Authors Behaving Badly

We all expect our favorite rock stars to be not very nice people – in fact, we almost demand it.  Usually the rocker in question is happy to oblige (for a striking example, read Crystal Zevon’s wonderful biography of her late ex-husband Warren Zevon).

What about our writers? As readers, what standards do we set for those authors with whom we forge a rather intimate bond through their novels?  And, why do we care so much when these standards are not met? Sam Schulman explores this question in a fascinating essay found at incharacter.org.

Schulman writes:

“A great majority of us have done discreditable, even cruel things in our lives, even after we have ceased to be children.  And the great majority of that majority find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves, and to think more about how we have been injured than the injuries we have made.  But it seems to matter more when a writer or artist behaves badly.  Why should it?  If my dentist loves one of his daughters more than any of his other children, or a Boeing engineer is having an affair with her best friend’s husband, it is cruel.  But their cruelties don’t impair the quality of my bridgework or disturb my tendency to sleep peacefully through take-offs and landings.  Why does the bad character of a writer or artist matters so much more?  And how does ‘mattering’ work?”

Read the entire essay here.

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4 comments

  1. My friend Steve sent me an email linking to that article. Charles Dickens is one of my favorite writers, and Steve is always looking out for me. I had a lot of problems with the article. From my email back to Steve:

    Thoughts:

    From the article: “But I was ashamed to learn only now, in Michael Slater’s new biography, Charles Dickens, that the autobiographical background of David Copperfield was completely unknown to Dickens’s huge contemporary fan base – hundreds of thousands of people who bought his novels in their serial form, subscribed to the magazines he published for twenty years, attended the marvelous public readings he gave of his own works, and bought his Christmas books for their friends.”

    I’ve re-read the Dickens part a couple of times and I can’t figure out what the shame is about. Is he ashamed that he’s only now learning that once upon a time a public figure’s biography wasn’t codified into our own? (Around my office, after it was revealed that the R&B singer Chris Brown beat the shit out of his girlfriend, the singer Rhianna, there was a lot of “Here’s how I would have handled that” talk that seemed weird and unnecessary — sort of like how everyone was in the World Trade Center the week before September 11th and “isn’t that weird? I mean, I was almost killed. “) Or is he ashamed that the Victorian readers didn’t know more about Dickens’s personal life? (And they knew quite a lot; more on that later.)

    From the article: “Slater says that it is hard for us ‘to register just how sensational all this was to the vast majority of Dickens’s readers, so many of whom felt themselves to be on terms of personal friendship with him.'”

    By “us” I’m assuming he’s not meaning “people alive today and who were alive when [insert public figure here] had x revealed about him/her/them.” Slater seems misguided in making that point, if he made that point; and this writer is misguided in sharing it as if a point has been made. I mean, we thought we knew all the crazy stuff about Michael Jackson’s life, and then he died from a drug overdose because he was addicted to some serious-as-a-heart-attack medical-grade sleeping pills that may have been wrongly dosed by his own doctor and there’s still a lot of shock and sensation in my office.

    From the article: “Of course Dickens concealed other private facts about his life, including one act so low that he never honored it with even a character in his novels. At the age of 45, he decided that his wife no longer deserved his love, and he made her leave their home–her youngest children were then 9 and 6.”

    I don’t know where the writer of this piece got that; and if he got it from Slater than we must be careful about everything that Slater has written about Dickens. That there was an initial concealing about the status of the Dickens household wasn’t on Dickens end at all. He wanted everyone to know what had happened, because he had developed an elaborate justification that he published in Household Words. When Bradbury and Evans wouldn’t also publish this justification in Punch, Dickens tried to buy out their shares of the magazine. When that failed, he left to form All the Year Round. What he did try to keep private is that he had taken up with the actress Ellen Ternan — but that was thwarted when he, Ellen, and her mother were involved in the Staplehurst accident (where he nearly lost the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend.)

    His ultimate point about Dickens is one I think about: because Dickens is kind of a dick. Not just with how he treated poor Catherine (who had the nerve to get fat after having babies). It’s the way he treated his writers (Elizabeth Gaskell had a lot to say about how difficult he was to write for). I may have shared this with you already, but it’s interesting to see how many literary periodicals spring up when Dickens takes to the scene. And my theory is, most of these guys didn’t want to write for Dickens at all, and hoped to have both success and creative control away from the Dickens Machine. Few, though, did.

    Agreed: not a great article; but it was an easy read. I’m also glad of this article because I love this line from your email:

    “There is a lot to this issue. About all this article-writer does is scratch the surface and then the scratch gets infected.”
    *****

    I’m done quoting from my email. If we do find out after the fact that the author is a bad dude, it seems to me we can go in one of these directions: (1) book’s a masterpiece and that doesn’t change from learning the author is a heel–a defensible position; (2) book is now crap–which seems a moronic position, but close to the author of the article; (3) book is now being re-read and re-evaluated by me, while I hold its masterpiece status somewhat in abeyance. Perhaps I will catch things in various passages in light of what I now know, which will make me think I didn’t read it carefully enough the first time, because I’m seeing the limitations. (This is where I think the interesting action is. And it could even be that the book now seems better in light of the bio. I do sometimes think something is unconvincing and then find out that it really happened, which allows me to think that, well, still, he didn’t write it very well, but obviously not to go on thinking, That never happens.)

  2. I’m no Dickens expert – I’ve only read him perfunctorily, in fact. What I liked about this article, however, was the general idea it raised about the relevance between an author’s personal misdeeds and his body of work, especially if there’s a disconnect that smacks of hypocrisy. Norman Mailer was an egotistic misogynist and his body of work very openly reflects this. Dickens’ novels (those I’ve read, anyhow), on the other hand, are paeans to the value of family. Yet, his personal behavior was far from the values he espoused and glorified in his novels. I can understand how this could put off a reader.
    The idea that a novel becomes crap is, like you say, a moronic position. A good novel, like any piece of art, must have an intrinsic value independent of the artist. Bad behavior on the author’s part doesn’t change what made the novel good in the first place. I disagree with you, however, that this is what Schulman was espousing in the essay. After reading the biography of Naipaul (who, I will admit, I haven’t read at all), Schulman doesn’t argue that the books themselves lost any value, just his ability to enjoy and appreciate them. On many levels, I find this understandable. Mao Zedong was an accomplished poet – some of his writing is quite beautiful. At the same time, knowing of his ignoble role in twentieth century history affects my reading of his poems to the point where I have a hard time appreciating their aesthetic qualities.
    At the same time, I tend to agree with you. Revelations about an artist’s life and behavior should lead to a reappraisal of that artist’s work. Any apparent conflict between words and deed only lends a new dimension to an artists work and a new prism through which to not only critique, but to appreciate, the novel (poem, essay, film, etc..).

  3. “Dickens’ novels (those I’ve read, anyhow), on the other hand, are paeans to the value of family.”

    I think you go a little farther than I would in describing Dickens’s novels that way. My experience of Dickens isn’t that he’s writing “paeans to the value of family” — often, the main character’s family of origin is pretty awful (e.g., Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, the Harmon boy from Our Mutual Friend). If anything, I think Dickens is showing us that one can create a new family, and from that family comes value and love. If you’ll allow that to be the case (and you totally may say, “I…think you’re stretching there, Mike”), then I think we’re not seeing a hypocrisy between Dickens as a writer and Dickens as a human being. We’re seeing Dickens the writer working out this idea of creating a home from disparate things (sending a wife off here, picking up an actress there).

    But I really like Dickens, so I can’t be sure that a lot of this isn’t just me being defensive. My partner and I recently saw The Ghost Writer — the new Roman Polanski film — and we had a conversation about it afterwards, because neither of us liked it very much, and we weren’t sure if we didn’t like it because we were being moralistic about the child-rape (and if that was the reason, was it a fair one); or, if, instead, we just didn’t like it because it wasn’t a very convincing script. (Stream of consciousness here, but I just looked out the window and everything is so green. I think Fall sneaks up on us because the leaves take a while to fall; but Spring happens of a sudden.)

    I think in the Polanski case, his reprehensible past explains some of his artistic choices, but his art never exonerates him from those reprehensible past actions. I don’t think art is supposed to work that way. (This is probably why the Andrew Sisters’ song “Boo Hoo (Sorry We Dropped the Bomb On You)” wasn’t the hit America thought it would be after WWII.) (I kid.)

    And I guess the last thing I’ll say, in a similar vein to the paragraph above, is that the writer’s biography should only be used sparingly when trying to comprehend his art. This is why it’s probably best to know very little about an artist you like; then there’s no moral quandary for liking him.

    (P.S.: I’ve enjoyed this exchange. I found your blog because you commented over at The New Dork Review of Books.)

  4. I will gladly defer to you on matters of Dickens. I’m sure that I am over-generalizing when I say that his novels are paeans to the value of family. It’s certainly more complicated than that. However, my point was that this is often how he is perceived by more casual readers. You might see Dickens’ characters as creating their own families from disparate pieces, but, in the end, it’s those families that redeem the characters in some way. Learning that Dickens so callously disregarded his own wife could understandably give the reader pause.

    As to whether this pause should affect the value of any work, I think probably not. Roman Polanski is a good example of this. I haven’t seen The Ghost Writer yet, but I think that The Pianist is a wonderful, wonderful film. My knowledge of Polanski’s reprehensible personal behavior doesn’t tarnish my impression of his film. Just because he made a great movie certainly doesn’t excuse his past behavior, but his past behavior doesn’t necessarily detract from his artistic accomplishments.

    That being said, I did admit before to having issues reading poetry by Mao Zedong due to my knowledge of his biographical details. I think that it’s natural for humans to connect an artist’s personal conduct with his/her work and make judgments about how the former affects the latter. I don’t think that we can ever escape it entirely – we’re hard-wired to make snap judgments. I think that the trick is to train ourselves, not to ignore our instincts but to use them in a constructive way in order to better appreciate an artist’s work.

    Appreciate your comments, this is what I was hoping to get into by starting this blog. Cheers!

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