Have you ever told a lover insecure about their attractiveness, “You are beautiful,” or “You are sexy”? And then have them reply, “Yes, but you love me.”
I guess we are left with something like beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or at least we are aware that our love and our crushes can allow us to see all the wonderful while conveniently ignoring the troubling.
I have massive literary and artistic crushes, and as a result, I often have to come to terms with my rose-colored glasses. I was warned by a college professor (a wonderful, kind, and smart woman who introduced me to a feminist perspective) that I would someday think less of Ernest Hemingway, and of course, Hemingway gives me fits.
Actress famous for her teen roles, Molly Ringwald shares a really compelling and personal experience with confronting in the same way John Hughes:
I made three movies with John Hughes; when they were released, they made enough of a cultural impact to land me on the cover of Time magazine and to get Hughes hailed as a genius. His critical reputation has only grown since he died, in 2009, at the age of fifty-nine. Hughes’s films play constantly on television and are even taught in schools. There is still so much that I love in them, but lately I have felt the need to examine the role that these movies have played in our cultural life: where they came from, and what they might mean now.
As a high school English teacher, in fact, I was one of those who taught annually Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; it struck me as unusually smart about high school as well as a powerful example of craft (and I can say the same about the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona, which I also showed every year).
Ringwald eventually concludes:
If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight. Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time. I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones. I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took even longer for me to fully comprehend the scene late in “Sixteen Candles”…
It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.
I just completed a scholarly chapter on Marvel superhero Daredevil, including several sections on the influence of writer/artist Frank Miller. This is an excellent example of the essential problem confronted by Ringwald: How do we navigate the flawed artist and (often) his crumbling art?
Miller is a highly celebrated comic book creator who revolutionized Batman and Daredevil directly and thus superhero comics more broadly. Yet, Miller’s ideology and tendencies are quite disturbing at times.
As Sam Riedel unpacks in a review of the reissue of Hard Boiled, “Miller is working within the same misogynist trope that’s plagued genre fiction for decades: that women are all deceivers who use sex to manipulate men into doing what they want.”
Miller, like Hughes, benefits for the powerful shield of being white and male, which allows them to revel in the role of artist; its all about craft and not about substance (a deformed modernist argument).
Haruki Murakami: A Case Study in the Artist/Art Dilemma
A former student and early-career teacher is rereading Kafka on the Shore as a possible new text in her works in translation unit for International Baccalaureate (IB).
Murakami represents one of my more recent literary crushes, and I nudged her to his work while I was co-editing a volume on the world-famous Japanese writer.
We share a strong affection for Kafka on the Shore, among a couple others as the best of Murakami, but her rereading has both reinforced that affection and given her pause about, especially, Murakami’s flurries of sexism, a problem I touch on in a brief review of his short story collection, Men Without Women.
As I considered her concerns, I then had a near out-of-body experience as I listened to myself wrestle with a reply.
Murakami, I explained, is of a generation and a culture that could help explain (but not excuse) that his works often portray women and attitudes toward women that are accurate for that time and place. I then noted Murakami presents a layered problem since his literary background seems to rest on problematic men writers, many of whom personify a macho literary tradition: J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Murakami often identifies).
After the Second World War, novels like “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Call of the Wild,” and “Moby-Dick” entranced Japanese readers yearning for a future of heroism, naturalism, and reason in the wake of the chaotic militarism and destruction they’d endured. Instruction was still a part of the appeal, but heroism and identity moved to the forefront. The transformation to a more purely literary engagement with American fiction, with readers appreciating and actually enjoying American prose over what it could teach them, occurred in 1975. That’s when Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan were translated into Japanese and introduced a sense of humor, absurdity, and social criticism voiced in vernacular prose.
Murakami, the case can be made, embodies a sort of literary tradition found in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, a work written intentionally to mimic Hemingway’s style but also includes some of the same gender and sexism problems found in Hemingway’s work.
Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World seems to nod pretty hard toward these stylistic (hard-boiled) influences, but that sort of excuse wears thin, I think.
Several degrees further away, I have also been wrestling, like Ringwald, with Blade Runner and the many decades later sequel Blade Runner 2049; just as I tried to explain about Murakami, these films may be describing elements of sexism and misogyny without endorsing them.
But how do we know, and what do we do?
I imagine there is a line, maybe not black and white but fairly wide and gray. Some artists and their art are rightfully at last beyond excuse; those we dismiss, maybe with due fanfare.
Some are allowed a new life, one that is about tempering the praise, balancing it against the flaws.
But always, I think, we must keep this powerful observation from Lindsay Lynch on Salinger: “It turns out sad women don’t get to be asshole geniuses.”
Flawed men artists and their crumbling art remind us that we have excused and still do excuse men (often mediocre) almost anything while simultaneously discounting women and people of color for any transgression.
Maybe there is an unintended lesson to these flawed men and their flawed works that can lead us to a better way that allows them some limited space as we make room for those too long ignored and even silenced.