Publisher’s Weekly annoyed novelist Claire Messud recently. Asked if she’d want to be friends with the protagonist of her latest offering, The Woman Upstairs, the author answered, “What kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”
Messud went on to list a coterie of classic characters you wouldn’t want to be friends with: Mickey Sabbath, Hamlet, Macbeth, Oedipus, Antigone, any of the people in The Corrections… (She could have included any of the characters in Freedom, too, as far as I’m concerned.)
Speaking of The Corrections, author Jonathan Franzen has said this about “likeable characters”: I hate the concept of likability — it gave us two terms of George Bush, whom a plurality of voters wanted to have a beer with, and Facebook. You’d unfriend a lot of people if you knew them as intimately and unsparingly as a good novel would. But not the ones you actually love.”
Personally I think Franzen’s comments are among the most intelligent things he’s ever said, and I’ve already called around asking how much it would cost me to have that quote engraved in a plaque to hang over my desk. Frankly I’ve never understood why people—particularly people today—are so obsessed with likeability. Go through any museum, park, or library and look at who the most venerated people are. Then read up on them, the ones who changed the world and likely made it a better place for you. Tell me how many of them sound “likeable.”
I have a theory that when most people complain about unlikeable characters,what they really mean is there was no one in the story—particularly the protagonist or main character—who reminds them of them. I see that as a reader so insecure they have to inject themselves and their views and mores into the story. And for me that’s antithetical to the very point of reading, or at least reading fiction, or at least reading good fiction.
Hopefully a great story teaches you something about things, shows you something about yourself. That can’t happen if the protagonist is blemishless and the antagonists are all one-dimensional, easy-to-spot baddies. There’s nothing I love more than when a character surprises, and goes off-kilter, or when an unlikeable character nonetheless has something interesting to say. Deborah Eisenberg has said she often assigns the points she wants to make to unsympathetic characters. And well she should. Life isn’t cut-and-dry. Life is complicated, very complex, and very gray, and one of the goals of literature is to help us learn to navigate that. Which is why I grimace when people say they didn’t like a book because a character wasn’t “likeable.” Call me biased, but somehow I don’t feel it’s the writer’s duty to feed the reader hot cocoa all the time. Life doesn’t, and literature is about life. Or is supposed to be. I like escapism too, but I don’t live on a diet of cocoa. Sometimes a tart orange is very refreshing.
Two seemingly unrelated things caught my attention this week.
The first: a couple of old commercials from Apple. Younger folk may not remember these ads from 20 or so years ago, which emphasized doing creative things and making the world a better place. The Power To Be Your Best was their tag line then. Yeah, I know it’s just a slogan created by advertisers—those cynical, martini-guzzling lizards—but there was a time, not long ago, when computers were seen—especially by Apple—as devices to unleash your creativity and nourish your better angels:
…Even if sometimes Apple’s approach was a bit good-naturedly tongue-in-cheek:
Now our electronic devices are being sold as extensions of our egos, toys to take pictures of our feet and our lunches and our vacations, and post updates about what inane things we’re doing every 30 seconds.
Basically, there’s been a seismic shift in the last decade or so in the way we see computers and what we see ourselves doing with them, a change from idealism to narcissism. And I haven’t seen anyone comment on or even acknowledge it.
The second thing was a speech this past weekend at the Edinburgh Writers Conference delivered by Dr. Ma Thida, Burmese writer imprisoned for more than five years by strict censorship rules. She spoke about the need for literature if society is to remain free. “Publishing is not always related to freedom,” she says:
In my own country, we had the Press Scrutiny Board for nearly five decades. This censorshipboard prohibited the publication of some literature. In the early 1980s, it took from one to two years to get permission to publish a novel. Even with permission, there would be much editing. Sometimes writers decided not to publish because of immense and nonsensical editing by the censorship board.
The vital link between literature and freedom may have once been self-evident, back in the days of those Apple ads. Today the thinking is more that our life’s avocations are merely self-gratifications and literature and other “liberal arts” pursuits are masturbatory activities. The words of David Coleman, president of the U.S. College Board (those people who bring you the SATs) rang through my ears: “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with a [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” If he thinks this is what one does in a humanities class, I wonder if he’s ever taken one.
Mr. Coleman wants to see the study of literature and other mamby-pamby liberal arts pursuits diluted (to use a polite word) from the newfangled Core College Curriculum. Students, he says with a straight face, should be learning “practical” skills, reading programming manuals instead of silly Steinbeck. All the better to generate those nifty apps we can buy for 99 cents from Apple—today’s Apple, which seems more concerned with giving you the ability to check when your favorite multiplex is playing a movie than empowering you to be your best.
Investors and owners didn’t want editors who were willing to test tolerance or censorship, or take the costly and time-consuming risk of reprinting manuscripts. Some editors refrained from accepting any work which might be censored heavily. As no definitive rules were set out by the censorship board, it was sometimes hard to predict what might be censored or not.
My overall point is that not only are freedom and literature intertwined, but that not long ago the new wave of computers (personal computers) were at least partly tools in the pursuit of the humanities. Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, was the ultimate sixties beatnik, who cited calligraphy as the most influential class he took in college and who read Dylan Thomas and listened to Bob Dylan and studied art and trekked to India. He spoke highly of those liberal arts “weirdos.” Remember the opening line to Apple’s famous comeback commercial that kicked off its “Think Different” campaign: Here’s to the crazy ones… Whatever happened to that kind of talk?
Parting thought: something I’d love to ask Dr. Coleman, if I ever met him: if literature is so useless, why is it the first people imprisoned when dictators take power are writers and artists?
Something to think about on this day of freedom in the U.S.A.
You can read Dr. Thida’s entire Edinburgh speech here.
Ingmar Bergman was sitting on the toilet when he found out about it. His film Smiles of a Summer Night was the smash hit of the Cannes Film Festival. He read about it in the paper. Why wasn’t he there? Because he didn’t know his film was. Nobody told him, and no one was broadcasting its fate minute by minute over the Internet.
Once he found out about his good fortune, he didn’t start planning Smiles 2. He didn’t try to figure out the reason for his success, or copy it. He didn’t read the trades to see what people were saying about him that day, or week, or year. He understood, I think, that the success of Smiles, which was far from his first film, was not predictable or reproducible, any more than any other phenomenon is reproducible. Rather than try to hit the lottery, with its million-to-one odds, again, he simply continued on with whatever thoughts and drives were inside him.
Ingmar Bergman lived much of his life in seclusion. After making Persona in 1965, he decided his filming location, the lonely Swedish island of Fårö, would also be his home. He lived there until his death in 2007, enjoying the kind of life I once speculated about in a blog post. He was alone most of the time. He took walks and looked at the ocean and oftentimes just sat and stared out the window every day, content to simply be. He didn’t like it when the telephone rang. He rarely had company. (There was an airstrip and you had to take a small plane in.) One wonders what he did when he got a jonsing for Surströmming, or just pizza.
He said he could often remain silent for days. He found the quiet to be refreshing, recharging, invigorating. He loved being alone with his thoughts, to see where they would take him. After a while he said they would take possession of him, that they would lead him, not vice-versa.
In another interview, he commented that he felt blessed that his creative well never ran dry. I think there’s a connection between these two observations.
Woody Allen, who has tried to imitate him both in film and to some extent in lifestyle, met him (though he admits their relationship was slight) and commented that Bergman was a man of small words. He wasn’t filled with thoughts and philosophies and proclamations, and seemed to have little interest in those who were. He reminds me of someone else I wrote about recently.
Silence recharges our batteries. I’m not saying Bergman never went to a party, and couldn’t, when he needed to, chat up important people with the best of them. Folks like him don’t get to be famous by accident. But he also knew the difference between the outer world and the inner world.
When I get stuck I often just stare at things. Back when I worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency, my boss would become annoyed because I’d not be at my desk pounding away at the keyboard, producing idea after idea after idea after idea. He did not understand that the ideas I did produce—and frankly while I was there I won 90% of the new business accounts—I thought of in the car. Or staring out a window. Or on the toilet. My boss claimed to be a creative guy too, but he wasn’t, and never showed his own creative work to anyone even though he claimed he’d won all sorts of awards. Where were they? “Too many to show,” he’s claim. “They’re home. I couldn’t fit them all in here.” Yet when we looked up the various advertising awards online, his name was not found among any of them. Once, when pitching for the Baskin Robbins account, he was so desperate he actually rolled up his sleeves and did some creative himself—a first. Then he presented it—another first. It was terrible, embarrassingly so. No surprise. The man didn’t understand a thing about creativity. For one thing, to critique yourself honestly, you have to spend time alone with your thoughts.
We don’t spend much time alone anymore. Modern interconnectedness has caused us to eyeball each other rather than look into ourselves, which is always harder. It’s like we’re a bunch of kids eager to get ahead in class but who copy off of each other’s paper rather than study. Maybe that explains why the trends of today—hip-hop, abstract art, street dancing, CGI and 3D movies, video games—are really at this point very old. I will hear the argument that they’re evolving and in some ways they are, driven by both style and technology, but they are basically the same conceptually. It’s interesting that in either 1938 or ’39, Duke Ellington lamented that swing music had not advanced significantly in two or three years—two or three years!—and he feared it may have come to an artistic dead end. Yet if you listen to swing in 1935 vs. 1939, it had in fact developed far more than hip hop or motion pictures arguably have in more than a decade. Today fear of such a stasis wouldn’t even enter into our thoughts. Why change things? No one else is. (As I write this, Nicholas Cage is opening in another of his seemingly endless comic book 3D action movies.)
In my opinion Bergman was in the best possible place when word of his success reached him: far away from it, both physically and mentally, thinking about another project, something completely different that would even exceed Smiles of a Summer Night to become one of the most talked-about, imitated and iconic films in the history of the world.
Not too bad for a guy who didn’t have Twitter.
“She reads the New York Times only once a year. Last time, she found an article on the links between caffeine and breast cancer, and promptly gave up coffee. She does not have a TV, and in her loft the windows are covered with white curtains. The only view looks out onto a brick wall. ‘I’m almost impervious to information.'”
That paragraph is from an article The Telegraph did a few years ago on writer Deborah Eisenberg. Another Deborah Eisenberg post? Yes, it’s my blog. And Deborah Eisenberg is in my opinion the best writer working in American fiction today, if hardly the most promoted. It’s possible the only time she’s been referenced in widely-diseminated mainstream media was when longterm companion Wallace Shawn mentioned her near the beginning of the movie My Dinner With Andre.
Her works are rich in insight, knowledge and a worldly grasp. They are also political, sociological and contemporary. You would think she would be plugged into the internet, watching CNN and subscribing to a half dozen international newspapers and magazines, right?
Wrong. If reports are correct, Deborah Eisenberg lives more like a monk than a modern big city resident. Being she has no fan pages or twitter stream or social media presence, I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t even own a computer, at least one that’s linked to the web. (I have this image of her with a battered Apple IIc from circa 1990, but maybe that’s just too precious.)
In another interview, the writer reports that her Chelsea loft is sparse with covers on most of the windows and few chairs. “There’s nowhere to sit,” she says. “It discourages visitors.”
She’s far from the only one, of course. We all learn about Thoreau’s legendary loner status in English class. (At least I hope we still do. I have to admit I have no idea what they’re teaching kids today.) Jonathan Franzen, subject of a gushing Time profile last year, works in a rented office decorated in Modern Austerity accented with Strict Minimalism. Even his Dell laptop has had all games and diversions stripped right from the hard disk and the internet portal superglued shut. Kind of dramatic if you ask me, but Franzen has a flair for drama.
Other writers from the past were or are also famous recluses: Pynchon and Salinger and Harper Lee. Of course there are plenty who love the spotlight. But what I find so interesting about many of the loners is they are writing the most insightful, social-commentary fiction. It may seem a contradiction that people who cut themselves off from the world around them can still keep a finger on the pulse of their surroundings.
Then again, the mainstream media, to borrow a very popular phrase these days, seems so often to miss what’s going on. They give us lots of diversions that have little to do with the issues at hand, and at the end of each decade you tend to see that the Times and Newsweeks and network news shows missed the biggest, most gradual events that shaped us. They’re too busy chasing fads and talking to experts (I love a quote from, I believe, Linda Ellerbee: An expert is someone in your Rolodex) and big-headed people who tell everyone how important they are, to save us the trouble of having to figure it out for ourselves.
But what is it about blocking out the world—putting covers over the windows and throwing out the TV and blocking all media—that allows the writer to write with, apparently, more insight? Is it that all these things we’re supposed to be keeping in touch with to be Better Informed are actually doing exactly the opposite?
Come to think of it, that would explain a lot. After all, Shakespeare did pretty well with little more than a grade-school education.
Also interesting: Famous Reclusive Authors