Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why do we expect them to be nice as well?

I'm currently reading a very good novel (and by good I mean well-written, well-structured, powerful, convincing etc etc) by someone who appears to me, from her worldview generally, to be a somewhat unpleasant piece of work. With decades of going to writers' festivals and so on behind me, I don't find this particularly surprising. It would be a naive reader who expected good writers to be, necessarily, both Good and Nice People, or even just the one or the other. Look at Truman Capote. Look at Hemingway and Lawrence. Look at Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.

*Carefully avoids naming anyone who's still alive*

And what's clear, even after reading only half the book, is that the author's au contraire type personality is exactly what has given her book its exceptional qualities. She has sharp unkind eyes, and a sharp unkind tongue.

Yet there's a powerful instinct to want someone whose gifts you admire to be an all-round admirable human being. As expectations go it is unrealistic and unreasonable, but it's there. I'm sure this novelist is as unlike swimmer Nick D'Arcy as it's possible to be in every conceivable way but reading this book has made me think of him (his second appeal against exclusion from the Olympic team was turned down yesterday), and in a way the principle is the same. He's an Olympic class swimmer and it's likely that the same qualities that got him into the team in the first place are those that have now got him into so much trouble.

This isn't by way of advocacy or defence. One does not smash other people's faces, and if one does then one needs to understand that this is not an okay thing to do. On points, I sort of weakly hope they don't let him back into the team. But at the same time all this stuff about him being a role model rings hollow, possibly because I'm a bit shocked at the way some parents seem to expect other people (usually teachers, poor sods) to provide their kids with moral training. That's called parenting. Nick D'Arcy shouldn't be expected to do it.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Indeed. Speaking as an ex-soldier, I get quite irritated when people are surprised at bad behaviour from, particularly, infantrymen and other front-line troops. It's even sillier than holding footballers to a higher code of conduct than ourselves. Aggression is one of the most important qualities required for the jobs they do, as are an observant mind and sharp tongue (so to speak) for a writer.

David

Pavlov's Cat said...

I know another ex-soldier who says very much the same thing. I guess that's why military discipline is so crucial and formalised, and why such gross breaches of discipline and decency as Abu Ghraib, or evidence of actual psychosis like the torturing of small animals (generally accepted as one of the three early signs of the serial killer!) are taken so seriously.

In all four of these occupations it's quite a fine line, actually. The football thing is a worry because what that subculture seems to produce is a bunch of hyper-fit, testosterone-charged and not-very-bright young men with far more money than sense, for whom constant excuses are made, and whose view of reality is further distorted by so-called 'celebrity' culture.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Not that Abu Ghraib wasn't evidence of actual psychosis as well, of course, and Goddess forbid I should suggest otherwise.

sigmund marx said...

I get a bee in my bonnet about the football thing too. Because I think we football fans can be so hypocritical. We are complicit in the things that make football great to follow - strength, testosterone, blatant aggression, the ugly side of males (how else can they go out there and do that week to week), but when someone like Barry Hall goes the bash, some of us pretend there's a huge distinction between that and what they all do week to week. I am not apologising for Hall's actions, but truth is it's a fine line between blatant aggresssion. Both come from a primitive part of men that gets swept under the carpet these days. Same with war. What would happen to all our gorgeous, SNAGGY, sensitive men if war came close to Australia? We'd want them to turn into unempathic strong men again; how can you kill someone and then come home and be Mr Mum? Our brains aren't wired like that. And what would happen to womens' roles if war came here? Back to the ironing board while the blokes do the fighting... It makes you wonder how much at the whim of historical circumstance all this gender role stuff is...

Beth said...

Exactly. On football, I read a Catherine Deveny column suggesting it should be a headline news story every time a player acts nobly, morally or selflessly off-field.

On writers, I think the desire to *like* them comes from the intimacy generated by reading, the sense that it's just you and the author communing through an imagined world (and a whole industry, but that's hidden).

Elsewhere007 said...

Lionel Shriver?

* She has sharp unkind eyes, and a sharp unkind tongue.*


I wonder if Jane Austen would have been described the same way.

lucy tartan said...

flippin excellent post P. Cat.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Heh. Good guess, but no -- someone I'd never heard of before. She's not as good as Shriver but then not many people are. And given some of the things I've said about her here, I'd better not name her!

Pavlov's Cat said...

Why thank you, Ms Tartan!

TimT said...

Brings to mind that line by a character in a Shaw play - can't remember it exactly - that 'The true artist will let his wife and children starve'. It's outrageous and funny, presumably, because it presents the converse view to this idea that artists, writers, etc, are paragons of virtue. But is that anymore true? I rather doubt that, too.

I've never quite seen why there should be a necessary connection between unpleasantness and artistic talent. The arts require certain talents, abilities, states of mind and being of their exponents, that much is true. But again, we should certainly hold artists to the same ethical and moral standards as we do for the rest of the community. In this respect, I imagine it would be interesting to think about how some artists - Auden, perhaps, would make a good example - managed to reconcile the requirements of their art with their own personal and ethical standards. Or maybe how others - Waugh, for instance - conspicuously failed to do so.

Pavlov's Cat said...

"I've never quite seen why there should be a necessary connection between unpleasantness and artistic talent."

Whoa, hold it right there. I didn't say that and neither did anybody else. I would never say that. All I said was that the converse was not always the case.

Actually, TimT, I don't agree with your reading of the Shaw remark either; I take it to mean only that a true artist would put his/her art above everything else no matter how morally pressing. Shaw was known to say that in other places as well, in propria persona -- and I don't agree with him either.

TimT said...

No, I don't impute that view to you or others on this thread, PC, but I do think that that's a particular spin that could be put on some of the arguments in this post by those readers who are inclined to give a great deal of weight to arguments like this:

And what's clear, even after reading only half the book, is that the author's au contraire type personality is exactly what has given her book its exceptional qualities.

I'm interested in the implied relation between the moral qualities (or lack thereof) of an person, and their artistic talents (or lack thereof), and wonder how this relation is negotiated. Another example would be the anecdote about Stravinsky and his family at lunch.

Interesting detail about Shaw, btw, thanks.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Hm. I guess I'd distinguish between 'moral' qualities and having a prickly or overly judgemental personality. If there's been a segue or a drift from the latter to the former in this conversation then I'm sure it's at least partly my fault.

But the real point of the post and the idea that I think is more interesting (given that one cannot generalise about the goodness or niceness of artists any more than one can about any other profession or activity) is the one that people have been giving examples of here -- that writers, soldiers, footy players and everyone else have the weaknesses of their strengths and vice versa.

sigmund marx said...

Lionel Shriver came immediately to my mind as well! But then I thought you wouldn't be reading anything by her right now, and I'm not sure you would have liked Post Birthday World anyway. Now, we'll all be checking out the eyes on publicity snaps of formerly obscure female writers...

Georg said...

(Warning: long-ish comment. Sorry!)

One thing I've done when it comes to things like the Darcy case is to compare it to a more mundane work situation. Sportspeople are essentially employed in that they are paid to perform, after all. Yes, they have incredible talent and their work environment is rather unlike that of the rest of us but...if I were out at a party with some work colleagues and I clobbered one of them causing a broken jaw, among other things, could I expect to get sacked in the morning? Quite possibly. My behaviour would not be acceptable on any level.

I don't think sportspeople, or anyone else in the limelight, should sacked or suspended or whatever because they are role models. I think it is acceptable for them to be sacked when in any other context that is reasonably comparable their behaviour would not be tolerated. Having said that, there are a whole lot of questions surrounding the role of media, fame, etc and how this can focus undue attention on the behaviour of some. At the same time, how far are sportspeople allowed to push this excuse before they are effectively sacked? The Joey Barton case in the UK is a good example. Only when he went to jail was he stopped from playing football. He was 'let go' by his club after a number of indiscretions, including assault, but there were a number of other clubs willing to put him on their books.

Anyhoo...I'm getting myself in way deeper than I intended. I'll stop there.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

I've never been able to understand how someone who plays sport could be a "role model" - for what I always ask.

Ann O'Dyne said...

If I was Defence Counsel for The Swimmer I would plead CHLORINE POISONING.

P.Cat - why do you continue reading pages of UNKIND observations? Are you anticipating a come-uppance for the CONtagonist?

Pavlov's Cat said...

Heh. Work, Ms O'Dyne.

I've now finished the novel and it's much clearer to me than it was when I wrote this post that the hero and narrator, a prat in a subtle way, is much further away from the writerly sensibility behind him than was at first apparent, though of course the sharp observations about him and his type and the sorts of people all his friends are all still come from the unrelenting writer. (There's a massive, nay, grotesque comeuppance for him, too.)

The general argument stands, though. And I still think you need to be a ruthless observer to be a good fiction writer!

Anonymous said...

I recall a Patrick Cook cartoon from decades ago, of a bloke being eaten by a shark while reflecting 'But they're very good at what they do'

Anthony

Darlene said...

Interesting post.

Frankly, I think there's always been a view that artists are allowed to be complete creeps and emotional illiterates because they're artists and thus special etc I'm not sure they are ever expected (unlike we mere mortals and soldiers etc) to be nice.

Anonymous said...

What if they're crap artists?

cheers
BS

Pavlov's Cat said...

Darlene and BS: I agree that that perception (that artists must be excused everything) exists among some people -- but my observation has been that it is most common among people who are, in fact, crap artists and are making excuses for their own bad behaviour.

I also think writers are a special, or perhaps I mean particular, case within the more general category 'artist'. There's the sense of intimacy that Beth mentioned and there is also the usually unspoken given that if one did not personally like and/or admire a writer in one way or another then one would not waste time reading what s/he had to say.

Examples: I have always very much admired the work of both Ruth Rendell and Ian McEwen, but having chaired a session with the one and heard stories about the other at two different Adelaide Writers' Weeks, I have no interest in reading any more of their work. Even though I know objectively that it's still just as good as it was before.