put these comments in exact context for you. Oh well, not that it matter in regards to the first respondent, Isaac Asimov:
Heaven knows I have no views whatever on art, science fiction or otherwise.
Really? No views whatever? Okay, so I’m pretty sure this is just Asimov’s way of politely declining to be involved but none-the-less I find his wording in this sentence absolutely fascinating. This is because he didn’t make what is to me the more obvious excuse of not being qualified to comment. No, instead he stated he had no views whatever, a rather myopic claim if you ask me. Not that it clashes with my general impression of Asimov, the sheer amount of popular science writing he produced always did make it seem to me that he didn’t have much time for anything besides science. But even so I did expect Asimov to at least imply that while he didn’t know much about art he certainly knew what he liked. Is it actually possible Asimov was that indifferent to art, or was this an ill-considered statement made in haste? I’d suggest the latter except I’m reminded of the fact that the first few issues of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine featured photos of Asimov on the cover rather than any artwork. Hmmm…
Enough about Asimov, let’s see how L. Sprague de Camp responded:
I have no special ideas on sf illustration; it seems to me to putter along pretty much the same regardless of the New Wave. I think the New Wave is already becoming Old Wave, as such things do. Experiments are fine, but only a small minority of those in the arts have permanent effect; most don’t work and are soon forgotten.
This is the way I expected Asimov to respond, by appearing to tackle the issue but actually dodging it. I assume from the way de Camp mentioned the New Wave that Dennis Stocks asked about what effect the New Wave movement had on science fiction art. I imagine Stocks had in mind the sort of eccentric graphics the British science fiction magazine, New Worlds, became well known for after Michael Moorcock took over as editor. Unfortunately de Camp confines himself to generalities of the sort I can imagine a first year art student mouthing. Which is not entirely surprising given that by the sixties de Camp wasn’t writing or editing anything which called for any but the most obvious graphics. His non-fiction wasn’t art orientated and the Conan paperbacks didn’t need covers showing anything other than barbarians bashing each other with swords before they were good to go.
Perhaps we’ll have more luck with Robert Bloch:
About science fiction illustration being a dying art – I’d be more inclined to regard the patient as not dying but merely partially crippled. My diagnosis is as follows:
His skin – that is to say, cover illustrations in both magazines and paperbacks – has a good, healthy tone and radiates a high degree of vitality,
His insides – i.e. interior illustrations in the magazines are ailing. And have been for many a long year. Much black-and-white is crude, hastily-executed and poorly reproduced, and necessarily limited as to size by the digest format of the pages on which it appears.
Bloch then went on to suggest the latter was not due to a lack of talent among artists but a mechanical problem. I’m in agreement with Bloch in this matter, interior artwork was always going to suffer once the science fiction magazines went from pulp size (25cmx17cm) to digest (19cmx13cm). However while this change shrank spot illustrations and reduced the amount of visible detail I suspect the real problem was one of budget. The vast majority of fiction magazines were discontinued during the 50s leaving only a handful of survivors, mostly science fiction and mystery titles. Not surprisingly magazine publishers had little reason to consider these few survivors important to the company bottom line. Consequently budgets didn’t keep up with inflation and soon enough there just wasn’t enough money to spare for b&w interior illustrations of the highest quality.
I have to wonder why editors didn’t use the opportunity afforded by by the move from pulp to digest size to begin phasing interior art out entirely. They surely knew it was possible because the editors of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had always used interior art very sparingly ever since that magazine began in 1949. However this is an easy decision for me to make in hindsight. At the time I imagine editors felt that the average reader would be disappointed if a longstanding feature like interior art disappeared. It’s also possible magazine editors felt that the interior art was a point of difference between their publications and the ever increasing number of paperbacks and thus saw the b&w illustrations as a selling point. For all anybody knew then or knows now keeping interior art did indeed help keep at least some of the magazine readership loyal.
None-the-less evolution is a thing and art has to evolve along with the rest of the world. In this case it has to asked if there is even a place for b&w science fiction art any more. If we assume that online publishing is where it’s at in regards to anything other than novels (a bit of an exaggeration I know but let’s roll with it) then why accept the budget limitations of the pulps and use anything less than full colour? While a website can afford the space to display large b&w pieces to best advantage is this a thing which people would still be interested in? This is certainly a question I would hope websites publishing science fiction have already asked themselves (perhaps they have, I don’t know enough about the modern scene to know) because I’m sure at least some artists would still like to produce b&w art on SF themes.
Bloch also wrote:
My opinions as to art used to illustrate my stories? I still admire what Virgil Finlay did on some of my yarns in the old Weird Tales – and what two friends and proteges, Albert & Flo Magarian, did in the Ziff-Davis pulps of the mid-forties, very much in the Finlay manner.
My gripes are reserved for artists who obviously do not read the stories and who make their own decisions as to how the characters should look, without bothering to follow descriptions. I am not fond of abstract squiggles, nor do I care for ‘comix’ techniques which result in slapdash sketches of heroes with beetling brows and oversize jaws.
Bloch’s gripe about artists not reading his stories reminds me of a complaint made by I don’t remember who in which they claimed “Artists never read the story while blurb writers read the wrong story.” Such assumptions were often unfair to the artists though as books and magazines are produced by rigid schedule and artists weren’t always granted the time necessary to do justice to the story they were being paid to illustrate. (This is also why minimalist graphics have replaced cover art on an increasingly large percentage of books these days.)
Let’s move on to James Blish. We’ve already seen he’s the opinionated sort:
Unfortunately, I’m a poor person to ask any sort of question about art, a subject of which I have little knowledge or appreciation.
Don’t know about you but I’m sensing a theme developing here. I wonder why nobody seems game to take the ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ route?
Anyway, Blish goes on:
I’m inclined to agree with your suspicion that many New Wave stories don’t supply enough visual images to give the artist something concrete to draw. But the artists who attached themselves to the New Wave couldn’t seem to have cared less. In New Worlds many of the graphics didn’t seem to have anything at all to do with the text.
As for cover art – I get many hardcover books for review and all too often their jackets show nothing but that the artist was utterly baffled by the task. (My favourite example of this is a collection of Avram Davidson stories, the jacket for which depicted an ice-bag floating in mid-ocean – a dead giveaway of how the artist felt, but nothing to do with anything in the book). Paperback covers have generally been much better as illustrations, and I hope they last a long time.
Ah, so Blish decided to take the ‘I don’t know art but I know what I don’t like’ route. Still, I do think he makes an interesting point in there among the general grumpiness. I think it’s fair to say that the fiction being written by most authors identified with the New Wave didn’t lend itself to striking imagery. Authors such as Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Philip Dick, the later Robert Silverberg weren’t writing material that lent itself to visual interpretation given that scenes more often than not involved groups of relatively ordinary people talking together. This actually takes me back to my earlier question about whether there is even a place for b&w science fiction art any more. In this case however it’s not a question of whether b&w art is desired when colour is so easy but if any art is desirable at all if science fiction is no longer focused on visually exotic topics.
The thing about science fiction art is that it has rarely existed as an end in itself. Most of the time SF art has been produced as an adjunct to SF stories and novels. Even when a piece wasn’t intended to illustrate a specific story it usually features objects and ideas we’re familiar with from reading those afore mentioned stories and novels.
There was a time when the art served to visualise these new concepts and add depth to them. That time is long past, so long past that what once exited us now bores. How many of us really want to see new visual iterations of the robot, the spaceship, the time machine, the alien landscape?
Okay, so the problem for visual SF seems to be that the old concepts are passe while many of the new ones are less visceral and don’t lend themselves to interesting visual representation.
I think I should end this piece with Ursula le Guin because of all the authors asked she seems to be the only one capable of being both grumpy and graceful about the art associated with her books. Other authors might like to read the following and take notes:
I know absolutely nothing about SF illustration, and yet find I have opinions about it – predjudices even – which go so far as asking, is it a dying art, or was it even born?
SF illustration. What comes to mind? Some subtle and handsome paperback book covers by the Dillons and Kelly Freas? The line drawings Gaughan did for the Jack Vance story The Dragon Masters. Tolkien’s own drawings for The Hobbit, and the beautiful dustjacket, which I think he did himself.
Then what? The illustrations to my own books, you ask about? Oh Lord. Well. You know, I trust that unless you are Harriet Beecher Stow you do not get consulted about illustrations, or book covers – or even shown them before publication, unless your publisher is uncommonly courteous? You DO know that? (I keep getting asked Why did you let them put that cover on etc, etc. Let them! Hah!)
I have been given two covers I unqualifiedly like. One is the French edition of Left Hand Of Darkness (La Main Gauche de la Nuit), which is heavy silver paper with an embossed pattern of what might be snowflakes. No picture at all. The other is the British (Hardcover – Gollancz) edition of Wizard of Earthsea, a neat Durer-like drawing in black on ochre. The original (Parnassus) and the Ace editions of the Wizard are also very handsome covers, and Ruth Robbins’ interior illustrations are elegant. The wizard on the Puffin paperback is either anaemic, or stayed too long at Oxford – I am arriving at something. I am arriving at the fact that I know what my people look like, and what their landscapes look like, and that nobody else (naturally) knows it quite the way I do – they know it their way – which is fine, so long as they keep it to themselves. But when they draw it, it looks wrong. To me. I don’t tell them that. I only tell you that. They are all talented people and they worked very hard.
But the plain silver cover with a suggestion of snowflakes still leaves the imagination free to work – which is, perhaps, the best of all?