Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Separating the art from the artist: A response

Before continuing, you'd better read or skim through this post:
Rick, the author, asks in the end:
"Are you able to separate the art from the artist? Is there a particular writer or painter or actor that you admire, despite serious character flaws? What allows you (or someone you know, even) to make that distinction between art and life? Is that distinction important?"


Let's assume there are 2 standpoints, put simply as:
1/ Unable to separate the art from the artist at all.
Look back at the quote above, one must ask what counts as "serious character flaws". Because of the sentence "Charles Dickens was absolutely terrible to his wife", I assume it extends further than political views. So the question is: what if you dig deeper and it turns out that every single acclaimed writer has some "flaws"? What if each writer is either sexist or racist or xenophobic or bigoted or homophobic or snobbish or extremely egocentric? Or communist or fascist or pro some totalitarian regime or in favour of things like slavery or segregation? What if many writers are assholes in real life: domineering, deceitful, pathologically dishonest, hypocritical, horrible to husband/ wife/ children, stingy, violent, etc.?
Look at my favourite writers.
Lev Tolstoy? Politically naive. Idealist. Horrible to his wife. Dominating.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite.
Virginia Woolf? A snob. And anti-Semite.
F. Scott Fitzgerald? Anti-Semite.
William Faulkner? Racist. Pro-slavery or something. Pathological liar.
Vladimir Nabokov? Homophobic. Extremely arrogant and narcissistic. Sexist.
Charlotte Bronte? Apparently xenophobic- "Jane Eyre" is full of ethnic slurs.
Milan Kundera? Communist, at least in the past.   
Gustave Flaubert? Had syphilis. 
(I'm not sure about Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Emily and Anne Bronte, Ivan Turgenev, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, Franz Kafka, etc. but I'll certainly find something. But then I myself also have some views others may object to). 
I can't help feeling that if you keep looking for ethics and morality and whatever in authors, then perhaps there aren't many books left to read.

2/ Always able to separate the art completely from the artist.
Nope, I don't believe those who claim that.
Writers can't separate their own political views from their writings. As long as they depict a society and present some groups of people in a certain way, explicitly or implicitly express approval or disapproval of some social issues, critique something in society- no, as long as they hold a pen and start writing, they can't leave their political views out of their fiction. How can one? It's one's worldview. Literature is always political.
(Think Jane Austen's works aren't political because she seems to deal with romance and marriage? They are political. That can be seen in, e.g, her critique of gender inequality and primogeniture. I also consider it political the way she satirises 'the sentimental novel' and some banal literary devices and tendencies in literature of her time, and the way she refuses to let 'masculine values' dominate her works). 
Similarly, readers read a book, with their own political views in the back of their mind. There may be times when you, whilst reading a novel, argue in your head- nope, nope, you're wrong; no, I disagree; what the fox are you thinking, etc. I read not only as a reader, not only as a human being, but also as a woman, as a feminist, as an East Asian or more specifically a Vietnamese or even more specifically a Southerner, as a person living in Norway, as an anti-communist, as a pro-democracy person, as an agnostic, and who knows what else. All these views make me who I am, and I can't leave them behind when approaching a work of art. And I believe it's the same for everybody- even professional critics have that personal factor.
The best thing one can do is to be able to recognise and acknowledge the aesthetic values of the book, one can't like it more personally if the views presented in book are too opposed to one's own. Even that can be difficult.


Go back to Rick's questions, here are my thoughts:
1/ Some prejudices, stereotypes and views are less acceptable now than in the past.
I find it rather unfair (for lack of a better word) to dismiss a great writer of the beginning of the 20th century, or earlier, for some limited views, such as homophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia... I may forgive a man in the 19th century for his misogyny, even if it's quite irritating. Society's progressing, the world's more connected, many countries are now multicultural, there have been movements and changes of law, people come to understand and accept many things that were once considered repulsive, sick or morally wrong, we're generally more tolerant, liberal, understanding... (or supposed to be, at least).
However, it's precisely because we're supposed to be more modern and open-minded that I might have problems with conservative, close-minded, intolerant, ignorant writers of today. Not only writers, but artists in general, especially those who create something, such as film directors, painters, screenwriters..., instead of, say, actors. Time matters. Distorted depiction of people of darker skin a few centuries ago, due to ignorance and lack of contact with other cultures, is forgivable, such as the emphasis on the Creole origin of Bertha Mason and other ethnic slurs in "Jane Eyre". But I cannot tolerate the depiction of Indians as savages, who eat beetles, eyeball soup, baby snakes and monkey brains, in the 1984 film "Indiana Jones and the temple of doom".
Similarly, I may understand that some people in mid-20th century were attracted to Marxism, but if someone today still swoons over Lenin and Stalin, or admires Mao and defends the CCP, that's another story.

2/ A writer's personal life is not my concern.
I don't really care how Charles Dickens treated his wife. It doesn't affect my perception of "Great expectations" or "A Christmas carol".
After all, I do make a distinction between the author and the person (which is why, when asked which writers I'd like to invite to dinner, I can't think of anybody). And I don't have the illusion that a writer who has an incredible ability to create vivid characters and slip into their minds and understand them, must be magnanimous, sensitive, kind, warm-hearted, moral, trustworthy... A writer's personal life, with all the foibles, pet peeves, odd habits, nuisances, eccentricities..., is outside his or her works.
(Should we stop reading Jane Austen because we think that a spinster couldn't understand relations between men and women? Should we stop reading Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath because we think that suicidal, mentally sick people had nothing to give us?...) 
Or maybe it's better to say: I make a distinction between the implied author and the real author. 
To me, a literary critic doesn't have to create great fiction to be a critic, and a novelist doesn't have to be a kind person to be a novelist. 
In extreme cases, I understand some people's decision to boycott artists who are, say, paedophiles or rapists, saying that buying their works is equivalent to supporting them, but I still watch Roman Polanski's films (or is it because his wrongdoings were committed some decades ago?).

3/ I care more about political views. But it also depends on whether they're obvious in the works, whether they affect my reading.
Marquez had some crazy views, but I don't see them in "100 years of solitude", "Chronicle of a death foretold" or "Memories of my melancholy whores".
Neither do I have problems with Albert Camus's crazy views when reading "The stranger" and "The misunderstanding", which I love.
Nabokov's sexism and homophobia are hardly seen in his novels, at least the ones I've read.
Zhang Yimou is 1 of those cases I feel sorry about, an enormous talent who sold his soul to the devil (by "the devil" I mean the CCP). Since "Hero", his films stink. But his early films are still great, some are masterpieces, especially "To live", "Raise the red lanterns" and "Red sorghum".
Politically, I can't stand Bernardo Bertolucci, but "Last tango in Paris" is very good; Oliver Stone, but "Wall Street" is well-done and tolerable; Jean-Luc Godard, but "Vivre sa vie" is thought-provoking and lovely, etc.
"The quiet American" I regard as rubbish, though Graham Greene's prose is likeable. "The book of Daniel" I may admire for E. L. Doctorow's artistry but can't like it any more than that. I don't regret reading them, but can't say whether I'll read their other books.

4/ Most important is obviously still the quality. Are the books worth reading? Are they great enough for readers to endure the authors' stupid, extreme opinions?
One cannot read all the books one wants to read in a lifetime- life is too short to spend time on bad books, let alone bad books by bigots.


Go back to Rick's post. 
Would I read David Gilmore's books? Let's see. 
Generally, I don't pay much thought to the question about separating the art from the artist, because most of the writers I read were dead a while ago (or a long, long time ago), and their ways of thinking were rather shaped by the societies in which they lived. I may be more demanding when it comes to today's writers, but then I usually don't read them. Which is to say, now when I pick up a contemporary book, I'll be quite selective, and David Gilmore's probably not that interesting. How to put it, it's like, he's not praised that often (who knows whether he'll be read in another 50 years?). I would be more interested in Orhan Pamuk, Alice Munro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Martin Amis, John Irving, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, etc. (yes, this is a confession- I haven't read their works). 
Considering his statement, I understand that he prefers to teach stuff he loves. To me, he's not exactly sexist- a feminist as I am, I don't use the word 'sexist' to label everyone and everything. But personally I find him rather limited. When a guy says that he only likes books by male authors, I don't think that women's books are not as well-written or fascinating as men's, I think that guy's limited.


I may or may not read V. S. Naipaul's books. Can't say.
So far, my impression of him is quite negative: self-important, racist (with zero understanding of India, so I've heard), intolerant, and above all misogynistic ( If I read his books, I'll read with lots of preconceptions, constantly comparing him to female authors.
Last time I picked up a book of his, or 2, at the library, it seemed contrived and unnatural, therefore ridiculous.
But who knows. There's a possibility that I may read his books and gasp in awe and lower my voice, this man, despite his awful, intolerable personality, writes such magical prose.
Before that, there are still many novels to read.

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