I'm not sure where to begin with Dear James: Letters to A Young Illustrator. Out of my count'm five stack, it was the first book with real content - a big plus. If asked, I'd tell you it's a book by a seasoned illustrator that's meant to encourage beginning artists - not just illustrators - to keep trying to succeed. But that hardly sums it up. The book raises more questions than it answers, which makes it unsatisfying on some levels.
First of all, it's not about anyone named James. James is an imaginary friend whom the author created to pump full of shocking stories and wise saws about his ultimate artistic success. If you can suspend belief long enough to absorb the advice the author gives to dear imaginary James, the premise works, but if you can't...and this was where I ran into my biggest problem: I think the author wrote the book to himself, to gloat over his success in an indirect way, which lent an artifice I'm not used to seeing on an autobiographical level.
I should preface any further theorizing by saying I don't read reviews before or after reading the books that I eventually review. I want to come into each book unblemished - and unbiased - by anyone else's take on it. So what I say about each book might not just be "wrong" within the context of public opinion, but even factually incorrect, since I don't check before I write these things.
That said, I couldn't get past thinking the author wrote the entire book to himself and only made a pass at authenticity on the cover by claiming James was his imaginary friend. James is his imaginary friend like Marah Marie is mine. I don't write crap to myself - about myself, and address it to Marah Marie. It just seems - to pull a favorite word out of my not-too-distant past - suspicious.
My most tempting suspicion? That the author's ego is off-the-chain, through-the-roof grande. I mean, if you're not writing the book to anyone real, and if you're not writing it to yourself, then who - or what? - is it for? Posterity? That's one answer which fits in rather nicely. Another - the more altruistic one - is he wrote the book to encourage other illustrators, not to reflect upon his own remarkable (given his thin talent, it is that) career.
I think the answer lies somewhere in between. He wanted to immortalize his success in his own words, using his own illustrations - to some extent - so the book functions in part as a first-person ode to himself. But he also wanted to encourage others, so his off-beat choice of letter-writing, either to a younger version of himself (James) or else to aspiring artists in general, gets the job done in a more original way.
I'm an artist, after a fashion, so the seeming goal of this book is aimed at me. And while the author covers many sorts of talent (writing, illustrating, actual "art") in his attempts to push James along, I couldn't help feeling weary with the whole thing. His advice might work for someone "just starting out" with a bright-eyed, "take on the world" attitude, who knows they're "gonna make it". I'm not sure how well this book will work for the rest of us.
Because not one word that I'd seen before ever pushed me one inch closer to...well, anything. I don't know if it's pure, ingrained ambivalence, only that while most of the advice seems good, it can't help you succeed. And if words can't help, then talent is an innate thing that either gels or doesn't within the framework of your life - which means you don't need encouragement to succeed - but you may need it to avoid failing. The author even offers a stunning example of this (one of my favorite parts of the book, since it isn't advice at all):
Ignaz Semmelweis was an assistant at the General Hospital in Vienna. During his tenure, childbirth fever claimed the lives of one out of every eight women. Semmelweis observed that surgeons and students often treated women after handling cadavers. In 1847 he declared that improper hygiene was the cause of the high death rate. He started the practice of washing his hands in chlorinated lime water before treating women patients. Within a year the mortality rate in his ward plunged from one out of eight women to one out of a hundred. [...] But he made little headway [in proposing this solution to] his colleagues, denounced them as murderers, became raving mad and was put into a straight jacket. He died in a mental hospital.
It's quotes like that which make this book worthwhile, especially when taken with the author's stance on anonymity (a central theme of this journal). He writes that many artistic successes have written under sometimes hundreds - hundreds - of anon handles, and brags that his son also uses quite a few of them. In light of anon handles being under Facebook-directed attack these days, thought of as scurrilous additions that ruin a person's aim and plunge his or her words into doubt, I found the more "old-fashioned" take on anonymity - that it's not just OK, but great to have (lots of!) anon handles - one of the few poignant, and almost encouraging, topics in this book.
This book also raises the question, without asking or answering it, of what good material success and public reknown is to anyone. Are you a failure if your work never gets recognized - published - talked about - known? Is "success" always about money, accolades, and offers of more work? For every book like this I want to throw out one Emily Dickinson in answer - someone who slaves their entire life to create one perfect poem, line drawing, or canvas, who never seeks fame or fortune, who rises above all in spite of satisfying themselves being the only satisfaction they needed. How does this book address them? I'm afraid it doesn't.
Other highlights (it's the details that make the whole thing): the author's delight in, as Marissa Mayer might say, the polymath's success in "all things", and his entreaty to keep your day job. He offers William Carlos Williams as an example of having more than one passion, and argues not to give either passion up if you think you can juggle both.
What lowered the book's quality: the author's writing style was sometimes like his artistic one - flighty and nervous - sometimes his ego clearly overwhelms him, like when he claims he'll be too busy to write to James again for a spell, and he's never met a run-on paragraph he doesn't like. I kept noticing where I would put paragraph breaks - on almost every page! - which was almost as distracting as "James, the literary device". If you write well, it won't occur to me to edit for you as I go along.
Overall, it was a good read, but it might not be for everyone aspiring to creative success.