Does a Nasty Artist Make For Terrible Art? also starring Hugh Howey’s need for a Brain-to-Mouth filter

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).]

Hugh Howey Debacle Part 1

Part 1

Hugh Howey Debacle Part 2

Part 2

Hugh Howey Debacle Part 3

Part 3

Hugh Howey Debacle Part 4

Part 4

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.

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20 thoughts on “Does a Nasty Artist Make For Terrible Art? also starring Hugh Howey’s need for a Brain-to-Mouth filter

  1. Interesting post. First up, the whole indie vs trad published debate bores me to tears. Another industry that’s undergoing something of an indie revolution is computer games, and I’ve played plenty of indie games over the last few years. Some are very good, some are complete shite. With 6 billion+ people on the planet, there’s plenty room for both indie and trad.

    With regards to nasty artists, I don’t think that there’s that much of a link between personality types and the quality of the work. There’s plenty of examples of eccentric and bizarre artists who created masterpieces, but no-one ever talks about the quiet ones. Was Mary Shelley a slut? People are very good at compartmentalising their thoughts and emotions, and the different parts of their lives – it’s how brilliant physicists and biologists can believe in God without going insane.

    That’s not to say people can’t be influenced by how the artist acts. I think Morrissey is one of the biggest pricks around and I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire, let alone buy his music.

    I’d say that the further back you go with a particular artist, the harder it is to hold these things against them.

    • JRR Tolkien is my first go-to- I don’t know if counterpoint’s the word I’m looking for, but he was, by all accounts, a rather quiet individual who wasn’t really what you could call eccentric- though given how many languages he knew, YMMV. He still kickstarted fantasy as we know it today. Jane Austen also was rather private. Artists can run the spectrum as far as personality types, so I have no issues with you there- what I’m getting at in this case is behavior that is bad will generally make it harder for you to hit on something that’s deeper and rings true for everyone, especially if you’re actively being selfish and terrible to people around you. This isn’t to say that selfish people or nasty people can’t make good stories- but it’s much harder for them to make art as I tried to define it (admittedly not very well). Also I’m not sure if you’re implying a contradiction between believing in God and being scientific- but if you are, we have a whole different fight approaching on the horizon.

      I try not to hold beliefs that were products of their time against artist too much, but I do believe that humans do have an inherent understanding of right and wrong, and if they choose to do the wrong- I will hold that against them. For instance, I have less issue with Dostoyevsky’s occasionally strange beliefs about the universe than I do with his cheating on his wife. He grew up in a weird philosophical time, but leaving your wife and kid to go gamble away what keeps them in health is something that’s wrong regardless of philosophy.

      Edited to fix a ridiculous amount of missed commas

  2. This is a difficult problem. I see your point. At the same time, I feel like many artists I know are guilty of this. Mozart and Schubert were partiers, and Dante put currently living political enemies in hell. He himself was quite political too. Caravaggio killed somebody, and spent the rest of his life exiled to avoid imprisonment. Sometimes, for all his great writing and ideas, Neil Gaiman brings my mind to things that I find abhorrent, and strangely irrelevant to what the story is about (see American Gods). Yet I still acknowledge their greatness. I do draw a line though. I wouldn’t support the work of living artists who were responsible for extremely bad things, such as sexual violence for example. Otherwise, as long as I’m not enabling an artist’s purely self-destructive behavior, I think there is a place for buying/enjoying the artist’s work without supporting all actions they are responsible for doing.

    • No arguments from me there. And there are definitely things that I would draw the line at, but personal nastiness and differences from the way I see things aren’t one of them. Artists are people too, but when their faults become apparent, it’s hard to separate that from their work, which is significantly related to them as people. The faults don’t define the work any more than the work defines their faults, but sometimes it can be hard to separate the two.

      • Good point on the fact that our perceptions of them may be changed. Case in point Tom Cruise. I fully acknowledge that he doesn’t have much talent, but what little there is is overshadowed by how ridiculous of a person he acts like outside of the movies. And I think the more objective talent an artist has, the easier it can be to overlook their issues. Like what you said about Dostoyevsky.

        • Tom Cruise is rather one note- and the fact that he has less cognitive power than a bowling ball really doesn’t help. (I have to admit I can only ever see him as Lestat from Interview with the Vampire. Possibly because they share more character traits than is comfortable to think about). But yes to your last point, though I would put it more as not allowing their issues to taint our appreciation of the artist’s work.

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  4. Short answer to the question posed in the title: No. Longer answer: The beliefs and actions of a person don’t change the kind of art they produce, or how great they are at golf or baseball, or the quality of performance they turn in on stage, screen or TV, or their contributions to science. But it does change how we perceive them, and it is quite possible for someone’s beliefs/actions to so overshadow what they do that we can’t enjoy or appreciate it properly, and we end up qualifying every discussion about them. “Yeah, he was a brilliant surgeon/inventor/writer, BUT….” and the discussion ends up being about the ‘but’ rather than the other stuff.

    • I actually have to disagree with you on the first part of your argument- people’s beliefs and actions can definitely have an impact on the art they produce. Terry Goodkind, of Sword of Truth fame, is a rather depressing example- by all accounts his books started off as fun escapism (I personally am not a fan of the writing style) and then by the end of his series he was using the stories to give Ayn Rand’s philosophy a fictional soapbox. His beliefs very definitely had an impact on his art. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholicism had a huge influence on the cosmological structure of Middle-Earth. C.S. Lewis let his Christian beliefs permeate Narnia (some say to the detriment of the series). Anne Rice’s track record with religious fiction parallels her leaps to and from religion (and some would say that her rise to fame affected the quality of her output in a bad way). Ursula Le Guin revisited the Earthsea books years after completing the first three because she felt she had written problematic elements that she wanted to deconstruct. And these are just the artists with which I’m very familiar- similar arguments could be made for Tolstoy and Virgil and many others. I could go on, but my point is that an artist’s beliefs and choices do have a significant impact on their art. Denying that can lead to a rather narrow understanding of their work.

      But that said, I do think that some artists can take output that stands on its own, and regardless of how we perceive them as people, their work can speak to multiple people. I think that when an artist makes something that is truly brilliant and meaningful, it will override whatever their objections as people were. I just think that it’s very hard for an artist to hit that level of truth,and it’s especially hard for them to do it if they’re acting like jackasses on a regular basis.And as far as perceptions, yes, a work of art can suffer due to how the artist acts. The difficulty is figuring out how much the art owes to the objectionable aspects of the artists.

      And oh my goodness, I’m so sorry about how long that is. I swear I’m not trying to bury you in text; I really appreciated your response to this, it’s an issue I love talking about. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  5. There’s one author I’ve stopped reading because she said so much stupid stuff on her blog. With Hugh Howey’s post, you wonder at his command of the English language and his understanding of satire. If anything, there wasn’t enough hyperbole. It’s too close to our own world where women do get slapped and called bitches when they piss of men. If he’d turned them all into animals (the girl a barking seal, the authors shy-eyed does) he could have gotten away with it. He doesn’t seem to get why you might not want to refer to a twenty-something woman as a “girl” either. Implications of misogyny aside (I don’t really know the dude, who am I to judge) he’s shown himself to be a less than competent author during my first encounter with him.

    There is a scale though, the greater the skill, the more willing people are to put up with bad behavior. I haven’t read anything by Howey, so at this point I’m less favorably disposed toward him. I loved William Burroughs before I found out he shot his wife in the face. Discovering that, I decided I still liked the artist. Then again, Burroughs knew how to do satire, and while he may have been a junkie asshole, he was also involved in the gay rights movement.

    • That’s such an awful thing to have happen. I do like social media for giving me the opportunity to get to know writers and their process a bit better, but sometimes I get to know them a bit too well and I can’t get it out of my head.

      If Howey honestly believes that post was satire, he really needs to familiarize himself with the definition and various works in the genre. Because no matter how much his fans may insist it was satire, that post up above has absolutely no comparison to Candide, Animal Farm, A Modest Proposal or any of the works that are regarded as good examples of the genre. There was nothing in there about holding her flaws up to ridicule AND calling for improvement. There was a lot of mockery and crowing, but nothing about improving general relations between self-published authors and traditional industries in any way.

      That is true. Tolstoy is a good example- he treated his family terribly and died raving in a train station, but he still wrote masterpieces. People don’t condone that, but they do look at his stuff with an eye to its own merits and interpretations. And oh my goodness- shooting your wife in the face is definitely a major stumbling block to appreciation. But that’s the thing- sometimes,people can do better art than their bad actions. It’s just a matter of figuring out how much those bad actions affect their output- and from there, how much you should care.

      • In the comments section he writes about having “his tongue firmly in his cheek” by which I think he meant “his hand firmly on his member” so maybe not satire, but illuminating comedy of some sort, as it seemed to have a point. I don’t know if most people realize how hard comedy is.

        I think what’s important about me and Burroughs is I knew the work first, and the drunk that tried to shoot a glass of gin and tonic off his wife’s head (yes they were playing William Tell) second. Had it been the other way around, that action would have colored his work for me, possibly to the point of not reading it, but probably not.

        • In the comments section he writes about having “his tongue firmly in his cheek” by which I think he meant “his hand firmly on his member”
          Ahahaha- yeah, I fear you’re right on that. And yes, comedy is very hard and even the few comedians who are successful don’t do a very good job half the time. If you have to get your humor by fantasizing about grabbing your crotch, that proves you have all the comedic chops of a twelve-year-old boy, and an immature one at that.

          Oh my gosh- I shouldn’t be laughing at that story, I really shouldn’t. I feel like a horrible person now. But yes, knowing the work first is definitely key to how much you can forgive of the person who made the work, I think. I feel that way about C.S. Lewis’s work, honestly- even though I join Tolkien in his sentiment that “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations”, I still really like the Narnia books, despite their heavy-handedness towards the end. I knew the stories first, and so while they are coloured by what I know of that now, I’m still really fond of them. And if I were more awake, I could think of other examples. Sometimes the work involved is just good, and that’s enough for me.

  6. Liked this article very much – other authors come to mind, Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, Patrick O’ Brian. Even Vincent Van Gogh had his troubles, but I really admire how much he tried to keep it together.

    • Oh my gosh, yes. Poe was a mess. And yet without him, we wouldn’t have a significant amount of work- he helped kickstart horror and detective stories, and wrote some beautiful poems. “The Raven” is iconic enough that a football team is named after it.
      (also, hi Mom!. Thanks for stopping by 🙂 )

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