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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Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 3

Part 1, Part 2

Philomena Zapponi owned a button shop on what was called Tailor’s Row by the locals. It had been opened by her grandmother Delphina after her grandfather Cosimo was lost at sea. As Delphina packed her dead husband’s clothes to donate to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, she found herself unable to part with the shiny buttons on his ceremonial uniform. Before she could stop herself, she had cut them all off, and not only those fine gold buttons, but all the lesser buttons on his shirts, on his trousers, on his winter coat. She absolved herself of her guilt over this act of vandalism by telling herself that buttons were inexpensive, and even the poorest parishioners could afford them. They were, after all, still getting Cosimo’s fine clothes—a blessing, with or without the buttons. Delphina collected his in a big glass jar, which she placed on the dresser across her bed. As there was no body to bury, no grave site to visit and tend, she polished the jar and its contents daily and spoke to it every night before she went to sleep.

“Oh Cosimo,” she said, “the children are sneezing and skinny as gypsies, the city has turned off the gas, and it’s so cold under the blankets without you.” Sometimes, when the moon was full, a flame ignited inside Delphina, and she told the jar secrets she would have never dared tell Cosimo while he was alive, then pasted her lips against the cool glass and did things with the buttons she could never tell anyone.

There was no pension for the widows of seamen, so Delphina’s pantry emptied day by day, her children’s shoes wore out, and her spirit waned. Without any skills other than those of a housewife, she was forced to sell off her jewelry, then her imported china and crystal, then the inessential furniture, and finally the essential, until the house was almost bare and the children slept in flour sacks on the floor. She could not, however, part with the jar of buttons. Desperate, hungry, and humiliated, Delphina wept into it, corroding the buttons with her salty tears, begging Cosimo, God, the buttons for a solution to her woes. “You could have asked earlier,” all three might have justifiably replied, “before the children were forced to wear rubber tires on their feet, and before little Agatha developed rickets.” But Cosimo had been a kind man, and even God had His moments of compassion. The buttons, the most practical of the trinity, shone brightly and screamed “Sell me! Sell me! Sell me!”

And thus Delphina’s Button Shoppe came into being—first in what had been their living room, and eventually in the storefront on Tailor’s Row. Delphina greeted customer’s from behind a long glass display case, where the shop’s finest buttons rested like gems on velvet cushions. They were illuminated from above by a chandelier of Bohemian crystal that sprinkled the whole shop with stardust. On the side walls were large gold frames that displayed all manner of buttons like abstract pointillist art, their copies kept in the little drawers of an ebony apothecary cabinet so immense that it took up the entire back wall. No other shop carried as large and eclectic a selection of splendid buttons made of rare wood, of ivory, of hand-blown glass. And even after Velcro and plastic snaps invaded the market, barnacling themselves like zebra mussels to otherwise respectable garments, the most discerning and difficult-to-please seamstresses and tailors still frequented Delphina’s shop in search of the perfect button.

Soon Delphina’s house was filled with furniture much finer than the hand-me-downs that she and Cosimo had been given as wedding gifts. The children skipped to school in new shoes of the butteriest, most expensive leather. Agatha was attended to by a specialist who fed her oranges and grapefruits until she stood up straight and glowed as if sun-kissed. And although Delphina never married again, she was the most sought after guest at balls on Tailor’s Row, where she danced the cha-cha and the rumba in beautiful dresses, bedizened with the most exquisite buttons money could buy.

After Delphina’s death at the age of 79, the shop was passed down to Agatha, who was efficient but nowhere near as glamourous as her mother. And when Agatha got so old that she confused a box of pink and black striped enamel buttons for licorice candy, she was promptly placed in a nursing home by her children, where all of her clothes were fastened with Velcro. This encouraged her to flash other patients, orderlies, unsuspecting visitors, and her children when they came, which was not often. The sound of the two prickly strips being ripped apart made Agatha laugh out loud, and she would do it over and over, much to the chagrin of everyone, especially her only son, Augusto, who was the first to stop visiting.

It was expected that Philomena, the youngest, would take the reigns. None of her three sisters, and certainly not her brother Augusto, wanted anything to do with “the button racket” as they called it. “Philomena, you’re the most organized,” insisted Melina, the pretty sister who had snagged a rich husband at the Tailors’ Spring Cotillion. “Philomena, you are the most knowledgeable,” pointed out Lucretia, the brainy sister who had gone to medical school while Philomena toiled behind the button counter from the age of six onwards, enduring her mother’s incessant criticism, obeying her increasingly bizarre whims. “Philomena, we have families who need us,” argued Augusto and Delphi, the oldest daughter who was named after her illustrious grandmother.

Though this was all true, Philomena couldn’t see how this excused them. They had jobs they went to every morning, jobs that the buttons had provided by putting them through school, and by making their suits more appealing and professional-looking at interviews. Were they really prepared to deny the power of a properly-chosen and well-placed button? These were good arguments, which might have even moved her siblings to contribute at least some of their time to the family business had Philomena actually pronounced them. But just as she had never been able to stand up to her mother, she proved equally inept at standing up to her siblings. She just nodded dumbly as they left the shop, and as if foreordained by the jar of her grandfather’s buttons itself, Philomena became the Button Mistress, or the Button Spinster, or the Old Crazy Button Lady, depending on who was speaking of her, friend or foe.

More buttons coming up…

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.

Welcome to the Queendom of Odd

After a good amount of procrastination and general stuck-in-the-mudness, I have finally begun the process of creating a centralized, on-stop-shopping hub for all that has to to with my books, events, and writing in general.  The site is still under construction, but be sure to pop in now and again, follow me here or on twitter or through my facebook page, and remain in the loop of all the exciting and strange things to come.

Cheers!

Tess