It’s the never-ending question for me. Can a nasty person make good art- and if so, should you support that artist?
In the past week, there’s been a slight disturbance in the Twitterverse and blogospheres, namely over the issue of self-publishing vs. traditional. Now this is a debate that, while I find interesting, isn’t really in my horizons yet- I’m much more concerned about jobs in the journalism landscape and whether or not I’ll have to budget out time for Starbucks shifts after graduation. I do want to be published, but I don’t have a horse in the publishing race yet, so my checking out the posts has been somewhat sporadic.
As near as I can tell, things got kicked off with a couple articles Salon ran by self-published authors, one saying he hadn’t gotten nearly the success everyone said he would (given that his idea of an author photo was to photograph himself in his bathroom with a weird hat and a serious face, I’m not really surprised). The other article was written by Hugh Howey, whose Wool series hit it huge when it was self-published and saw a recent paperback release. He claimed that self-publishing is the way of the future and cited his own success and talked about how badly traditional publishing handled their authors and so on. I have to admit that I’m really broadly generalizing, because I only skimmed both articles- and anyway, they aren’t really what this post is about.
So anyway, this debate is going on, disagreement is taking place, but mostly civilly, and while there are occasional flair-ups, nothing really jumped out at me, mostly because again, this was on my periphery.
Then this charming little blog post by Hugh Howey came to light and started making the rounds.
[Edit: He took it down! After claiming he wouldn’t in his non-apology apology, which he also removed. If you still want to read it, I took screencaps, because that’s the kind of
internet savy blogger/journalist weirdo I am (though I had to go to discussion section, so I didn’t get the non-apology apology).]
Essentially it’s a story about how a woman advocating traditional publishing acted snitty to him about his self-published status. The post is titled “The B**ch from Worldcon” and the sentiments therein reminded me of a middle-school kid yelling profanaties in the back of a school bus. It’s kind of weird that someone whose written work is pretty solid (I’m in the middle of Wool right now, having found it on sale in iTunes) would write that poorly, but I think it’s pretty obvious that he didn’t think the implications of such a post through.
The fallout of this particular incident is taking place pretty much as I write, but the fallout isn’t really what I’m interested in. What this situation made me think about is this: if an artist is a jackass- is okay to enjoy their art?
I’m about 150 pages into Howey’s book so far, and Wool is really good. It’s engaging, there’s a great premise, a lot of twist and turns, and really interesting characters. I was actually thinking, while reading a few days ago, that I wished I’d written this book. It has a great story.
And then I thought about other authors I like. Principally, my all-time favorite, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He wrote Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, two books that have had a huge influence on my life and how I look at the world. They’re beautiful books, written in a way that makes me think really hard about human beings, integrity, and virtue.
The author? Was a gambling addict, an adulterer, and profligate. It’s safe to say that Dostoyevsky did not have his act together at all, and I have to admit that if I heard about an author I liked today leaving his wife and kids to run around Europe gambling with his mistress, my opinion of him would crash faster than a virus-infected Dell computer.
And yet, Dostoyevsky’s works still speak to me on a profound level.
This is where it gets tangled. Does an artist’s painting become less beautiful if said artist was a reprobate? Or does the fact that a composer was a bigot make his music less worth hearing? Should a talented actor’s off-screen stupidity take away from the fact that they can captivate an audience?
With some reservations, I’m going to say “No.”
Art should, in itself, reach out to something in all human beings and touch upon some higher truth that people of all kinds can comprehend. If the instrument that conveys that is flawed, it’s upsetting, but it’s not the fault of what they’re conveying. Whatever drove them to express that art in the first place may come from a nasty place, and the person expressing that art may not always realize the significance of what they’ve written. In fact, if I’m remembering my Dostoyevsky class correctly, he wrote Crime and Punishment to pay off his gambling debts.
He still created a masterpiece.
But that said- not every artist is going to make such art all the time. And in this case, I’m not sure (literally, I’m not done with it) that Howey’s work is good enough to merit being called art. It might be- no, it is- a very good story. That doesn’t necessarily make it art.
So what then? Well- Howey’s post was really tacky and shows a rather nasty and petty way of looking at things around him. Which unfortunately is a rather common side to many human beings. And while I do think that the art shouldn’t be judged by the instrument, I will say that it’s much harder to make good art when your instrument is flawed. So while I’m not going to try and get Wool returned or anything, I won’t be looking up his writing stuff as closely as I might have. Because I can’t trust that that pettiness won’t seep into what he has to say, and I can’t trust that he’s going to put out something good enough to supersede that.
If he does- good for him. I really hope Wool can do that, because we really need more good literature in the world. But it becomes much harder to make good art when your instrument is flawed, and in the case of a writer, his view of the world pretty much is his instrument. If that’s skewed, odds are the art will be as well. It’s not impossible for a seriously flawed human being to make something transcendent. But it’s not probable, and if I were a gambler, I wouldn’t like to bet on the odds of Howey’s vision producing such work.