Earlier this year Claire Messud got the book world talking about the need to ‘like’ the characters we read, and I’m thankful for the debate. I think too often we as readers grasp for the quickest, easiest ways to talk about books. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I dismissed David Foster Wallace as silly for over a decade, only to be convinced by my most literate friends to give him another shot. I’m currently judging Junot Diaz as a trickster, heavy on wit, and light on substance, without really giving him a fair shake. I’m sure I’ll be turned around on that, too. My point is, we look for simple accusations about books and authors, then we use those to get out of doing real work. Messud’s perfect reaction to a question about the likeability of her characters was a reaction against the knee jerk reading we often do.
So, Messud has now schooled us on not needing to want to hang out with our favorite author’s characters, but what about the authors themselves. Does it matter to your reading that you may hate the author? I bring this up because The Voyage Out Book Group is meeting to discuss Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road this Sunday. The book is smart and controversial and funny and tragic, but it’s author is kind of an ass.
Yates ran through women, drank and drugged himself to an early death, and made almost everyone he came into contact with an enemy. He was sad, and he deserves our pity. But, do these facts mean that we should feel bad about liking his books? For Yates, probably not. He was just pathetic enough as a man to make him harmless against his substantial writing talents. What about others, though? Are there other artists you avoid based on their personal lives? Here are a few examples:
Townes Van Zandt- Townes is my favorite musician, and I think he is the greatest songwriter of all time (sorry, Bob). But, he abandoned his children and attempted to alienate almost everyone who loved him. Again, he abandoned his children. I’ve got no time for a man like Townes, but I kinda need his songs, so I accept him into my life.
Orson Scott Card- Card wrote one of the greatest Sci Fi novels of all time—Ender’s Game. He is also a raging homophobe. I’ve got zero time for bigots and I’ve got no time for Card. I should add that I’m not a huge fan of Sci Fi to begin with, so this isn’t a big loss. Funny how much more I’m willing to forgive when the art is better.
V.S. Naipaul- V.S. once claimed that no woman was his literary equal, not even Jane Austen. His particular brand of misogyny is such a detriment to the book world, and particularly detrimental in its pervasiveness, that I can’t bring myself to begin exploring his works. In a vacuum, I would probably enjoy his writing very much. He seems like a writer I would like. I don’t read in a vacuum, and I don’t read Naipaul. This is a case where my thoughts may have ben different had I come to his work without knowing a lot about him. Example: I really like Norman Mailer’s novels.
Ezra Pound- Maybe my favorite poet, and section IV of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley may be the most jarring piece of writing I’ve ever encountered (see below). In the 1930s, Pound committed himself to Mussolini and to Fascism. Unforgivable on first glance, but a closer look reveals that Pound was a man constantly at odds with whatever was status quo, and he also showed himself to be a man not of sound mind. Was his interaction with poor political ideology a sign of a broken intellect or a broken man? Both, in the end, may be forgivable, but one excuse more easily forgivable. I also think time has healed this wound a bit. If Pound was alive today, and a member of the Tea Party or the Taliban, I would not read his perfect poetry. He wrote in the early 20th century, and I read him as much as I can.
These fought in any case,
and some believing,
pro domo, in any case. . .
Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later . . .
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some, pro patria,
non “dulce” non “et decor”. . .
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.
Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
fair cheeks, and fine bodies;
fortitude as never before
frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.
J.T. Leroy- Leroy hit the literary scene like a brick painted pink, and we all fell hard for the newest version of William Burroughs. With books like Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Leroy was embarking on an important career. One thing though, Leroy didn’t exist. Leroy was actually the created persona of Laura Albert. This is an odd one. I like the Leroy books, and I want more, and I don’t care that Albert isn’t a young boy with a sketchy past. Laura should write more books, and she should do so as JT, and people should get over it. Art is worth it.
So, I have now completely confused myself. My decisions as to whether to not take in art based on the artist is completely arbitrary. I guess it had to be.
Come join me this Sunday to talk about Revolutionary Road, and try to ignore Richard Yates.
We will meet Sunday November 24th at 5pm at BookPeople.