(On Writers & Crimes of Creativity)
Authors are frequently criticized for their unsavory characters, as though a protagonist (or, more likely, antagonist) is a direct mirror of the author’s soul, and he or she should be held accountable. This morning, I was listening to Stephen King’s “On Writing”, as he spoke of a character who kicks a dog to death in The Dead Zone, and the frequent comments he receives from readers. How could you ever hurt a dog?, they cry. What’s wrong w/ you?
I immediately began to think of other authors who could be accused of “Crime-Of-Creativity”. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), though perhaps this one is too easy an offering. Other amazing works of fiction to deal with “icky” subject matter: The People In The Trees (Hanya Yanagihara), Swamplandia! (Karen Russell), or The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides). Even something as widely praised as Bird Box (Josh Malerman), and for this one, I’m referring to the book—not the sanitized movie version. Scenes like (spoilers) the dog ripping his own body apart in the bar, or that other pregnant chick hanging herself with her baby’s umbilical cord. The scenes in this book are seriously fucked up, and I can’t help but wonder if Josh received the same criticism as Mr. King, before he earned the Netflix All-Star Pass. I’m all in for Yep.
I’ll introduce you to one of my favorite books ever, All The Ugly And Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood. I first came upon it when Amazon recommended it, based on past book purchases. As always, I read the reviews first (though I implore you, weigh book reviews w/ a grain of salt and a headful of common sense. Most bad reviews come from simple readers who stumbled upon a complex book, nothing more). Here are a few direct quotes. “This book was so disgusting I feel compelled to warn people.” And, “I can’t believe Amazon is even willing to sell this.” One more: “Child Molestors are not heros” (sic). This book is about, at it most basic, a highly inappropriate connection between a young girl and a grown man. Okay, I’ll say it. It’s about a pedophile and his victim. It’s also one of the most tender, disturbing, uncomfortable, ugly, and yes, wonderful books I’ve ever read. This is not an easy book. Most of the world probably won’t get it, and that’s okay. It’s not for them. When I finished this one, I thought, how brave of the author to paint this very black and white issue into a messy puddle of gray. How brave of the editor who acquired it, the publisher who put their stamp on it. What I didn’t think was, this author is a pedophile.
No more than I thought, Stephen King beats his dog.
I can see where readers are coming from. It’s hard to understand that what springs from our brains is not us. It’s not how we live out our secret hopes and dreams (well, sometimes it is). For the most part, readers exist in the real world, with laws and expectations and a wide range of subjective opinions. Writers exist somewhere else. We don’t want to get into the mind of a downright sicko in order to tell a larger story. We have to. Unsavory characters can’t just be “bad”. Bad is boring. Bad would only garner another shitty review, highlighting a lack of well-rounded characters. If readers want to feel good all the time, they can devour nine million issues of Cosmo (that’s still around, right?). But if readers want to feel every emotion under the sun (even the challenging ones), they grab a novel. They become a murderer for a day (I wonder how many people have criticized the writers of Dexter…). They become the scoundrel, the dregs of society, the victim or the predator. They feel loss and pain and hope and tragedy and fear and insanity and ecstasy and violence. That’s the magic place where art begets life begets art, et al. So let it happen. Enjoy it. And then give a little thanks to the brave soul who brought it to life. Because it’s all pretend anyway. A safe thrill. No different than hopping on a roller coaster.
Consider Hollywood. Method actors, specifically. Name brand actors can certainly choose their roles. Shia LeBeouf mutilated his own body for Fury. Nicholas Cage actually ate a live cockroach for Vampire’s Kiss. Or Heath Ledger, who literally lost himself in his role in The Dark Knight. Non-method actors take on unsavory roles as well. Charlize Theron in Monster. Anthony Hopkins in Silence Of The Lambs.
I can’t imagine moviegoers assuming Nicholas Cage secretly dines on roaches in his own home, or that Charlize Theron longs to bang randos—and then slaughter them—in her spare time. We don’t criticize actors, or question who they are as people, when they take on such roles. We commend them for their instincts, their skills. And we celebrate their courageous choices.
Why is it different with authors? I think it’s because readers (and remember, all writers are readers, too), connect deeply and personally with books, characters, and the people who birthed them. I know I do. I have a handful of authors I consider to be my absolute favorites. I will forever read every single thing they publish. I’ve never looked these authors up, or furiously scrolled through their posts. I may not have even noticed their photos on the book jackets. I probably wouldn’t recognize any of them were they to bump into me at the grocery store later today. (Internet stalking, it seems, is just not my thing.) But show me a new hardcover release, with their names scrawled across the cover, and my skin goes warm and fuzzy. It feels like nostalgia. Like we once shared something special, the memory always at the forefront of my mind. While I’m a huge movie buff, the time spent watching a movie doesn’t allow the brain to connect fully and deeply with the person behind the story. You may certainly feel something when you watch a good movie, but then the credits roll and you’re just as quickly searching for the next one. Books are different. Books are immersive creatures. They become us. We become them. It is an absolute relationship.
Is that why folks with gentle ears are so appalled reading something “unpretty”? Do they need to place blame somewhere—on the author perhaps—for making them feel sullied and uncomfortable? Unlike a 1.5 hour movie, a story or character lives in the reader’s head now. They’ve breathed it, tasted it, felt it. And if it makes them uncomfortable, they’re suddenly an unwitting accomplice to something nasty, forced to either put the book down or muscle through.
But like a roller coaster, maybe feeling uncomfortable is okay. It’s a safe thrill. Let it happen. And then forgive the author, because authors are simply method actors in their own minds, throwing themselves into a role to bring a character to life. Life begets art, and all that….
At least we’re not eating cockroaches.