As Holden Caulfield would have said, “The Artstars” is lousy with artists.

Cover courtesy of Amazon

Steve, a sculptor, is among those found in the nine dynamic interconnected stories that comprise Portlander Anne Elliott’s literary debut. The fact that Steve has had his work in the Whitney Biennial twice isn’t lost on his old friend Clay, a not exactly ascendant performance artist who, in “The Beginning of the End of the Beginning,” feels obliged to get a day job to please his fellow-artist girlfriend. (For some reason she doesn’t seem pleased.)

In “Three Lessons in Firesurfing,” a pre-fame Steve is a peer of fiber artist Sara – they’re both grad students at an unnamed school in the Midwest. During a group critique, Sara is shaken by the lack of enthusiasm (including Steve’s) for her work, but she doesn’t give up: In “The Stone Floor,” Sara, now an art teacher in New York, goes back to the basics – drawing – while on a trip to Paris with her sister Rebecca.

Rebecca, too, is an artist – a fiction writer – and a supremely frustrated one; she’s slathering on the sarcasm when she says to her guidebook-wielding sister, “Oh goody! … Maybe if we go to James Joyce’s apartment and Henry Miller’s whorehouse that will make me a better writer.

“The Artstars” is about what people are willing to do – have always been willing to do, really – to be artists: take meaningless day jobs, endure writer’s block, weather bad reviews, live in substandard housing, and collect rejection letters while friends collect accolades. That Elliott has based her stories largely in New York City either on the cusp of the year 2000 or just after 9/11 seems exactly right: Her cast surely remembers the art boom of the 1980s and the ensuing bust, and the encroaching millennium and the terrorist attacks are further reminders to her characters that they may not have all the time in the world to make their marks.

None of Elliott’s artists are dilettantes – she reliably shows them hard at work – but one is of dubious talent. In “Down the Slope,” Peter, a student in a writing workshop taught by Rebecca, submits stories that she considers “clichéd, O. Henry wannabe stuff” full of “neat ironic endings with pat moral messages.” Peter is also a bore when it comes to critiquing his classmates’ work: “It really needs a plot … It needs a real conflict,” he says of one workshopped story. (Readers can judge for themselves: The workshopped story that he’s slamming, “Volunteer,” follows “Down the Slope.”) When Rebecca warns Peter that his suggestions would turn his classmate’s story into melodrama, Peter replies, “What’s wrong with melodrama? That sells.” If Rebecca could afford pearls, she would have clutched them.

Peter is a hilarious foil: He’s a stand-in for the forces of commercialism that Elliott’s characters are nobly fighting. But it must be said that a couple of stories in “The Artstars” could have used Peter’s input: Elliott occasionally seems so beguiled by her fictional creations that she forgets that to stay interested, a yet-to-be-smitten reader might need some conventional help – a bit more plotting, say. Of course, no true artist wants to listen to the Peters of the world, but who knows? If Rebecca had taken his advice, maybe she would have had a better time with Sara on their bungled trip to Paris.

Nell Beram is coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies” and a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor. Her work has recently appeared in Salon, Shelf Awareness, and Little Old Lady Comedy.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.