Tuesday, July 21, 2009

An Open Letter to Adam Roberts

Hi, Adam --

I'm pleased you're a working science fiction author because as a driveby art critic, you're a mess. In your July 17th post about the Hugo Awards, you labelled the work of four of the five Best Professional Artist Hugo nominees as dull and mediocre, and not deserving of Hugo recognition. You're entitled to your opinion, just as all fans are. Being one of the five Hugo nominees in this category, I can safely speak for myself and all of the pro artist nominees in that we all relish good criticism. It's part of being a pro.

That said, hopefully you and I will someday sit down at a con and have a beer together. We have a shared love for science fiction. Both of us wish the best for its progressive growth. We have mutual friends. Many of them speak highly of your ability as an sf author. I hear that you're the kind of challenging author that I love to cover-illustrate. That said, even if I just have the pleasure of reading one of your books someday, I hope I'll actually be able to find one.

I applaud your self-appointed stance as a champion of literary excellence and that you demand excellence of the rest of the sf world. However, in doing so, it's only fair that you live up to the same. As an art critic, you fail miserably, sir. Two statements you make in your post that betray you as a poseur in this regard:

1. Of the work of Donato Giancola, Dan Dos Santos, Bob Eggleton and myself, you claim that the work is "conventional; all surface technique and no soul; artworks exactly like and in not one quarter-degree superior to pretty much every SFF novel or magazine cover printed since 1966."

Response: Since 1966, you say? "Pretty much every", you say? Sounds like you worked overtime to calculate that one. Since you've so conveniently couched your opinion as fact, I'm sure you'll be willing to enlighten us with your well-researched thesis about 43 years of sf art from which your conclusion no doubt originates (maybe somewhere within your labyrinthine HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION?). Pardon me if I don't hold my breath waiting.

2. A second excerpt from your blogpost: "Remember, Fandom, my question is not: are these artists competent, because clearly they all are. But are they the best? What are they doing that is new? That stands out? That shakes or moves or inspires us? The moleskin-notebook doodlers on Skine-art produce more interesting art than this in their spare time every day. We can do better. Or—and this is the angle that worries me, Fandom: or (sic) you really think that these images are the best that visual art can be?"

Response: It's up to me to make the decisions within my own work. It's up to the audience to judge how it assimilates into the culture stream. It's up to me to make my work the best I can, and once done, I leave the value judgments to the audience, and to history. That said, I'll leave you and the rest of the world to judge my work, but as a working professional artist, I'm qualified to make the case for three very worthy 2009 Hugo Award Professional Artist nominees, Donato Giancola, Dan Dos Santos and Bob Eggleton. You say that "the moleskin-notebook doodlers on Skine-art produce more interesting art than this in their spare time every day." I took a look through this site which you claim is more "interesting". I encourage all to do the same and make their own judgments. Meanwhile, I offer the following personal opinions on Giancola, Dos Santos, and Eggleton. (Readers please note that I'm also a huge admirer of Shaun Tan's work and he's equally Hugo-worthy, but he wasn't a target of clumsy generalization and therefore, not relevant to present discussion.)

Why I believe Donato Giancola is Hugo-worthy:

This is Donato's cover art for THE GOLDEN ROSE. It not only displays a masterful command of oil paint but packs an emotional wallop. Technically, it's one of the richest oil paintings I've seen on an sf/f cover in 2008. Note the rocks vs. the foamy tide; the undertones of the fish skin vs. those of the human skin; the textures of the tentacles vs. those of the neighboring seaweed; the triangular shapes of the tide echoing the triangular shapes of the rocks. All of this interplay is happening within a simple but dynamic birds-eye composition that frames the forms and drama in perfect measure. The body language of the figures is gut-wrenching and engrossing. To call this "soulless art" signals character flaws within the accuser, not within the art or the artist. If this is "mediocre art" that shows sf/f in a poor light, then go talk to the Society of Illustrators New York who are very much NOT a genre association and recognized this painting with their highest 2008 honor -- the Hamilton King Award, awarded to the outstanding illustration of the year by a peer group of some of the most respected American artists.

Why I believe Dan Dos Santos is Hugo-worthy:

This is Dan's cover for POISON SLEEP. What I love about this one is it's an ingenious and unconventional compositional solution that doesn't succumb to the formulas of a standard mass-market paperback. The color scheme is restrained and smart. It stands out versus its adjacent competitors on a given bookstore shelf. There's an economy of form here, and a delicacy in the skin tones, expressions and gestures. It does what only the very best book cover art does -- draws the reader across the store to pick up the book, while standing on its own as a compelling piece of visual storytelling.

Why I believe Bob Eggleton is Hugo-worthy:

Bob will never be confused for artists pushing the envelope of genre art, but in fact, that's his super power. He's unapologetically in love with pulp, and while that may not be my personal cup of tea, his work regularly seduces my eyes, unlike any other living pulp-loving painter. That's a pretty neat trick when pulp is not my primary interest and yet I enjoy it when Bob does it. Paintings like this one are why his work connects so powerfully with the sf audience. They transport viewers time after time, and his brushwork is some of the most emotional that we currently have in the sf field. Some may argue that Bob's thematic wellspring doesn't speak to the present time, but I think that's precisely his point. I think he's consciously trying to use the fantastic to remind us of simpler times past and future, and and he does it as well as anyone ever has in sf art.

Adam: You attempted to make the case for sweeping change in the Hugos (which is very much your right), but you utterly failed to make a convincing case why one form of visual art is more desirable than the current nominated choices in the Best Professional Artist category.

Instead, you displayed that it's much easier for you to wield poorly-crafted generalizations, a familiar trademark of amateur writers. Again, your opinions are your right, just as they're the right of any fan, but it's a working professional's equal right to call you out when you pound your chest, demanding excellence, and yet don't expect the same of yourself in this conversation. I'm disappointed that someone of your regard prefers to be just another intellectual bully trying to look oh-so-cool and above reproach, lobbing cheap shots, while trading on his reputation. Science fiction is my field too, and it deserves better than that.

Again, I hope we can have a beer together someday. It would be a sincere pleasure, and I mean that with no sarcasm. And one last thing -- should you again decide to take potshots at Giancola, Dos Santos, or Eggleton, please bring your A-game next time.

Very best,
John Picacio


Anonymous karen wester newton said...

Hear, hear! Well said.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

[SMACK!] Ouch. Thanks for the critique and the links. Just comparing these pieces with what's on the front of skine.art today leaves no doubt in one's mind.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Marianne said...

Well said, John! Thank you for your kind compliments of Bob's work. Some of your contemporaries have not been so kind. :-)

Bob is a law unto himself, in love with brushstrokes and colour as with all types of art, from modern illustration to the masters from the last 1000 years. He learns from and quotes it all. He could teach several subjects on it.

Mr Roberts is another misguided soul who believes cover illustration art is high brow art. It isn't: it is driven by a need to sell as many books as possible with marketing execs as well as editors and art directors ALL directing what should go on a cover. It isn't easy to navigate those narrows. However, Bob and many others still manage to produce quality work. If Mr Roberts were to take a look at any one of the artists you mentioned, at their personal works, he might just go home and revise his opinions. I know Bob's is breathtaking...


11:02 AM  
Blogger Aoede said...

Hm. I'm biased -- I prefer simple covers with restrained and minimal art. As ART though, I don't see how doodles could compare?

11:06 AM  
Blogger Walt said...

I just get tired of all those fantasy covers with blissed-out women floating in the middle of turmoil.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Adam Roberts said...

A beer sounds good. I like beer.

The three images you praise are all very pretty, no question. They are examples of the dominant contemporary style in SF art. I like the bulk of SF-themed art, as it goes, although it seems to be to follow a fundamentally Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic: representational art rendered in bright colours, realistic (often photorealistic) form, predominantly figure portraiture (often semi-clothed figures) in landscape. There are good, commercially-grounded reasons for this of course, but it's limiting. Much as I love the PRB, it'd be nice to think that there's more to art, and especially the best art, than this. A lot has happened in art since the 1870s.

re: the Giancola. I agree the textures are rendered in a very technically accomplished manner; but I can't say the mini-baroque curls of the composition do much for me. You say the image 'packs an emotional wallop' and you and I may have to agree to disagree on that. It seems to me rather unengaging, emotionally: dealing in an empty kind of pathos.

The Dan Dos Santos also leaves me cold: technically accomplished but trading also in visual cliche (attractive young girl in leather skirt). The Eggleton is, once again, accomplished; seems to me derivative and unexciting. The point with all three is not whether they are good; it's whether they are the best. How would they fare in any of the last dozen shortlists for the John Moores painting prize, for instance?

"Mr Roberts is another misguided soul who believes cover illustration art is high brow art. It isn't: it is driven by a need to sell as many books as possible"

This is obviously right ... the commercial imperative bit, I mean; the bit about the state of my soul is only probably right. My beef is not that these images won't sell books; it's with putting them in the shop-window of the genre's blue-riband prize as examples of the very best in art today.

On the other hand, I like your image, John, at the top of the post very much.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Rick Klaw said...


An intelligent and classy response. I would expect no less from you.


11:58 AM  
Anonymous Simon Spanton said...


I love the illustrations you've chosen to illustrate your point. However it seems to me that each and every one of these could have come off a genre book cover from anytime in the last 40 years or so.

If that's the case then its down to the industry and the market it serves rather than the individual artists. Which may be where the emphasis of Adam's argument is off target.

But if the general point made is that any popular reaction to any popular medium tends, by definition, to be conservative and we need to pay attention to that tendency then its a general point I agree with.

All the best


12:04 PM  
Blogger Mary Robinette Kowal said...

John, one more reason I love you.

Mr. Roberts, I'd be better able to listen your arguments if a) you had purchased a membership voted in the Hugos or b) you provided counter-examples that were even remotely serious. The mole-skin site is laughable.

As for a) since you chose not to vote you cannot claim that "these are my awards."

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the risk of going off topic:

The current batch of moleskine art is exceedingly patchy it must be said (though I love the bus in the woods guy) - I was shocked by just how bad some of it was. There has, though, (I promise) been some stunning stuff on it in the past - hence my shock at the current batch.

Not much, even the good stuff, that could be used for book covers though I'll admit.

And I say that advisedly having had to field a fair amount of scorn for some of the more experimental covers Gollancz have used on recent repackage exercises (whether they've won a Yellow Pencil Design award or not . . .).



12:29 PM  
Blogger Marianne said...

heh, heh, heh. Bob is constantly scribbling in his moleskin book. I use one to write notes in for my writing projects. Does that put us on the same page?

Mind you, I think what Mr Roberts and others consistently forget is: that the Hugos is a 'best of' competition put up by the fans, for the fans to vote on their favourite book cover artist. Sometimes those nominations and votes are a kneejerk reaction to nom their constant old fave, or alternatively to intellectually spend time perusing many of the artists and use that as their basis for choice. Then you've got that geographical oriented voter denomination that shifts and is influenced by wherever the worldcon is held in any give year. All in all, it is still a crap shoot. Also, it depends on just how many paintings of each artist MR Roberts has based his opinions on. Every artist has some spectacular pieces, just as he or she has a series of 'get the job done' ones because the bloody publisher/marketing exec has changed the bloody schedule AGAIN.

I remember one uppity new author (name with held to protect the obnoxious) gatecrashed one of Bob's kaffeeklatches at San Antonio worldcon to tell him what a horrible painting he thought Bob's was for the cover of his magazine short story. Bob listened and made some comments about telemetry and inclination and declination of orbits, etc. The author in question huffed a bit, and then begrudgingly asked the price of the original painting 'he didn't like'. Bob had the satisfaction of telling him that it had sold out of the studio to a major collector who absolutely LOVED it and praised it a great deal. The author picked his jaw up off the ground and quietly left. The collector still raves about the painting to this day...

It's all about personal perceptions and points of view... I do try to see all points, but some days it's worth a laugh. :-D

Keep up with your opinions, Mr Roberts...at least you have honest ones...

PS: Thanks for sharing, John. Hugs...

2:02 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Folks -- I've a little bit to say here so I'm gonna break this up into a few parts because Google is choking on the length of my response. Please bear with me.

Part 1

Hi, folks --

Thanks for the comments here. Much appreciated.

I need to jump back to work and may disappear here for several hours, but Adam and Simon are on UK time so I wanted to reply to them before it gets too late on their side.

Adam -- You're asking all of us a question of "is this the best that sf can offer?" and frankly, I applaud your relentless push for excellence. No snark or sarcasm there. I'm being serious. What you consider excellent and what I consider excellent may differ, but regardless, I welcome the questioning. Thank you. Unfortunately, as a nominee in this case, I'm not comfortable answering that and would prefer to just return to the daily task of getting better at my work while others carry this conversation of "what is best" because in fact, my own work is involved here. My battle is to do the work; it's up to others to decide where it fits in the cultural continuum. The reason I responded in defense of Donato, Dan, and Bob was I didn't appreciate the blanket generalizations of the pro sf art nominees, but you've been kind enough to offer detailed thoughts here. Though we may differ in our analyses, I respect your takes.

In a nutshell, I view art/literary awards much like title belts in a boxing world where there are different federations with title bouts, but no unified belt recognizing the undisputed champion. I realize the Hugo is essentially a popularity vote, and functions according to a field of gravity that I may not understand all of the time. I'm OK with that. Call me crazy, but I still love it and am honored to have been nominated five consecutive years. Maybe someday I'll actually win one, but I can promise I never take the nom for granted. Do I wish there was one award that unified focused fan and critical scrutiny into one heavyweight, one-belt-to-rule-them-all recognition? Sure! Do I have a problem with anyone calling the Hugo "the most prestigious award in sf"? Personally -- I'm OK with it. I'm also fine with anyone who wants to start a new award and imbue it with a significance they feel is lacking within the Hugo and elsewhere. Wouldn't bother me in the least. Back to the boxing analogy -- each belt (World Fantasy Award, Chesley Award, Spectrum Award, Locus Award, Hugo Award, etc.) recognizes according to its own field of gravity and in my mind, artists (literary and visual) who have consistency of work and recognition from the various titles over the years may have a stake in the argument of "bests" over a career.

2:08 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Here's the 2nd part of my two-part response to Adam:

But what about superlative work that doesn't get acknowledged by the awards as it possibly should? I think the best we can do is keep holding those works up as what we think is best, and hope that we can turn the tide. Vincent Van Gogh was a genius but he died penniless and crazy, largely uncelebrated in his own time. Fast forward to now -- and which artist commands the highest auction prices ever? Yup, the dead crazy guy with the missing ear who was ahead of his time in his lifetime. Will Adam Roberts be the 21st-century sf literary equivalent of Vincent Van Gogh? From what I hear, your books may have the literary equivalence of that kind of genius. I hope you have the success, within your lifetime, without the poverty, and while keeping both of your ears on your dome. But you and I both know the truth -- true groundbreaking artistry, the kind that changes the course of history, is seldom embraced within its initial incarnation. In fact, it's usually, sadly, quite the opposite. In a corporately-controlled world of publishing where profit is king, that sure makes "groundbreaking artistry" a very difficult sell, and usually the domain of publishers, editors, and artists with strong stomachs, stronger visions, and strongest wills.

That said, I think beating up sf fandom for not selecting more challenging works is an exercise that will warrant little to no success at best. I think what's more courageous, but a much tougher road, is to encourage more challenging work to exist (which you do consistently from what I hear). However, I wonder what happens when you take the same line of hard questioning you took to fandom and take that to your editors, your publishers, their sales forces and the bookstore buyers that make the choices for what exists in a bookstore. If you can change THOSE mentalities and raise those standards, then you may truly shift that balance of commercial mediocrity toward commercial and recognized excellence. You and I both know how mind-numbingly difficult that is, but I think that's where the real, meaningful battlefront is. And it is not an easy one. I wish you luck and do look forward to reading you someday. Don't be a stranger.

2:09 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Whew -- Simon. Thanks for stopping by. As far as I'm concerned you nailed it with this line -- "If that's the case then its down to the industry and the market it serves rather than the individual artists." I'm not trying to relieve myself and the commercial book cover illustration community of its accountability to strive toward new ground, but our job is to both sell a book with an image that, as you know, must satisfy the viewpoints of many masters (art director, editor, sales, marketing, chain buyers(!), publisher, and that's before the author and audience come into play), and still somehow create a transcendent visual image that is true to the book's contents and a moveable set of artistic values. I've said it before but I've got a lot more respect for an illustrator who can create a transcendent piece of art after running that gauntlet as opposed to a non-commercial artist that doesn't have those kinds of market pressures to bear and must do the same thing. To my understanding, Adam is saying "artists -- don't succumb to the status quo of yourselves or your contexts. Either be willing to help push the rest of us toward new frontiers, or lose the right to call yourselves 'artists.'" I agree with that, even if my own work sometimes fails in the attempt, to my profound disgust and despite my very best efforts. I have these conversations with Lou Anders all the time. He's trying to do the same thing on his end as an editorial director, and it's one of the reasons I LOVE working with him. We push each other. We talk about this very thing ad nauseum and he does his best to push the chips forward a bit where he can, and I do the same. Whether we're in any way successful is up to the audience, and history, to decide. If this stuff was easy, everyone would be doing it, right? :)

Alright, fellas -- I wish I could stick around and say more, but typing is not my strong suit. Back to the real work.

Thanks very much,
p.s. Marianne, just saw you chime in here. Thanks for the Bob story. Very cool. :)

2:09 PM  
Blogger Mair said...

are you sure you aren't a writer, too? well said, John!

3:25 PM  
Blogger Adam Roberts said...

Thank you, John, for your detailed, dignified and, in the circumstances, very gracious reply.

"In a corporately-controlled world of publishing where profit is king, that sure makes "groundbreaking artistry" a very difficult sell"

Of course I very much take the force of this.

Simon's right, actually. 'If that's the case then its down to the industry and the market it serves rather than the individual artists. Which may be where the emphasis of Adam's argument is off target.' Attacking individual artists for doing their best professional work is an idiot's strategem; I apologise for that. My issue is actually with the dominant aesthetic, the larger visual idiom that dominates the market today; I should have concentrated on that.

Plus the stuff on the moleskine site has been a bit shit, recently. Perhaps I should have linked here, or here instead. How many examples of SF would stand a chance at the first of those links? If the answer is, none, then why?

3:49 PM  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

Will only add to this that John and I have talked often about the ground that has perhaps been lost since Richard Powers, whose work is still groundbreaking today.

The covers for Fast Forward 1 & 2grew in part out of those discussions, though 2 was also influenced by French revolutionary art and the death of Dave Stevens, plus our own dissatisfaction with the then-contemporary political realities.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

Actually, I'll add that the purpose of the cover is to put the book it graces into the hands of the appropriate reader, and the last thing you want is to work with an artist who is using the cover as an excuse to fund his personal gallery work at your book's expense. An artist who can place the needs of the book first, while still producing gallery-level work, however, is gold.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Kate Elliott said...


if you're at WFC (San Jose), remind me that I have just promised to buy you a drink.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Kevin Standlee said...


Hear, hear! Well said. And far more polite than me. Thanks for adding to the ongoing conversation in a positive manner.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Excellent read...everyone!

Lou: I belive you nailed it in that second post - and John is gold! My background is in graphic design and illustration and John is one of the best illustrators working today...in any genre.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

I agree!

10:39 AM  
Blogger JourneyPlanet said...

You know, that Daniel Dos Santos piece is probably my favourite from last year. To me, it's a difficult perspective to make work and it's a picture that works at various scales, which is something that a lot of pieces fail at.

My thing is this: I see a lot of SF and Fantasy art while I'm putting together The Drink Tank and Journey Planet. Will I say that there aren't any artist whose gallery on DeviantArt rival the output of those on the Ballot? I can think of a couple who come close, but they're not in the stream, really. Are there works by those that are nominated that leave me cold? Sure, but that happens to every artist.

I usually look at the Hugos as not awarding the Best, but the Most Popular. Does that view cheapen the awards? Sadly, yes, and sometimes the Best and the Most Popular collide and that's good. Do I think the short lists are perfect? No, of course not. Do I think they're bad? Not at all.

With the possible exception of music, visual art is the hardest field for an outsider to judge. I worked (thankfully briefly) on the Art Beat in Boston and I still feel like I've not got nearly enough of a grasp on things to make the call "These are the Best Pieces of SF&F Art in the World!". I can merely say 'These are my Favourites".

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Sean Williams said...

I'll join the list of people queuing up to buy you a drink at WFC, John. And Adam too, if he's going to be there. This is the very model of how passionate disagreements should play out on the internet.

12:09 AM  
Blogger Wally said...

Mind you, I think what Mr Roberts and others consistently forget is: that the Hugos is a 'best of' competition put up by the fans, for the fans to vote on their favourite book cover artist.

Though I'm not qualified to comment on the craft of painting and illustration, as a fan and (I'm coining a term here?) arrogand(!!) I believe I'm qualified to say that 'Awards for fans are correct, even when tasteless, because they're for fans' - the defensive posture of which the above-quoted comment is a version - is gutless bullshit meant to justify a form of border-patrolling parochialism to which fans come all too naturally. It seems to me that Roberts is making an argument about the narrowness of the Hugos' purpose and scope, and - in passing - an argument about a certain lack of ambition among sci-fi fans and creators, perhaps.

He's not short on ambition or purpose - and condescending to a reasonable man because he pissed in your piss cocktail is, at the very least, a reaction worth examining.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Kevin Standlee said...


If your argument about the Hugo Awards boils down to, "You should change your awards because I don't like them," then in my opinion you have two legitimate choices:

1. Join the organization and work to change the Awards to be more the way you want them to be. Remember, there's not "they" in WSFS. There's no faceless Board of Directors that you lobby for changes. You don't elect representatives and then lobby them to do what you want. WSFS is governed by a "Town Meeting" form of government, and every member represents him/herself. You want change? Make it yourself.

2. Start your own Awards that are Done Right. If you're right, then those same Right Thinking People that you claim to represent will flock to your award and will ignore all of those other terrible awards like the Hugo Award.

If neither of these appeals to you, then don't be surprised if the members of WSFS -- particularly those people who do actually attend meetings and work on changes -- have a tendency to dismiss your comments.

I lose patience with people who tell us, "You should change things, but I'm too good to actually dirty my hands by actually getting involved in the messy process of doing something, so of course I won't do anything other than whinge about it."

7:14 PM  
Blogger Guest said...

Wow. I can't match the eloquence that most of the comments here have demonstrated. Nor do I have the artistic talent (ok... any artistic talent) to lend weight to anything I might say.

However, I think John's comments are well stated (as well as those of his other supporters).

Being married to an artist, myself, and having spent time with several wonderful professional artists and illustrators over my 20+ years of convention running (and attending) has given me a pretty broad view of what is out there. And, I very much enjoy the works of all of the artists mentioned.

So, since John is too humble to speak on his own behalf, I want to show my support for John and his brilliant work.

I think John has a very unique style that shows both his incredible imagination and genuine talent. John also does an amazing job of capturing the spirit of the books he illustrates. Since that is the ultimate responsibility of the illustrator, I think when we look at Hugo nominations, we need to keep that in mind. If this were an award for fine gallery art, perhaps the criteria would be different. But, for a Hugo, the art needs to be of the highest caliber, while at the same time, meeting the strict needs and demands of the publishing industry.

John's work does just that. It is esthetically pleasing, accomplishes the needs of the contractor(s), and shows genuine artistic excellence (IMHO, of course).

And, lest my opinions be disregarded as isolated and uneducated.... I can say that the attendees at last weekend's SpoCon, who are a very diverse group and a good representative sample of fandom in general, universally loved John's work.

So, that's 700+ people in one geographic region... which statistically represents a lot more folks.

So, while everyone is certainly entitle to thier opinion as to what is worthy and deserving of being recognized with a Hugo... it is ultimately a matter for the *fans* to decide - and being one of the nominees, alone, offers evidence that there is a significant number of fans that disagree with Mr. Roberts' stated opinion.

Good luck, John. The competition is stiff, but may you finally be the bride this time!


8:02 PM  

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