22 April 2023

Can you love the art and loathe the artist?


For years, I've told my writing students that to be a successful novelist, you must be the writer, AND the author.  The Writer does the writing:  alone in a room, butt in chair, hands on keyboard for hundreds of hours.  The Author is the personality out in public and on social media.  The halcyon days of novelists being able to hide behind a word processor were over in the 90s.  Readers and publishers expect you to be out in public, promoting your books.


Here's the thing that has always puzzled me.  I don't understand why readers want to meet the author.  For many years, my favourite author has been the Sicilian, Andrea Cammilleri.  I adore Inspector Montalbano, star of his sharply funny books.  In fact, I so adore Cammilleri, that I have no real interest in meeting his creator.  Why?  Because Montalbano *is* Cammilleri to me.  Seeing him in person would take away the magic.  What if he looks entirely different?  What if Cammilleri is 80 while Montalbano is 50?

(Sadly, I knew that to be the truth.  Cammilleri died recently, at the age of 93.  With him, dies Montalbano who was just into his 60s.  No more books, and that's a tragedy for me.)

But I digress.

The point of this post:  I am always a bit surprised when readers are enthusiastic about meeting me.  I wonder that they too might find seeing me in person could corrupt the image they have of my protagonist/s.

But beyond appearance, and possibly worse, does my own character do justice to my protagonist?

Do we have to like the artist to love the art?

Put another way: if the artist falls from grace, does it affect how we perceive their art?

A few names come to mind.  Woody Allen.  Michael Jackson.  Can I still watch a Woody Allen movie without feeling slightly queasy?  Can I listen to Thriller or Beat It, and enjoy them, without thinking of disturbing sexual misconduct? 

And then there is Dilbert.  Can we still laugh at the comic strip, yet deplore the opinions of its creator? 

The jury is out for me on this one.  I really do go back and forth about equating the art with the character of the artist.  I am sure that if we looked into artists of the past (I'm going way back here - the Romans, Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, 19th century) we would find people who held views that we find abhorrent now.  People who conducted themselves in amoral or cruel ways, but produced wondrous art.

How far does one go in this?  Should we be refusing to value the art of men who denied women the vote until the last century?  Should one idolize and cheer for Tiger Woods on the PGA tour when he treats women so dishonorably?

I don't know.  I'm anxiously ambivalent about this one.  In fact, I'm losing sleep at night.  It's 5:20 AM right now as I'm writing this sentence.  I've been up for two hours, stewing on this.  

Which all goes to show... I've found another fabulous way to procrastinate on writing my next novel. 

Melodie Campbell writes wryly funny crime books, from the shores of Lake Ontario.  The Merry Widow Murders will finally hit the shelves in May.

26 comments:

  1. Melodie, I decided years ago that if we canceled the artist for the crimes / sins of the person, we wouldn't have any art left. Caravaggio was a nasty piece of work; Bernini... well, look his private life up some time. I still watch Woody Allen movies because I think some of them are hilarious and others are truly great; and I will read anything I damn well please. What I have learned is to never go to see the author / actor / painter. What killed that for me was an interview I saw years ago with Kevin Costner, back when he was still doing baseball movies, in which he came across as the most pompous, egocentric git I'd ever seen... So I wiped it clean from my memory and told myself, don't watch the interviews, just enjoy the art.

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    1. I like your style, Eve! Don't watch the interviews...just enjoy the books/film. That's what I'm aspiring to do.

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    2. Great outlook Eve. Both nuanced and fair-minded.

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  2. Wagner was an antisemite and adulterer. Mozart was basically a jerk. Dickens was an adulterer. Hemingway was an alcoholic misogynist. Faulkner was an alcoholic racist. Fitzgerald was an alcoholic perv. That's off the top of my head. And these people take up a substantial amount of space on my bookcases and record rack.
    I can think of very few authors or other artists I would like to meet (Mystery writers, by and large, are surprisingly pleasant and generous--an anomalie), but I still admire their work.

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    1. Steve, I love meeting my fellow authors, as a 'fellow author' - there is nothing more fun than exchanging war stories over a pint! But yes, I think I would be really disappointed to have dinner with some of the authors from last century. Best to love their protagonists, and not the author him/herself. Thanks for this comment!

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  3. Melodie, it’s possible that in the (near) future people will find our treatment of animals (think veal, etc) abhorrent, or deplore the way we have polluted the environment. Will they then avoid reading us?
    Edward Lodi

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    1. It's a good question, Edward. These are the sort of discussions I loved having in the college classroom, but sadly, would be a little afraid to introduce now.

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  4. You don't ask the easy ones, do you Melodie?

    I came to fiction from an academic history background, and trainee historians face a similar conundrum there: do you fall in love with your subject or do you commit to telling your subject's story? The correct answer is, of course, to commit to the truth. However, I can (but won't) name dozens of historians, really good at their jobs, who have lost objectivity where their subject area is concerned on any number of scales (small to large). It's one of the reasons I moved to fiction.

    Before I moved though, I did make the mistake of "meeting my heroes" among those historians still living whose work I admired. Mixed bag: as is so often the case with humanity. Once I began focusing on mystery/crime fiction I encountered this phenomenon far less. I'm not going to name any names here either, but I have to say that in my own fanboy experience, the bigger the name, the cooler the person. I'm not stating this as fact, merely offering my own experience.

    And Melodie's central point does resonate with me: was Hammett Sam Spade? Yes. Was Chandler Marlowe? Not by a long shot (and he used to joke to that effect). MacDonald and Lew Archer? In his case I think the two evolved into weird mirror images of each other. Is Lee Child Jack Reacher? Yes and no.

    As for Melodie's second point, about separating the artist from the person, I think that is something we can all agree to wrestling with at some point or other. I know I certainly have. I love Hemingway's short stories, find his novels tedious, and am unsurprised at what a shit he could be (macho posturing notwithstanding), especially toward those whose talent or fame his envied (just look at the hatchet job he did on Fitzgerald in A MOVEABLE FEAST).

    But he was human. We all contain an infinite number of means by which we are capable of putting others off. I try to keep this foremost in mind when thinking about artists and art.

    A perfect example of this back-and-forth is regarding my decades-long affection for the music of the great Miles Davis. An unqualified musical genius and showman who eventually grew impatient with the both the trappings and requirements of fame, Davis had drug problems, suffered from mental illness (exacerbated by the drugs), and infamously unleashed his demons on his first wife Frances and later partners such as Cicely Tyson.

    He was also a black man successful beyond all measure in an America that was never really quite ready to embrace him as a successful black man. In the 1950s in Detroit he got beaten and arrested by a cop who saw him putting his French (white) girlfriend in a cab outside the club where Davis himself was playing. And there are some great interviews he gave in the late 80s/early 90's, not too long before his death in 1991, where the bitterness comes through, mixed in with how sanguine he could be about how he could be driving an Italian sportscar around modern (late 80s/early 90s) LA and get pulled over every single day for being a black man driving a car too expensive for him in LA (he told this one of Dick Cavett, and it is worth watching).

    So I've gone back and forth on Miles.

    Same goes for so many artists. I tried reading Anne Perry, even knowing she was a convicted murderer, and couldn't get into her books. Not sure whether her being an actual killer played any role in that, but I also know that I found giving the music of Michael Jackson up incredibly easy after finding out the truth about his special friendships with young boys. I have room in my heart to pity the victim Jackson was while also reviling the monster he became. Don't make me want to listen to "Billie Jean" any time soon.

    Thanks for posting such a provocative one today, Melodie!

    And of course, YMMV!

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    1. Brian, I've thought this before, and will say it out loud now: I really wish we lived closer together, because I'd love to have these kind of discussions with you in person over a pint! I've just retired from 30 years teaching college (sessional or part time, to afford the writing career.) Mixed bag, is true. And now, I'm thinking about myself "as protagonist" and am going to try to work out my thoughts through another column! Thanks for this extremely interesting comment.

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    2. Melodie- that's what writing conferences are for! Congratulations on your retirement (I'm about five years out from my own) Let's catch up at the next one (for my likely won't be until LCC in 2024 here in Seattle).

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  5. Melodie, since the majority of my short story protagonists are criminals preying on worse criminals, I'll have to wonder how much of this is the artist and is any on the author? Also, how much of this comes from the role playing (getting into character) required for undercover work? This may now be a 4 rum & Coke night of me talking to myself, again.

    Good one.

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    1. R.T., *that* is going to be the subject of a future blog! I've written 187 books and 60 short stories. Who is me, in all of that? Intriguing! Thanks for this comment.

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    2. RATS! That should read 17 books, not 187!! Need more coffee...Melodie

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  6. Elizabeth Dearborn22 April, 2023 14:02

    Sometimes you love the artist & despise the art ...

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    1. Laff! I hope my family don't say that about me, Elizabeth :)

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  7. I too have struggled with this. I've been thinking what if we replace the word 'art' with 'football.' There, are football players who have assaulted their wives, who are known to have brought that violence home with them. Many of us who are not sport fans certainly would have no problem with boycotting the entire game, as this has long been known to be a problem. I also wonder about gender-- the disbalance to what is tolerated by women for toxicity from men compared to the intolerance from men when it comes to women standing up and being heard. I think the question is for me, what if my child or someone I loved had been a victim to this artist? Would I even question if the creation should have more value than the suffering inflicted? Now, as far as an artist just being unlikeable-- that is a different story.. I mean, wasn't Oscar Wilde supposedly a bit of an ass? I don't really care if an author is a twatwaffle with a large ego, but if the author is a xenophobic elitist who says the Holocaust was faked-- yeah, I won't read a thing written by that author.

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  8. Cyndi MacMillan22 April, 2023 22:43

    oops that was me!

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    1. Cyndi, you make a good point about if you know someone who had been a victim of the artist. I know I wouldn't want to contribute to the income of a person with bad character by buying his book, for instance. You also make a good point about sports players assaulting women - I also struggle with that. It's turned me off hockey lately, that's for sure. Thanks for commenting! Melodie

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  9. Melodie, I divide the ungodly (as Simon Templar would say) into two groups. First are those who’ve fallen from grace. I’m loath to judge when celebrity media prosecutes and huge payoffs hang in the balance. Gossip is not the best testimony. Consequently, I’m not certain Michael Jackson, for example, was anything more than a damaged child in an adult body.

    The other category is a problem of historical distance. It’s hard and growing more difficult to immerse ourselves in earlier eras. We visit the past with a superiority and arrogance that we’re inexplicably better, more intelligent, more moral, wiser and more sophisticated than our ancestors. We arrive with a certainty we’d have made better decisions and are entitled to judge those who came before.

    To be clear, we’re not talking about history’s monsters, those who would have been deemed horrors in any era. The unpleasant truth is 100 out 101 (!!!) of us would have easily slipped into a societal rĂ´le no different from any other figure of the era. It took a rare person to stand against a popular wave, especially if one’s life hung in the balance. Contrariwise, our forebears would likely find some of the things we embrace abhorrent.

    Those who trod earlier paths tried to warn us along the lines of, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Beneath Eve’s email signature is a quotation from Philo of Alexandria we’d be wise to bear in mind: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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    1. Leigh, that is such a wise post above. I have reread and reread your sentence about thinking ourselves more moral and superior than those who came before us. I may just copy it for my keeper file. Thank you for this!

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    2. Oops - that's me above, Melodie!

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  10. Leigh and Melodie, C. S. Lewis addressed this issue of our feelings of superiority to earlier ages:
    "Different ages and cultures can be regarded as “pockets” in relation to one another. I said, a few pages back, that different ages excelled in different virtues. If, then, you are ever tempted to think that we modern Western Europeans cannot really be so very bad because we are, comparatively speaking, humane—if, in other words, you think God might be content with us on that ground—ask yourself whether you think God ought to have been content with the cruelty of cruel ages because they excelled in courage or chastity. You will see at once that this is an impossibility. From considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling how our softness, worldliness, and timidity would have looked to them, and hence how both must look to God." (The Problem of Pain)
    and
    "Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook - even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal
    which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united - united with each other and against earlier and later ages - by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century - the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?" - lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them." (Introduction to Athanasius' On the Incarnation)

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    1. Eve, that is fascinating! Yes, the value of old books is being entirely overlooked in this woke age. I worry about those who would change history. Surely if we don't know our history, if it is erased or cleansed, do not others see the danger in that? Thank your for this extremely thoughtful comment, Eve.

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    2. Poop! That was me again - Melodie

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  11. Ignoring the opinions and failings of those in the past is a different thing than ignoring the failings of contemporaries - for me, anyway. I know that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, but his age accepted slave owning. I do not think it is reasonable to expect him to rise above it.

    Someone who is a bigot now does not have that excuse. *shrug* No, I do not excuse Woody Allen or care to exalt the career of the late, transphobic, paedophile-defender Barry Humphries.

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    1. You make a terrific point, J.R. Your first line is something that I will remember. Thank you for leaving this comment! Melodie

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