Love the Art, not the Artist

mw-witch_hunt_0In view of the whole Kathleen Hale kerfuffle, I am reposting a piece that I wrote several years ago. I have never read Hale’s books, and have little taste for YA lit. But while I don’t condone stalking anyone for any reason, I am flabbergasted by the outrage expressed against her work, current and future.  I have loved books, music, and art by people I wouldn’t want to hang out with, and I’ve learned the hard way that there is no point holding the artist’s personality against the work itself. Of course, with the push for artists to have a web presence and platform, it is harder for them to remain at arm’s length, and they often show themselves in the most unflattering light, which is a shame for them and for everyone who might have been moved, transported, delighted by their work. Some of the references below may be a bit dated, but my general feelings about the separation between art and artist remain the same.

A number of years ago, I stopped reading music magazines, despite the fact that I am a great lover and consumer of music.  After johnny-ramoneone interview too many where the members of some band that I had up until that moment enjoyed turned out to be idiots, I realized that what I felt about the artist had a real effect on how much I enjoyed the music. (I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to  learn that Johnny Ramone was a staunch Republican; it took the sheen off a brief, post-show meeting with him that took place when I was 18).

I had a similar reaction when I saw the biopic about painter Francis Bacon,  Love is the Devil.  Though I’d always been a fan of his powerful, bloody, carcass-filled triptychs, the film presented the painter as so nasty, petty, and vile that the art, though it hadn’t changed, was no longer something I wanted to look at, and I felt cheated.  I think anyone who knows too much about Picasso may experience the same dissonance.

GIACOBETTI_1991_Meat_TriptychNow, the more I like the art, the less I want to know about the artists that created it.  I’m always happy to learn something about their process, but as for their private lives, I’m probably never going to have a glass of wine with them or debate philosophy, love, and politics, so I feel it’s none of my business.  I’d rather let the art speak for itself.

Is an actor or a writer or musician or painter any better or worse based on their personality? In my experience, real artists are often difficult, unreliable and not always pleasant people.  Their art is the best of them distilled and perfected.  That’s why we fall in love with a singer when s/he’s onstage, or the voice and wisdom of a writer on the page.  Writers, in fact, often say that their writing is wiser than they are.  To expect these people to live up to their work is foolish.  The song, or the book, or the painting is an artifact, outside themselves, that they have put everything they are, they know, and they aspire to be into, then given it to us as a gift.  But it is not necessarily who they are the rest of the time, nor do I need it to be.

220px-Portrait_de_DanteIs Michael Richards any less funny objectively because he spouted racist epithets?  And to fans of Chris Brown, are his songs less catchy because he’s an abuser?  We may not want to support these people after finding out their dirty secrets, but what their skills are as artists remains separate from who they are. Who knows what Shakespeare, Dante,  Beethoven, and Carravagio were really like, since their every move wasn’t recorded and broadcast 24/7?   We judge them on the work they left behind.

Barring any real nefarious acts, it’s ok by me if an artist I like is “not nice.”  This requirement of niceness is perhaps the need of people who want to be able to “relate” to the artist, to believe that s/he is no different from you and me–it is a form of self-aggrandizement. It is also the dull consequence of our time, when the cult of personality reigns supreme. Look at reality shows: how many of the real talents get eliminated in favor of mediocre competitors who have more winning personalities or are relatable? Do you really want to listen to lousy music made by someone with a sweet smile and a touching back story?  Wouldn’t you rather listen to something fantastic, even though the person who made it is a little odd, or abrasive, or offensive, or anti-social (or a lot)?

Real artists are different from you and me; they are natural subversives, and don’t give a damn what we think of them anyway–that is precisely what makes what they produce interesting.   My belief is that art should stand on its own, that it should be compared to other similar works to determine its relative value, and that the person who made it is irrelevant in this assessment, both in the moment and especially in retrospect.

MJ

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The Trouble with E-books

Though I am a longtime fan and consumer of independent films and music, I am not so convinced that indie is the way to go when it comes to books. I realize that by championing the old guard, the gatekeepers, the money-grubbers, I am A) going to piss quite a few people off, and B) will likely have to eat my words in the future–or possibly the pages of a book like the lover in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. But in watching the e-book r/evolution from the sidelines, I have come to the conclusion that the traditional route to publication and distribution is still the best route for literary fiction.

Make no mistake, my journey to publication has been a rocky one at the best of times, but there are many things I appreciate about my publishers and what they have done for me. First of all, a dedicated group of professionals selected my manuscript out of the thousands they receive each year, and deemed it appropriate for their list. This is truly a vote of confidence. It may seem to many people that these middlemen and women are the only thing standing in their way of love and accolades from the masses, but the truth of the matter is that each publishing house that takes on a book knows who its audience is, what they might like to read, and puts its money where its mouth is. Publishing houses take huge risks with every book they publish and very rarely get a return on their investment–this is equally true of small and large houses.

Each house that has published me has invested in me,  putting together and paying a team of editors, proofreaders, designers, and publicity people to help my book make a splash once it is out. An objective editorial eye is imperative to any writer, no matter how advanced or accomplished he/she is. We all have blind spots, especially after we’ve spent years staring at the same pages. Even if the editorial changes are minor, they are invaluable on the road to perfecting a manuscript for the ease and pleasure of a reader. In addition, with my latest novel, I have been more involved in its p.r. than ever, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be to get it noticed without the constant work and support of my publicist. Generating publicity is time-consuming and an art form in itself, which I’d really rather leave to the experts.  That way I have more time to do what I do best: write the damn books.

I am also a book lover: here I’m talking about the book as object–not only my own books, but also those written by others. When there was delay after delay in the release of my last novel, the idea was floated by my agent that we might just publish it electronically, with a print on demand option. In my depths of despair, I considered it because wasn’t it better to have a book out there rather than a manuscript collecting dust under my bed? What stopped me was a real sense of loss. Not having a tangible book to hold in my hands, to put on my shelf next to my first two, and next to favorite volumes by beloved writers depressed me almost as much as not publishing it at all.

Why all the doom and gloom when Kindle and Kobo are taking over the reading world? Well, I may just be a late adopter, but I have yet to take the plunge into a e-reading device. I have the Kindle app on my iPad, a device that I am literally addicted to, and I have downloaded a bunch of books to it, but I rarely read them. Some might say that this has to do with e-ink and back-lighting and such, but I think it has more to do with my preference for holding onto the real cover of a real book and flipping real pages. Somehow, it gives me a more sensory and substantial experience. I know this may be entirely subjective, but when it comes to my own books, I think I’m allowed to have an opinion as to the format. You have to be totally behind what you are selling. I believe the Oncler loved thneeds. I don’t love e-books. The Goodtime Girl is available for Kobo and Kindle for those who do love their e-readers, but as an alternate option, not as the only format.

And let’s face it, most stand-alone e-books are not getting the same attention as traditionally published books in magazines and newspapers, which still have more clout and reach than the best-curated blog, and definitely more clout than reader reviews on Amazon (though I appreciate them folks, I really, truly do.) Why are serious book-reviewers not jumping on the e-book bandwagon, except to make a point about some grand success story that usually comes to someone who has self-published genre fiction online? It may very well be because they too, professional readers that they are, find the “interface” of a real book easier to read. Even the bloggers I’ve contacted about my book prefer to receive a hard copy when given the choice. But, more likely, it is a combination of format, prejudgment, and time.

We watch indie films in more or less the same manner we would a blockbuster, and we listen to music through the same devices whether it was recorded at EMI or on someone’s computer (though many would rightly argue that mp3s lack the sound quality of vinyl). We  also dedicate a limited amount of time to them. A film may be two hours long, an album forty-five minutes. A novel takes hours and hours to read and then hours to write about. It’s a much larger investment for a reader/reviewer, and for the time being, the team approach of the publishing house assures some sort of juried pre-selection and quality control for both reader and reviewer. There is also the issue of what it takes to produce a film or an album vs what it takes to publish a book these days. Perhaps it is true that everyone has a book in them, but not everyone can actually write one worth reading. As the writer Stuart Dybek stated, we write novels and stories in the same language we order pizza, but it is not used in the same way. There may be fabulously written and perfectly edited self-published e-books out there, but there are hundreds of thousands of books out there, period, and a reviewer will likely go for something, from someone, from somewhere that already has a track record of offering the best reading experience.

It’s hard being a writer, it’s hard getting published and recognized for your work. It always has been and it’s not getting any easier, despite the wild frontier of e-books and self-publishing, which used to be called vanity publishing once upon a time and, valid or not, was generally dismissed as the second-rate work of the unpublishable. There is probably a way for e-books to escape this, perhaps, unfair taint of vanity, to produce and package themselves with the same professionalism as books taken on by publishing houses, to gain the credibility they need. But I believe it will take a long time to get there, and there will be many casualties along the way in the form of dashed dreams, and money and time spent for little satisfaction.

In the meanwhile, I’ll keep writing and reading on paper, browsing covers in bookstores, and occasionally buying a book I can slip into my purse.

Because at the moment the medium is still the message.

How do I procrastinate writing? Let me count the ways…

I’ve given myself quite a simple, straight-forward task.  Every Wednesday, write something about anything and post it almost immediately.  The theory is that this will be a freeing exercise, which will rescue me from being too anal about my writing, and from taking myself and the whole pursuit of writing too seriously.  I’ve already written a very serious novel, which took me  upwards of a decade, and let me tell you, after the first 4 years, freedom’s just another word for everything left to lose or toss off a bridge. There’s got to be fun and freedom in writing, right?  Otherwise, who in his/her right mind would keep doing it?

Nonetheless, this self-imposed directive is not as easy-peasy as I’d imagined (isn’t it always the case that life never lives up to the imagined?).  It is almost 2pm and these few words are the only ones I have managed to put down.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to convince myself to just do it. I have made several very attractive bargains with myself:

  1. Write out in the backyard in a little notebook–that way it won’t seem like work.  Excuse: It’s hot in the backyard, and transcribing is a drag, which will indeed turn the exercise into work.
  2. Write after lunch. Who can write when her stomach is grumbling?  Excuse: But who can write on a full stomach, which is sure to make me groggy, in the middle of the afternoon.
  3. Take a nap and then write.  But no napping longer than 20 minutes, or the whole bargain is off according to science.
  4. Recycle an old post from an old blog.  No one has seen those, right? But that’s not writing is it?  That’s copying and pasting. Or self-plagiarizing–a word being thrown around a lot these days, what with the Jonah Lehrer/Bob Dylan/New Yorker scandal.  My view: If I can’t plagiarize myself, who can I plagiarize? I’ve opted to eschew the self-plagiarizing for the moment, however.
  5. Write whatever comes to mind–it will be fine.  But will it, really? If you’ve read this far, you are in a better position to judge the fruits of that bargain than I.  I am a true believer of the magical first draft, and I also know that it is a rarity which comes from writing continuously, daily, passionately.  Under these circumstances–not so much.

Apart from the bargains, I found  a number of other small tasks to complete, before beginning to write, that could not wait another minute:

I wish this was a woman, but the same principle applies…

  1. I removed an old, non-functional doorbell that has not been bothering anyone for the past 4 years.  This involved a lot of thought, then a lot of traipsing from basement to first floor, to second floor to look for proper tools, back to first floor, where the job was accomplished not with the myriad of screwdrivers I’d collected in my travels, but with a hammer, a butter-knife and pliers.  I cut the old, sticking-out wires with at least 80% certainty that I wouldn’t be electrocuted. (Who can write after electrocution?) Really, that doorbell was bugging me.  Quite a feat since it makes no sound. It’s now gone to the doorbell junk-heap at the dump. R.I.P.
  2. I watched 6 minutes of Drop Dead Diva.  It’s not a highly intellectual show, but I like it because there is almost always a happy ending. There was also a part of me that felt it would be a nice accompaniment to lunch and a precursor to the nap, after which all my glorious writing juices would be flowing. As long as I did not oversleep, that is. But why only 6 minutes? Because the doorbell was calling me to take it out of its useless misery. And I probably keenly felt my own useless misery in those 6 minutes.  Watching tv in the middle of the day when I should be writing.  For shame.
  3. I checked my WordPress account, my Facebook, my Twitter to see if anyone was talking about me.  Seriously, there is no better time-waster than social media.  A few people are talking about me, by the way, which is encouraging, but besides the point to  actually sitting-on-my-butt and writing.
  4. I’ve also toyed with the idea of framing and hanging 3 very large prints in my office. I have the frames; I have the prints.  They have been sitting undisturbed by anything but dust since last Christmas, if not the one before. I really can’t remember.  I suppose they would make my office a more colorful and inspiring place, which is why I bought them.  But it’s not my office’s fault that I have nothing of import to write about, is it?

If I had to do it all again (and I will, next Wednesday, if not sooner), I would get up, have a cup of tea and a bite to eat, turn off the phone, the internet, put the do not disturb sign on my door, and hunker down to write something, anything other than a piece about having nothing to write about.  There’s nothing new in that, is there?  Why should anyone care? It happens to all of us, more often than we’d like to admit. Well I’m admitting it.  So there. Sue me.

I’m off to take that nap now.

He is my nap guard, and will also wake me up after 20 minutes.

Fiction vs Non-fiction (with cameos by Jim Jarmusch, James Frey & Truman Capote)

Over the years I’ve had more than one person announce “I don’t read fiction” upon hearing that I’m a writer of stories and novels.  When asked why, these people told me that it was because fiction is not true.  These same people, when asked whether they went to the movies or just took in the latest “very serious” documentary on war or obesity or the disappearing naked tribes of the Amazon (who are very lean, by the way), replied that of course they went to the movies.  Perhaps they even identified with a character, shed a tear, or decided to leave their families and find themselves in Alaska or the Andes or Timbuktu. Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law convinced me that life could not go on if I didn’t take a swamp boat through Louisiana’s Bayou.  Perhaps a guide to alligator hunting would have had the same result, or the latest spate of reality shows like Cajun Justice and Swamp People, but probably not.

When I teach creative writing, I dedicate one class to a discussion on the difference between fiction and non-fiction.  The different expectations  a reader has when approaching an autobiography vs a novel comes up, and inevitably we end up talking about A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, who was publicly spanked by Oprah for giving into the impulse to make his memoir more exciting by fudging the facts a bit.  No one batted an eye when Truman Capote embellished In Cold Blood in what he called his “non-fiction novel,” but those were other times, and I guess he didn’t embarrass the queen of daytime t.v.  It was when his fiction read too much like non-fiction that the ladies who lunch hung him out to dry.  Uncomfortable bedfellows, fiction and non-fiction, although they have much in common.

Anything you read includes certain things and excludes others.  All writers have a point of view and a story they want to get across.  I once gave a talk at a college where my first book was being studied, and a young woman raised her hand and asked me why I was so unfair to Greeks in one story, why I didn’t also talk about all the good things about them. I replied that I was a writer of fiction, not a sociologist, and thus was not responsible for a fair portrayal, but for telling the story I needed to tell completely.  (I take this opportunity to share my favorite Marguerite Yourcenar quote: “Everything that any one of us can do to help or hinder his fellow-man has been done, at least once, by a Greek.”)

When I teach essay-writing and rhetoric, I also point out that although it gives you credibility to tip your hat towards your opposition, your argument should focus on the points that will persuade your reader of your superiority.  So it is with most works of non-fiction.  You don’t get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but a slice of it.  In that sense, fiction can actually give you a more expansive view of a world, a time, or the dynamics between people, between past and present.  Unlike history, it is not necessarily written by the victors.

That said, I’ve been wanting to cross over from literary fiction into non-fiction for a while now.  This is not simply because non-fiction writers seem to get large advances even before the whole damn book is written: we are living through troubled times where literal truth is valued more than figurative truth, and people need information that will help them make sense of things. I must confess that many of my favorite books in recent years have been works of non-fiction: travel writing, biographies, psychological studies and spiritual explorations which have touched me as much as a good novel with their voice, their depth, their strangeness and their honesty. Also, some ideas lend themselves to fiction, others to poetry or drama, and others to essays or the newfangled name for Capote’s non-fiction novel: creative non-fiction.  I’ve had  a few ideas bouncing around in my head for a while that are clearly not meant to be novels or short stories.  They need a more direct form, a more direct voice–my voice perhaps, whatever that may be.

Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, or as I like to say, there is shit you can’t make up, but I am stopped by an ironic dilemma.  I am actually more honest in my fiction than in my non-fiction.  My voice is more genuinely my own, and I feel free to tell things like they are (or were), to share my most perverse and dastardly thoughts, to expose my very soul from behind fiction’s veil.  You get more of me through my characters than you would ever get if I chose to write a memoir.  I am far too private to hang out all my dirty laundry, and would really only be able to give you my side of the story, and a sanitized one at that.  (Here I recall Lauren Bacall‘s autobiography, each chapter ending with this chirpy capper: “Oh, we had such fun!”) It is safer to speak through a narrator and through all my characters than as myself. I feel less implicated, less accountable.

I am speaking as myself here, but it is a compromised version because I am loath to confess my prejudices, weaknesses, fears and insecurities, and I am sticking to the subject, as much as I can anyway. I completely understand how James Frey blundered over the lines and got into so much trouble. He let his imagination go in order to create the essence of the experience of drug addiction for the reader, to  produce a visceral feeling rather than simply providing information.  The fallback position of some of my creative writing students, when they are told that their story is cliche or plodding or one-dimensional, is “but that’s how it happened.”  So what?   Frey’s book was touted for its honest portrayal of an addict’s life, for its ability to shed light on addiction and recovery.  Maybe he should have called it a non-fiction novel, but it apparently helped a lot of people nonetheless.

How is that not the truth?