A few weeks ago, one of my favorite musicians tweeted about something rather politically inflammatory. It so ground my gears and I was so disillusioned, I wondered if I'd ever be able to enjoy his music again. But then I calmed down. Reason (somewhat) returned. And I let it pass. That episode got me thinking, though, about a question I daresay every person who loves music, movies, and especially books, must've considered at some point. What if you learn something about an artist you find objectionable, but you love the art? Does that influence how you evaluate his/her art? Thus, is it truly possible to separate a work of art from the artist who created it?
There are really two parts to these questions: 1) To what degree should a writer's lifestyle, politics or general disposition affect how you read and evaluate his/her work, if at all? 2) To what degree do autobiographical details show up in a work? In other words, at its most simplistic, are character/event/setting based on a writer's own life?
To me, the more interesting question, and the one that readers really should put some thought into, is the first one. The second one is interesting, but doesn't matter quite as much (in most cases). That's because every piece of fiction necessarily contains some aspect of the writer. What, exactly, and how much is true shouldn't matter strictly in terms of evaluating a work objectively. Those details will only matter in terms of taste towards subject — you won't read Philip Roth if you don't like stories about Jewish kids growing up in mid-20th century Newark, for instance.
So, what would it be about a writer's personal life that would cause you not to be able to separate a writer from his/her fiction? Would it be something about his/her personal life? As everyone knows, Ernest Hemingway was a unapologetic drunk married four times who offed himself with a shotgun. Not exactly a moral stalwart. Yet every high school kids reads at least The Old Man in the Sea, and he's generally regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. There's no question that bad, even morally reprehensible, people can create good art, but where is the line? IS there a line? If a modern writer is convicted of pedophilia, would we stop reading him? Seems like a no-brainer, but people still seem to love Roman Polanski's and Woody Allen's films, right?
And what if the novelist is a celebrity? Doesn't that carry some pretty strong preconceived notions about how good the fiction will be? Let's be honest, Snooki probably hasn't committed Word One of her novel to paper yet, and we're already positive it's the worst novel of the last quarter-century. In that case, I'm sure we're right, as we are with Pamela Anderson, Lauren Conrad and Tyra Banks. But James Franco's book of short stories seems to have gotten an unfair number of poor reviews simply because no one believes a movie star can write. Doesn't celebrity — or even success in another field — automatically notch down a novel in our minds before we even pick it up?
What if your issue with the person is tame and unimportant? You went to a reading, and the guy cussed too much or was wearing stupid-looking red sweater? Or, on the other side of the coin, what if there was something unimportant about a novelist that actually influenced you more to pick up her book? I've done this before — I'll readily admit that, on more than one occasion, I've picked up a book by a female novelist who is smokin' hot. Silly, right? But I guarantee you every reader has done something similar.
It seems like the inability to separate art from artist is something that has become more common recently. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it has something to do with our celebrity-soaked culture where we want to know everything about everyone's private life. Maybe it's because the Internet has made that easy. Maybe it's because we're getting more shallow and less serious. Whatever the reason, the implications are scary. Let's reverse it. Let's be smart. From now on, let's endeavor only to evaluate literature on its merits, not what color a writer's sweater is. Deal? Terrific.
Of course, I can't wait to hear what you think. Do certain personal details about writers influence how or whether you'll read them, whether consciously or not? Which? Do you think they should?