In the fifth episode of the wonderful sitcom Rutherford Falls, Nathan and Regan help to judge people’s projects in their local History Fair, and end up getting sucked into a huge debate over whether you can separate the art from the artist. Can we still like the movies from that director who turned out to be a creep, or the books written by that dude who said something offensive? Are we still allowed to listen to music made by (alleged) abusers?
This is the kind of discussion I hear, or witness, constantly of late. So many of our favorite creators have turned out to be kind of gross and awful, making it hard to keep liking their stuff. And whenever this comes up, I can’t help thinking about Samuel Johnson, the famous eighteenth century critic, dictionarian and busybody.
Lemme back up slightly.
Samuel Johnson wrote a book called Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, in which he talks smack about dead poets, mostly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And in the section on Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), Johnson says that Cowley wrote a collection of love poems called Mistress that a lot of people really dug. But, adds Johnson:
But the basis of all excellence is truth: he that professes love ought to feel its power. Petrarch was a real lover, and Laura doubtless deserved his tenderness. Of Cowley, we are told by Barnes, who had means enough of information, that, whatever he may talk of his own inflammability, and the variety of characters by which his heart was divided, he in reality was in love but once, and then never had resolution to tell his passion. This consideration cannot but abate, in some measure, the reader’s esteem for the work and the author.
Having knocked Cowley onto the ground, Johnson proceeds to perch on top of him, slapping him repeatedly, saying that he and the other metaphysical poets never quite managed to write poetry, but rather wrote “only verses,” and “very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect that they were found to be verses only by counting the syllables.” Ouch.
Anyway, whenever we get into another debate over whether we should read works without any regard for the artist’s actual life and behavior and stuff, I think of the phrase, “cannot but abate.” Johnson isn’t even accusing Cowley of being a bad person, or of any untoward behavior — he’s just saying that Cowley barely experienced love and never experienced reciprocal love, and therefore his love poetry is invalid. Which… plenty of people have written movingly about experiences they never personally lived through, and unrequited love is still love, etc. etc.
The point is, Johnson wasn’t here for any “death of the artist” nonsense, partly because Roland Barthes hadn’t shown up yet, but partly because Johnson apparently saw the artist’s life as inextricable from his (and it’s all dudes in Johnson’s book) work. Like, for Johnson, what you know about an artist “cannot but” shape how you read their work. And so Johnson dredges up whatever hot gossip he can find and serves it up alongside his own hot takes, and this is all part of how he wants us to think about these poets who are no longer alive to defend themselves.
Johnson has come in for some criticism for this approach, to be sure. According to Wikipedia, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature complains that Johnson “was much more interested in the man than in that part of him which is the author.” And probably most people can agree that Johnson was an asshole.
And yet, the phrase “cannot but abate” keeps coming back to me. Because I think there’s an essential truth to the “cannot but” part — when you find out something about an artist, you can’t help letting it color your judgment of their work. Our critical faculties are entangled with our social brains, and we encounter people’s creative works partly through the filter of our opinions about the creators. We’re not machines, we don’t take in inputs and then render them through some kind of impartial algorithm. A thousand factors can shape your reaction to a work — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found a book to be not my cup of tea, only to come back to it later in a different frame of mind and find it delightful.
There’s a reason why some anthologies, contests and magazines strip the names and all other info about the authors off of submissions before the first readers (or judges) read them — sometimes you read something differently if you know something about the person who wrote it.
It’s like that phrase “write what you know,” which can be the bane of anyone who studies or teaches writing — people often interpret it narrowly, to mean that you can’t write about being an asteroid miner unless you’ve actually gone into space and mined asteroids. (Whereas it really means that you can use the experience of your cruddy summer job working in a warehouse to imagine what it would be like to be an asteroid miner.) The core of this advice is the notion that good writing is often grounded in your own life, or connected to your own experiences.
Again, Johnson was a dick, and it sounds like he used his book to spill a lot of lukewarm tea that hadn’t necessarily steeped properly. But I think he was probably right: the things you know about an author, or creator, cannot help affecting your view of their work. Things tend to come across differently, and you maybe pick up on themes and motifs that you would have missed, because of the stuff you know about the person behind the work. We’re humans, and we deal with stuff on a human level.
That said, this is also an argument for not obsessing too much about authors and other creators, or putting people on pedestals, or treating creators like rock stars. Both because people who are put on pedestals tend to behave badly, and because it’s better to know more about the work and less about the person. When we turn authors and other creators into personalities, we inevitably end up pushing the balance way more towards the personal and away from the work in itself — and as Johnson would say, that “cannot but abate” our ability to see the work in itself.
I’m late to the party, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Xenia Rubinos today. Her album Black Terry Cat is utterly gorgeous and very eclectic, and her voice is just incredibly haunting. She covers a lot of different musical styles and tones, but everything ties together beautifully. Her recent song “Did My Best” breaks my goddamn heart — and check out her badass cover version of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”. She reminds me a little bit of Tune-Yards. Here’s her NPR Tiny Desk Concert.
Jay Rosen, “A current list of my top problems in pressthink” Michael Harriot, “We Found the Textbooks of Senators Who Oppose The 1619 Project and Suddenly Everything Makes Sense” (The Root) Charles Pulliam-Moore, “‘Racism+’ Is How You Get Shows Like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (io9)
This Thursday at 5 PM PT, I’m appearing in the final ever installment of the Quarantine Book Club to talk about my young adult novel Victories Greater Than Death. Tickets are $5, all proceeds benefit the wonderful Dog Eared Books. (You probably already heard about Victories Greater Than Death, but in case you hadn’t, I published a young adult space fantasy novel that’s full of hugs and chosen family and pronoun introductions and confronting ancient evil. It’s still available in all the book places! You can get a signed/personalized copy at Folio Books.)
My collection of essays about how to use creative writing to get through hard times, Never Say You Can’t Survive, comes out August 17. It’s on NetGalley now! (Though there are some things in the galleys that I’ve since fixed, like a few repetitive sections where I talk about my childhood.) Anyway, this book is available for preorder, and I’m sure your local bookstore would love to hear from you about it!
In Polygon, I wrote about the Vulcan/Ferengi dichotomy, and how to make aliens that hold up a mirror to human beings without being overly simplistic.