Being a good writer

April 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

I heard about the death of a children’s books author named William Mayne today. It was also the first time I heard of him. I read an obituary on him over at the Kaleidoglide blog here, and wondered why the hell I didn’t know who it was or even have an inkling that these books even existed – books that appear, from its descriptions, to be just the kind of books with which I’ll instantly fall in love.

I suppose the fact that he wrote for kids, and was found guilty of sexually abusing young girls, rendered him virtually obsolete from the annals of children’s literary history. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately; whether knowing about an author’s supposed ‘evil’ doings should necessarily affect how the reader perceives the author’s work. I would say no, but I’ve been known for harbouring strange prejudices myself. For instance, after hearing about the way V.S. Naipaul treated the people (and especially the women) in his life, I’ve not been able to pick up any of his books. And I think it’s incredibly sad, because I’ve not read a single one of his works except for Mimic Men (which I found rather unsettling and brilliant). It seems wrong that I can’t seem to get past my own emotional and hypocritical moral hypothesising to pick up A House for Mr. Biswas, which is one of those books that apparently all English-reading people must read.

I read this article a few days ago, and it seemed pertinent in light of the William Mayne issue. Also, the article explains in detail the reactions that have been elicited by Naipaul’s behaviour as a person in his private life, as opposed to the reactions to his work as a much-lauded, Nobel Prize-winning public writer. This one paragraph caught my attention in particular:

“A great majority of us have done discreditable, even cruel things in our lives, even after we have ceased to be children.  And the great majority of that majority find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves, and to think more about how we have been injured than the injuries we have made.  But it seems to matter more when a writer or artist behaves badly.  Why should it?  If my dentist loves one of his daughters more than any of his other children, or a Boeing engineer is having an affair with her best friend’s husband, it is cruel.  But their cruelties don’t impair the quality of my bridgework or disturb my tendency to sleep peacefully through take-offs and landings.  Why does the bad character of a writer or artist matters so much more?  And how does ‘mattering’ work?”

It’s a valid question, and one to which I have no reasonable answer. But I suspect, and here I may speak for myself, that a writer’s work (or any ‘creative’ work of the arts – films, songs, paintings, etc.) is considered to have come from the deepest reaches of one’s self. What the hell does that mean, you ask? Well, the wellspring of writing – imagination, creation, thought –is deeply related to the self and the type of person you are. Indeed, that’s what makes us revere artists for producing something that seems wholly original, or creative, or particularly thoughtful, astute, and relevant. Rightly or wrongly, writers who write good books are thought to be putting a tiny bit of themselves out there as well. It’s not the same as being a dentist. One can be very passionate about making other people’s teeth clean, but the ability to do a great scaling job does not necessarily have to come about from the deepest recesses of your dreams, thoughts, fears, and hopes. Dental work is not an extension of the dentist; yet, writing is an extension of the writer.

I have no idea if this is the right response. Also, I’ve no idea if this is the rational response. People respond to art emotionally as well as rationally; but you can’t really be comforted to sleep by a Boeing engineer’s impeccable handiwork. You can, of course, take a book to bed with you and be transported out of your own sorry life into one that is absolutely magical, or watch a film and live inside the skin of a person of the likes you’ll never meet in your actual life.

Possibly, this is why some people have difficulties getting over an author’s ‘personality’ if it turns out that he or she is morally reprehensible by society’s standards. It’s a shame, of course. And it’s also largely random, as I’ve found out. I do still want to read Mayne’s works, even if he made some vile mistakes in his personal life.

I do agree with the writer of the above-quoted article when he says this:

“This self-knowledge does not excuse Dickens – or Naipaul – for how they seem to have treated others.   But if we can’t be good – and it seems that we can’t – then it’s not a bad thing to try to make something out of what is missing in us, or at least to see how others do it.  And if we readers are complicitous – well, that’s not a bad thing either.  So I intend to read Naipaul’s “Mimic Men” next, as an exercise in shedding my own more superfluous illusions.”

There is that. If we’re all fucked up – and some of us to a greater degree than others (again, deemed by society’s standards) – then if we try to make sense of ourselves and our inadequacies and failures through our art, even if it’s not apparent in the work itself, that should be enough for the rest of us. Regrettably, though, it doesn’t always mean that it is.

I think Aishwarya resolves the issue the best way possible when she writes in that Mayne obituary I linked to above that you can’t separate the issues; one must acknowledge that a writer molested young girls, and one must also acknowledge that he wrote outstanding works of literature that mattered, and continue to matter. It’s probably the only way I’ve resolved the Michael Jackson issue. Yes, I loved his music and his performances – and while he was never proven guilty, you still can’t run away from the fact that something strange was going on. I’ve come to terms with the fact that he might have done some horrible things to young boys – but I was 5 when I first heard ‘Thriller’ and thought it was the best thing ever, and I still do think it’s one of the best things, ever. One aspect of his life does not, and should not, erase the other – even if they are, as it were, at odds with each other.

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