Saturday, March 7, 2020


I've stumbled across two separate projects that strike me as similar, recently. Paul Graham's Mother and Deanna Dikeman's 27 Goodbyes. The former is a MACK book containing 18 (I think) more or less identical photographs of the photographer's mother, and the latter is a blurb book and (probably in a different form?) a MACK First Book Shortlist winner containing a group (27, one assumes) of similar photos of the photographer's parents waving goodbye to her over the years.

Are there things good or bad? I dunno, I found Graham's thing to be boring and stupid, but I dare say that if you spent some time with it various differences would reveal themselves and perhaps some sort of meaning would congeal around them. I have observed before that there is a risk of seeing meaning in practically anything if you simply stare at it long enough, and sort of induced pareidolia. Dikeman's project has more charm and pathos to it, but the pictures are, again, awfully similar. The parents age, Graham's mother does not.

These are both projects aiming at a kind of simplicity.

This is really really hard to pull off.

If you're writing a novel with Dickensian scope, there's a lot of ways to save yourself. Your clunky writing can be covered by a sprawling plot, or interesting characters, or whatever. You're working in a bunch of dimensions, and as long as you do well in a few of them, you can be merely adequate in the rest.

If, on the other hand, you're writing a children's book, let's say one of those things with one line of text per page and a picture, there's a hell of a lot less room for failure. You have to hit a precise note of wit, of rhythm, of charm. You can't flub anything, you've got one dimension and almost no content to work with. I have read a lot of these things in the last decade, and there's a lot of terrible work. I made this up, but it is typical of the worst stuff.

Mouse and Owl are friends. Mouse was hungry. Mouse found a nut. Mouse shared her nut with Owl. Mouse and Owl are friends.

No rhythm, no wit, an insulting story, and blunt moral stupidly delivered. A child of three would justly hate it.

The genius of Dr. Seuss was that he could reliably hit that note of rhythm and wit. Seuss is not alone here, but he continues to tower over virtually anyone else trying it out. When I wrote a few of these things to entertain my kids I did not attempt rhythm or rhyme, I simply made fun of stuff. The result is better than the worst by far, mainly because I left out the moralizing, but I'm no Seuss.

The Seuss estate published some posthumous material, and it is, I have to say, fascinating to see. The good doctor knew this difference between good and bad, and while his rejects are still better than, say, my stuff, they are distinctly lesser. It emphasizes, to my eye, the dizzying heights that his terribly simple little books scaled. This stuff was hard even for him.

The point here is that simplicity is hard. Simplifying your project may seem like a great idea, because, simple, right? It is not. A simple project has to be perfect to avoid failure, and maybe you haven't got perfect in you. Maybe you're got gallons of very good but no perfect. I certainly contain no perfect, although from time to time I persuade myself briefly that there is some adequate.


  1. Good piece thanks. Reminds me that I'm not a writer.

  2. Owl was hungry. Ate mouse. Yum! Thank you, mouse.

    I have a strange relationship with Paul Graham. Back in the 1980s I lived in Bristol in the flat above him, and often got delivered his mail by mistake, which clearly indicated he was some kind of aspiring artist and self-publisher. I don't think we ever spoke. Ever since I've "followed his career with interest", as they say, but have never managed to fathom why he attracts the international level of attention he does. Which is not to say he doesn't deserve it, just that I don't understand it!


  3. You say "simplicity," I say banality.

    The not-so-new lingua franca of Serious Art.

  4. Question: is cyanotype the new black?