Are We Not All the Child Memoirists of Writers?

by Corey Robin on July 22, 2013

Writing in last week’s New Yorker about the memoirs of children of famous writers, James Wood raises a question that has been asked before: “Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?”

As Wood points out, George Steiner entertained a similar proposition some 20 years ago, also in The New Yorker. (Steiner had been moved to this suspicion by the prod of Louis Althusser’s strangling of his wife. Of course. It wouldn’t be Steinerian if weren’t just a touch Wagnerian.) And Cynthia Ozick wrestled with it in the 1970s or maybe early 80s in a pair of reviews: one of Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf, the other of R.W.B. Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton.

In Wood’s and Ozick’s case—I don’t have access to Steiner’s piece, so I don’t know—the supposition is the same: the writer lives her life in her work. Her external life—the parties she attends, children she raises, drinks she downs, meals she arranges, bills she pays—is not her real life. It is a shadow of the inner flame that lights every page, every sentence, of her work.

For Ozick and Wood, this is true whether the writer is a woman or a man. It’s also true whether the writer about the writer—Wood considers the children of Saul Bellow, William Styron, John Cheever, and Bernard Malamud—is a woman or a man.

Interestingly, Wood and Ozick find the male progeny of these writers to be less successful memoirists of their parents (or, in Bell’s case, aunt) than the female progeny. Alexandra Styron, Susan Cheever, and Janna Malamud Smith seem to understand and accept what Greg Bellow and Quentin Bell miss or refuse to come to terms with: that their fathers’ and aunts’ most sacred cause was the word, that their first true love was for the work they were creating. (Ozick remarks that Wharton’s most passionate affair occurred in bed: not because of the love she made there but because that was where she composed The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.)

The successful memoirist needs to grant the writer the holy mystery of his interiority, says Wood, to “bestow” on her subject his “independence.” The only trace of the writer’s self that the memoirist, like the biographer, will ever find is in the writing.

Saul Bellow’s most private self was expressed in writing, not in paternity. For any serious writer, the private self is the writing self. That closed study door, which Greg Bellow imagines as a symbolic frontier between “writing” and “living,” was no such thing; for Saul Bellow, the writing was the living. And to write means turning privacy outward. Writing fiction is a kind of publicized privacy; you feel, in the greatest novels, the ghost of the author’s soul rustle into life.


Let’s set aside the question of gender (it strikes me as perhaps not coincidental that it is women rather than men who are able to know these truths, if they are indeed truths, about their fathers). Let’s also set aside the question of whether or not this claim about the writer’s life is even true.

What strikes me in reading these pieces is that they are less about the children (or nephews) of writers than they are about children as such. Do we not, all of us, have to come to terms with the mystery of our parents, to acknowledge that their inner life is neither exhausted nor consumed by the life we know, by the care and devotion they bestow or don’t bestow upon us? That their real life may be the life they lead elsewhere, which may also be on a page, whether a diary, a letter, a legal brief, a memo? Are not all of our parents mysterious writers, composing their poems behind closed doors? And do we not, all of us, have to bestow that independence upon them if we are to have our own?

That, at some level, is the basic conceit of Mad Men, as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in a much noticed review from two years back:

It’s only when you realize that the most important “eye”—and “I”—in Mad Men belong to the watchful if often uncomprehending children, rather than to the badly behaved and often caricatured adults, that the show’s special appeal comes into focus. In the same Times article, [Mad Men creator Matthew] Weiner tried to describe the impulses that lay at the core of his creation, acknowledging that


part of the show is trying to figure out—this sounds really ineloquent—trying to figure out what is the deal with my parents. Am I them? Because you know you are…. The truth is it’s such a trope to sit around and bash your parents. I don’t want it to be like that. They are my inspiration, let’s not pretend.



This, more than anything, explains why the greatest part of the audience for Mad Men is made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts—people who were in their twenties and thirties and forties in the 1960s, and are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties—but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today, which is to say of an age with those characters’ children. The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.


Hence both the show’s serious failings and its strong appeal. If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then. As for the appeal: Who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight? And who, after having that privileged view, would want to dismiss the lives they led and world they inhabited as trivial—as passing fads, moments of madness? Who would still want to bash them, instead of telling them that we know they were bad but that now we forgive them?


The only amendment I would add to Mendelsohn’s analysis is that the life of her father that little Sally Draper is not privy to is not only to be found in Don’s serial affairs or his mysterious upbringing. It may also be found—perhaps even most fully—in those brilliant ad campaigns he crafts, in those heartbreaking speeches about the “carousel” that he makes to the executives of Kodak, in those brilliant little edits he performs on Peggy’s prose.

When it comes to our parents, are we not, all of us, to varying degrees of success, the memoirists of writers?

Update (12:30 pm)

On a related note, this, from Laura Tanenbaum, is worth reading:

I love things like this, pieces of diaries, pieces of other lives. When I’m on the subway and I see someone writing in a Moleskin, I have to stop myself from looking over their shoulders. In that moment of writing, squeezing in a few lines before school or work, it seems everything they had to say would be of the utmost fascination. When you see something like this, one little fragment for a day of grief, you think of the hours squeezed into that sentence. At one point, he says “I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it- or without being sure of not doing so – although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.”



Of course, it’s even harder for the mothers to tell their stories. Back in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf goes through the names and says, the thing these women all have in common is that they are not mothers. More now can find some insufficient solution to the need for time and solitude, but the ethics of saying what they know remain vexed. A friend told me recently of finding the diary of a great-grandmother, who described not only her desperate unhappiness, but contained detailed portraits of her husband and children in meticulous and unflattering detail. I asked her what she did with it and she said, I got rid of it, of course. There is the responsibility, there are feelings, also. But there is also the urge to record, always equal parts hope and despair.


 

{ 83 comments }

1

MG 07.22.13 at 6:41 pm

I found Wood’s review to be very bizarre. At first, I thought it would be a review of many children of authors and I hoped for the inclusion of Mark Vonnegut’s incredibly generous book “Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So”. Or Martin Amis writing about is father. Or Rebecca Walker on Alice Walker. And so on.

Instead, the oddly mean-spirited and petty review seemed to mainly consist of Wood’s writing about how Saul Bellow’s son did not appreciate his father’s so-called greatness as an author. It’s almost as if Wood’s hoped to prove he was the “real” son of Bellow and tries to show this by castigating the ingrate.

2

ben wolfson 07.22.13 at 7:00 pm

This paragraph of Corey’s:

What strikes me in reading these pieces is that they are less about the children (or nephews) of writers than they are about children as such. Do we not, all of us, have to come to terms with the mystery of our parents, to acknowledge that their inner life is neither exhausted nor consumed by the life we know, by the care and devotion they bestow or don’t bestow upon us?

strikes me as truer and more insightful than any of the quotations from Woods (I admit I haven’t read the review), which I can’t help but take, ungenerously, as an expression of mildly dippy romantic pieties about writers and True Selves and whatnot.

3

Tom Slee 07.22.13 at 7:13 pm

Of course, James Woods’ children are also the children of famous author Claire Messud.

4

pedant 07.22.13 at 7:26 pm

“to acknowledge that their inner life is neither exhausted nor consumed by the life we know, by the care and devotion they bestow or don’t bestow upon us?”

Well, actually I have it on good authority that everything my parents had was exhausted by the care they bestowed on us. Their time, their resources, their energies, their finances, their ambitions, everything. The exhaustion of their inner lives was simply a trivial consequence of their universal exhaustion.

5

Adam Roberts 07.22.13 at 7:32 pm

I was very struck by the passages quoted from Mendelsohn’s reading of Mad Men, first with a kind of delighted recognition (‘If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children’), and then, quite quickly, with a contrary mental reaction: a ‘wait a sec’. Because, on reflection, I’m not actually sure it is right. The show’s main focus is on two areas of adult life — the day-to-day of the workplace, and the crepuscular world of sex and illicit grapplings and so on — that matter greatly to the adults living those lives (as to adults today), but are precisely what kids don’t see when they look at their parents. My kids know I work; but I’m really not sure they have any very definite sense what it is I do, and the minutiae of pitching up at the office at x oclock, having y meetings and clocking off at z would bore them rigid, even if they were aware of it. I think it’s two things: one that kids peer groups have a much larger impact upon their development than their parents, something Mad Men as a show is very poor on (do any of these kids in the show even have friends?); and, two, that the windows of parent-child interactive opportunity (the bedtime routine, say) are exactly what these boozy bad parents miss out on performing.

I think Mendelsohn’s reading initially delighted me because it seemed to offer a reason for loving the show, which I do, even if I’m not sure why I love it so much. But on reflection I’m not sire that reason actually stacks up.

6

PatrickinIowa 07.22.13 at 9:23 pm

So many of the writers in question wrote about their parents in way that lends weight to Corey’s relocation of the issue to childhood itself–think Lawrence and Joyce and Plath and on and on. Even Munro and Atwood, for us Canadians.

It’s Hemingway’s birthday, btw, and I thought of all the stories he wrote about the physician whose world mystifies his son.

7

Rmj 07.22.13 at 9:35 pm

The successful memoirist needs to grant the writer the holy mystery of his interiority, says Wood, to “bestow” on her subject his “independence.” The only trace of the writer’s self that the memoirist, like the biographer, will ever find is in the writing.

I haven’t read the review either, but this strikes me as a very silly idea. What independence does a memoirist bestow on any subject? And isn’t the point of a memoir (v. biography) to be a personal recounting of essentially biographical
material? Is writing a memoir, then, a kind of maturation process, a development of a self independent of the parent(s), a process of self-actualization (if we want to truly return to Romantic roots)?

I’m not sure I see much validity in that.

And to bounce like the bug on the hot griddle:

This, more than anything, explains why the greatest part of the audience for Mad Men is made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts—people who were in their twenties and thirties and forties in the 1960s, and are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties—but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today, which is to say of an age with those characters’ children.

Or is it just nostalgia? The memory of the time when everybody smoked, and kitchens had knotty pine, and Uncle Walter was on the TeeVee in black and white, and remotes (if you had them) clicked, and telephones were black, heavy, and had rotary dials?

And Cadillacs were land-yachts.

I know I like the show for its characters. I also know I like the show because, while I didn’t grow up in New York, I still grew up in that world. It’s nice to revisit it for an hour or so a few weeks a year; even if I’m glad I don’t live there. And I don’t know if the characters are inexplicable because they are seen through the eyes of children (who, then, is the narrator, I want to ask), or is it because to contemporary sensibilities, even 50 years ago is now an age as strange in social practice as a foreign country?

When I try to explain something as simple as the concept of segregation to my daughter, she looks at me as if I’m mad; or from another planet. I sometimes think we underestimate the gulf between us and America 50 years ago.

8

Bruce Baugh 07.22.13 at 9:42 pm

It’s not like I sit around expecting this, but I’d be so glad if I never read a new claim about how writing (or any other art) is a sacred chore exempting the creator from the rest of life. It’s a thing people do, and exactly like everything else people do, it competes for finite time and attention and potentially unbounded opportunities and obligations. That’s it. If there is anything numinous in the making of art, it’s nothing more than in raising a child who is confident in the face of bullying, or keeping a spouse feeling loved despite woes and fears from the surrounding world, or helping a friend find a way through the labyrinth of depression to treatment and relief. Children whose parents are busy writing, composing, or whatever are not witnesses to scenes holier than those whose parents are working third-shift pick-up jobs because it’s all that available, or off in the armed forces, or in jail. They are, like so many others, participants in scenes where the adults need to balance the exercise of something they’re good at and find rewarding with the rest of life.

9

Clay Shirky 07.22.13 at 10:02 pm

Like Mad Men-era men and Playboy, I mostly read Crooked Timber for the articles, but every now and again a comment seems so on point that the original post suddenly seems incomplete without the reaction it engendered, and Bruce Baugh did that for me just now.

“I’d be so glad if I never read a new claim about how writing (or any other art) is a sacred chore exempting the creator from the rest of life. It’s a thing people do, and exactly like everything else people do, it competes for finite time and attention and potentially unbounded opportunities and obligations. That’s it.”

This, as the kids on the internet say.

10

PatrickinIowa 07.22.13 at 10:17 pm

What Clay said.

11

PGD 07.22.13 at 10:31 pm

The hero worship of Saul Bellow by Woods and some other writers (like Martin Amis) always seemed excessive to me. Bellow always seemed like a dick in his personal life, and frankly some of that comes through in his writing as well, which is also highly self-absorbed. He’s a good stylist but can’t hold a candle to e.g. Nabokov. The cult of the novel seems rather dated today; how many novelists can honestly live up to it? Bellows artist-in-the-brawling-city-of-broad-shoulders act seems like a bit of a shtick now.

12

Substance McGravitas 07.22.13 at 10:35 pm

He’s a good stylist but can’t hold a candle to e.g. Nabokov.

High bar there.

13

pedant 07.22.13 at 10:37 pm

Agree with Bruce Baugh (and those who agreed with him).

The cult of the creative genius seems very second-hand Nietzschean to me. The prose may be more competent, but the values, the narcissism, and the self-deception are pure Ayn Rand.

14

novakant 07.22.13 at 10:42 pm

Children whose parents are busy writing, composing, or whatever are not witnesses to scenes holier than those whose parents are working third-shift pick-up jobs because it’s all that available, or off in the armed forces, or in jail.

None of the examples you list require creativity which is the distinguishing factor here, nothing holy about it, but artistic creation tends to engender a devotion and single-mindedness that sets it apart from most other jobs – the whole process is slightly insane and so are many of those who chose to go through it again and again.

15

Trader Joe 07.22.13 at 11:11 pm

“I’d be so glad if I never read a new claim about how writing (or any other art) is a sacred chore exempting the creator from the rest of life. It’s a thing people do, and exactly like everything else people do, it competes for finite time and attention and potentially unbounded opportunities and obligations. That’s it.”

When a parent (or even a non-parent) does something – not just writing – at an exceptionally high level it doesn’t exempt them from the rest of their life, it tends to become the rest of their life.

Authors and those persuing creative endeavors are often given accolades for it because society likes to reward these creative traits, but it extends to other walks of life as well. We see it among entertainers and professional athletes as well. Exceptional doctors, lawyers, bond traders and real estate developers also consume enormous amounts of energy pursuing their craft to where it does leave in its wake stressed family relationships among other choices.

Putting these lives on a pedestal may or may not be worthy of interest – I agree with the thought that most of these books are a waste of time. That said the likelihood that the children of exceptionally talented adults lived anything that resembles the “normal” childhood of a third-shift card puncher is unlikely and why publishers find these books worthwhile and why the curious buy them despite their thin literary value.

16

Bruce Baugh 07.22.13 at 11:14 pm

Novakant, that’s a good objection. I should compare it to gardening, playing in a garage band, leading an MMO raiding guild, and practicing an unusually restrictive sexual fetish.

17

novakant 07.22.13 at 11:29 pm

Maybe you misunderstood me, I was talking about art – or you’re just a philistine.

18

Substance McGravitas 07.22.13 at 11:46 pm

Maybe you misunderstood me, I was talking about art – or you’re just a philistine.

You still haven’t distinguished the mania required for the artistic process from the all-consuming need to sell used cars.

19

Bruce Baugh 07.23.13 at 12:03 am

Novakant: As Substance McG says. I actually have a tremendous amount of respect for writing, and not just because it’s what I do myself when health allows. But the thing is, I also have respect for a lot of other things people do, and am aware that none of us can do all of them, and do not feel that anything about art makes it so obviously superior that it should of course take first place whenever there’s a conflict. People set aside their art, voluntarily, when it conflicts with other obligations and opportunities, just as they do with crafts, hobbies, friendships, and all kinds of other stuff. The people around a great artist, or someone who fancies being a great artist, or wishes to be a great artist, aren’t obliged to grin and bear it just when their needs go neglected because the artist chooses art over family commitments, being a useful neighbor, a supportive friend, an the like – it’s a ongoing series of assessments and judgments to make based on the merits of each case.

Art is not a pass out of the obligations that befall us all. That’s the tl,dr version.

20

Bruce Baugh 07.23.13 at 12:05 am

Footnote: Some artists manage to be good or great artists and also good or great at the rest of life. It can happen! So it’s appropriate to ask why it doesn’t, and look at the ways art provides an excuse for other bad decisions.

21

pedant 07.23.13 at 12:07 am

Ah, yes, “philistine”. For the creativity-cultists, it’s the equivalent of “moochers and looters.”

22

ben wolfson 07.23.13 at 12:59 am

“None of the examples you list require creativity which is the distinguishing factor here, nothing holy about it, but artistic creation tends to engender a devotion and single-mindedness that sets it apart from most other jobs – the whole process is slightly insane and so are many of those who chose to go through it again and again.”

That’s irrelevant to Baugh’s point and to the claim Woods makes. Woods’ claim that Bellows’ real life was there doesn’t entail that he was “slightly insane” or single-minded or anything like that (and there are certainly authors who aren’t single-minded about their art in a slightly insane way—good ones, at that!). It does, however, have a distinct air of excuse-making about it.

23

floopmeister 07.23.13 at 1:02 am

Don’t forget the need to actually, you know, pay the bills. Presumably Bellow (don’t know anything of his life story) was in that privileged position of being able to support his family and his lifestyle through his writing.

Creative endeavour or selling cars – they are both activities to which adults can direct an inordinate amount of their time and energy, often to the detriment of their family relationships. In both cases, there is a level of social approval which makes such life choices possible – whether ‘bread winning’ or ‘the higher calling of Art’. For the lucky few it’s both.

God knows I’d have written my fitst and only novel a hell of a lot faster (and I would have been able to bury myself in it to the exclusion of mundane affairs like earning a wage or picking my kids up from school) if I was being paid a working wage to do so.

I would also have felt justified telling my partner that ‘No, I can’t take X to school this morning because I’m writing’…

How do I know this? Because I’m writing my PhD on scholarship and that’s in fact what I now do – I can feel justified doing so given that this writing endeavour is recognised (both by me and my partner) as putting food on the table.

Creativity is one of the great joys of life – but unless you’re the single writer starving in their garret for the sake of their Art, or the best selling writer worried about their tax bill while flipping through brochures for houses in the Cayman Islands, your writing is always constrained by the need to earn money. Period.

24

PJW 07.23.13 at 1:06 am

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue regarding Cormac McCarthy for years. I don’t think it will ever be resolved for me.

25

Main Street Muse 07.23.13 at 1:40 am

I think we are all children of parents who have things other than us in their lives. And that – to many children – is some kind of shock.

I once read an interview with Toni Morrison who remembered a moment when she was a new mother holding her baby and writing. The baby spit up on her paper, so she wrote around the puke.

Jack Welch (former GE CEO) is quite open about how there is no work-life balance. There are only choices, and consequences of those choices. He’s open about how he chose GE over his family (not in so many words, but acknowledges he was not around much.) Work is essential, but work is also used by many as an excuse to avoid family responsibility. It’s a choice.

And how many wives did Bellow have? Five or something like that? Hardly a paragon of family values.

One of my favorite Hemingway stories is “Fathers and Sons.”

26

George de Verges 07.23.13 at 2:19 am

Another marker on Bruce Baugh’s insight. I read the article by James Wood and thought it odd, full of admiration for the least admirable traits of Bellow. When I read Bellow’s works, I am full of admiration for the work, without any illusions about Bellow the person. My father, a lifelong baseball fan, (excuse the sports analogy) always said it was best not to know anything about the center fielder, only that he gracefully glided under the ball and reached up for it with grace. Bellow reached out for the narrative moments that provide novels with the reason for their existence, grace to be admired because it couldn’t be replicated. Possessing that grace did not excuse a life of pettiness or selfishness in the center fielder, or the novelist.

27

b9n10nt 07.23.13 at 2:28 am

Bruce Baugh @ 8:

I’d be so glad if I never read a new claim about how writing (or any other art) is a sacred chore exempting the creator from the rest of life.

I take solace in imagining an intrinsic psychic justice: To be estranged from your spouse and children is real suffering. No amount of outward praise for your excellence will nourish you the way that intimacy with another live human being can. So let the art world pundits write what they will, it’s quite irrelevant to what’s happening anywhere life is being lived.

On the other hand, if the nobility of the emotionally distant artist is a cliche, it must have become so in reaction to an equally superficial formula: honor is granted to those who stoically deny themselves for the sake of their family and children. How often has the cult of familial self-denial been used as a mask to hide our timid settling. As parents we teach by our example. If we are denying ourselves, we teach our children to do the same.

I conclude that the most dangerous route is to unconsciously act out the uninspired rules that make up social convention, whatever form it’s taking today. I’d like to know from those of you who’ve read the memoirs from the children of great artists: do not these people appear to have imbibed from their parents a spirit of independence that will guard them against a life of soulless imitation? Is this not also evidence of an intrinsic justice presiding over our inner lives?

28

js. 07.23.13 at 2:34 am

Bruce Baugh (@8) is completely right of course, but that can’t negate the fact that there is this very prevalent idea that art is a “calling” a “(secular version of a) vocation”, etc. etc., and gardening and plumbing are most certainly not!. I’m hardly endorsing this, because as far as I’m concerned, a blight on the Romantics and (almost?) everything they brought in their train.* In any case, the point is that it’s prevalent enough that it’s no surprise at all that the Romantic conception of Teh Artist would end up infecting the self-consciousness and self-conception of creative writers (using the term in the technical sense), and by extension the people who spend their lives studying them—the Woods of the world, so to speak. It would be a surprise if they weren’t affected, or infected. Again, without at all defending the mindset, I think that people who practice this kind of work think of themselves and what they’re doing in a different enough way from someone who fixes bulbs (in either meaning), and their reasons for doing so go deep enough, that pointing out that ultimately there’s no greater intrinsic value to this kind of production, while absolutely true, is I think also besides the point.

I guess my tl;dr would be: Art can after all pass us out of obligations if everyone believes and acts as if it can—at least in one sense it can.

*Okay, that is way too strong—the progeny of the Romantics contains multitudes after all.

29

Bruce Baugh 07.23.13 at 2:37 am

Latchkey children the world over develop a spirit of independence, too, but somehow we don’t end up praising routine overwork as a sacred calling. Neglect – or being forced not to be able to provide – is not innately admirable.

30

floopmeister 07.23.13 at 2:49 am

Just this minute finished reading a piece by Montuori in the most recent issue of ‘World Futures’ in which he states:

“In 1995 my colleague Ron Purser and I wrote an article with the youthfully
pretentious title “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth: Towards a Contextual
View of Creativity” (Montuori and Purser 1995). We argued that the emphasis in
creativity research had been almost exclusively on individuals, and that there was
almost no research on creative relationships, groups, organizations, the relational
dimensions of creativity, the historical and social factors involved, and so on.
Even the most isolated genius, we argued, was participating in a discourse, using
language, tools, ideas, and was grappling with issues that had been raised by other
researchers. Every individual operates in a society, with a history, and so on. We
thought we had bent over backwards to explain that we did not propose a “zeitgeist”
view, or a collectivist view that rejected the individual. We wanted to expand the
scope of the inquiry and bring these views in dialogue, stressing that both had
valuable contributions to make to a broader (more contextual) understanding of
creativity. We also wanted to propose an open system view of creativity, rather
than the existing closed system view, in which the individual was not influenced by
his or her environment. Nevertheless, psychologists immediately critiqued us as
being sociologists who wanted to deny the importance of the individual. Initially
baffled by this response, I realized that the larger “cognitive context” had created
two opposing views that did not allow attempts at reconciliation. It was either
individual genius or social forces.”

Seemed somewhat relevant to the topic – apologies for the large quote.

31

b9n10nt 07.23.13 at 2:58 am

How much does it matter to anyone what we end up praising?

If the cult of Teh Artist is serving as an excuse to avoid family obligations, at least we know there’s a person all ready looking for excuses. How many Picasso’s were going to raise children but for the literature of Wagnerian Romanticism?

32

js. 07.23.13 at 3:07 am

If the cult of Teh Artist is serving as an excuse to avoid family obligations, at least we know there’s a person all ready looking for excuses.

My point was the opposite of this, more or less. It’s not really anything like “looking for an excuse” (tho of course in some individual cases it might me); it’s like a particularly virulent version of the true believer phenomenon, and the object of belief is yourself and your own work, and the reasons for the belief have themselves been entrenched over a couple of centuries. That’s why I said that while I think BB’s points were quite true they might be a bit besides the point.

33

Bruce Baugh 07.23.13 at 4:38 am

Floopmeister, that sounds cool! Thanks for the tip.

34

bad Jim 07.23.13 at 9:20 am

There probably aren’t too many kids writing books about having a normal, uneventful childhood with boringly average parents, which is not to say such an experience is rare. It might even be the case that each happy family is happy in its own way, and thus not very interesting.

I don’t know anyone of whom that might be true. I worked alongside my father for many years, we were joint inventors on a couple of patents, and all that time he spent half his nights at work with his girlfriend, which led to some difficulties at home. After he died, my colleagues insisted that he was a saint, and my family thanked God he was dead.

If half of all marriages end in divorce, normality is a mess. Perhaps happy and unhappy families are more alike than not. Whether creative parents are distinctive outliers is not necessarily obvious.

35

Phil 07.23.13 at 9:20 am

Are not all of our parents mysterious writers, composing their poems behind closed doors?

Or in the case of my parents, having a massive row once a week (before Sunday lunch). One of my sisters said, years later, that she’d always assumed they were having sex.

I think there is a psychological truth in getting a certain kind of distance from your parents, seeing the all-denying Nurse Ratched or the fulminating ogre as adults (mostly well-meaning, sometimes grudgeful, sometimes tired) who were just trying to make their way through a world full of kids. Absence and denial aren’t inherently neglectful, and can be productive (think of Winnicott’s “good-enough” parent). On the other hand, neglect and abuse are real experiences, and if you’ve experienced them you know it. It can have been “their stuff” and still have been bad stuff for me. And even writing the Great American Novel is somebody’s “stuff” – at least, it is if they let it get in the way of the people around them.

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Ronan(rf) 07.23.13 at 9:31 am

“There probably aren’t too many kids writing books about having a normal, uneventful childhood with boringly average parents”

Reminds me of Sarah Gellner’s letter to the LRB about her father

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n16/letters

Im not sure he (or a lot others like him) were much more than boringly average, in a lot of ways. I don’t personally see the mystery

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Louis Lemire 07.23.13 at 12:37 pm

Stamina, intellectual curiosity, imagination and non-disturbance seems to be driving forces displayed by those who are genius. An old saying…

A true artist will allow his family to starve.

…argues this. Good genetics I suppose plays a role as well. It’s all about balance and how you attain it – time to rest, and time to be productive. Perhaps discovery is the driving force intellectually. At any rate, glad there are people out there who are driven by compassion.

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JG 07.23.13 at 12:58 pm

Two thoughts. Others may deflate this, but it seems to me that there have been several great (not good) modern writers with strong family lives etc.: Joyce, Nabokov, Wallace Stevens. Could the great be better than the good (exception: Proust). Also, for those of us of a certain age, our total lack of interest in our parents’ daily lives was matched, if not exceeded, by our parents’ total lack of interest in our daily lives.

JG

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Ray Davis 07.23.13 at 1:05 pm

The most satisfying thing I’ve heard about writing-with-children pivoted on a similar point.

It was during a Readercon panel about writers whose publication history includes at least one very long gap. Single parent Samuel R. Delany movingly described his little girl walking up to him while he was immersed at the typewriter and pleading, “Please don’t write, daddy. Please don’t write.” “And,” he said, “when you hear your child say something like that…”

After a reverent pause, Judith Merril said, “But Chip. What if she had said ‘I need the car keys, daddy. Daddy, I need to drive the car’?”

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novakant 07.23.13 at 9:58 pm

Honestly, who cares if Mozart was a bad husband, Beethoven a curmudgeon, or Goethe a womanizer – the handful of people they might have made unhappy are outweighed a million times by those they inspired. A world filled with Ned Flanders clones might be a better one, but it would also be quite unbearable – I think people should take the title of this blog a bit more seriously.

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CarlD 07.24.13 at 4:24 pm

As much as I loved it, I don’t feel like the Baugh Deflation quite got the issues and dynamics right. It may well be that we are all capable of great creation, and it certainly is that the little creations of everyday adjustment and adaptation are amazing things. But as Gramsci said, even if we’re all intellectuals we do not all function as such in the division of labor.

It’s not just elitism that tiers academic work toward different productivity expectations. If you want introverts to expend the creative energy it takes to get human relations right over a 4/4 teaching load, collective evolutionary wisdom says you can’t expect much scholarship from them too. And vice versa. And of course it helps to have staff taking care of the essential para-professional functions.

My wife is an artist. Her art involves creating imaginary worlds, for which the reasonable standard is ‘comprehensive’. To do that she gets into ‘art head’, which is a kind of totally absorbed zen flow. ‘Self’-absorbed? Hm. She’s actually great at human interaction and responsible contribution to the mundane facts of responsible adulthood. But that’s not art-head, and getting back to it after it’s interrupted is not like flicking a switch. You could see why this kind of critter tasked this way might develop a repulsion field. There’s a reason zen works better in segregated settings devoted to it. Being in the moment with total focus is a great ideal for everything, but doesn’t have a good history of spontaneous generation from the bustle of ordinary life.

Most of the functions of everyday life are highly automated. Jobs and interactions are routinized for reliable interarticulation. Drop the work, pick it up. If you’re trying to work outside of the conventions, or against them, it’s at least plausible that the gears would grind a bit when you try to shift between the modes. Moreso if, like most introverts, you don’t ritualize well. This is the pragmatic fact the solitary genius ideology seems to me to be one (irritating and false) way of making space for. But anyway no, it’s not a sacred chore, and no, it’s not exactly like all the other things we do.

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Bruce Baugh 07.24.13 at 5:57 pm

CarlD, I’ve got four novels published, and a lot of other writing. I’m familiar with the state where the work sets up camp in your head and demand attention. The thing is, there’s a lot of other craft work that can do very similar things, starting with cooking and sewing, that almost never gets any kind of comparable exaltation. It’s not that I think the making of art is trivial, so much as that I think there’s value in a lot of the rest of life, including comparable rewards and attached difficult trade-offs.

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Alex 07.24.13 at 6:02 pm

I recall J.G. Ballard, a single father, was very, very scathing about Cyril Connolly’s pram-in-the-hall. The text is in User’s Guide to the Millenium.

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bianca steele 07.24.13 at 6:44 pm

I’m pretty sure this post is just trollbait to get me to complain that hardly anybody commenting on this thread seems to have read the piece (or a novel by Saul Bellow).

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Rmj 07.24.13 at 7:40 pm

I dunno. Do I need to read the piece to question whether “devotion” to “thought, or music, or art or literature” is “sacred”? Or can I just say it’s Romantic clap-trap and leave it at that?

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bianca steele 07.24.13 at 8:04 pm

Maybe you don’t need to read the piece to see that (1) no one says Bellow was a bad parent because he was an “artist,” but because he was by his own account a selfish S.O.B. who divorced four times, had three sons by different mothers (whom he parented reasonably affectionately, if distantly, from what I can tell from this review), and wrote about his friends, relatives and ex-wives in unflattering and identifiable ways, while claiming the problem was that he was misunderstood on account of being an artist, (2) it’s a very different thing to be parented badly by Saul Bellow and to be parented badly by William Styron (or John Cheever), (3) it’s not at all obvious that Malamud’s daughter says anything really bad about him, and (4) at least one of the memoirists does complain simply that when her father was working in or around the house, he didn’t like to be bothered. Also that Bellow would seem to be James Wood’s favorite novelist since Flaubert (@1 is about right on that point, I think), and couldn’t be expected to like anything diverging from the most flattering portrait possible.

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Substance McGravitas 07.24.13 at 8:30 pm

Are (1) through (4) related to the original post? If so, how?

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bianca steele 07.24.13 at 8:31 pm

Also that Wood has a point that it’s somewhat peculiar for the family of a best-selling celebrity artist to believe they should be trying to quash publicity about them because publicity and interest from fans is an invasion of their privacy, and that it’s odd to define writing about books and authors as celebrity gossip.

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bianca steele 07.24.13 at 8:59 pm

Are (1) through (4) related to the original post?

Yes. Why do you ask?

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CarlD 07.24.13 at 9:36 pm

Quite right, b.s.. Fwiw I haven’t read the piece, I have read Bellow, and I was content to lurk here in a state of mild, uninvested entertainment until Bruce made me spit out my briar pipe and startle forward from my armchair, fortunately without spilling a drop of single malt from its crystal tumbler. Of course the servants would have taken care of it, but should CarlD Jr-Leroy have happened upon me in such a state whilst reentering from polo practice, an unhealthy impression might well have been created.

Bruce, as much as possible I’m trying to distinguish rather than judge. There are lots of things to like about tv dinners, Joy of Cooking potroasts, and original dishes imagined on the spot from available ingredients. But it would be silly to flatten all of that as ‘creative effort’, right, or say to all three ‘you have ten minutes – go’. So I don’t think ‘it’s all good’ gets very far as a critique of the status privilege of art.

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Substance McGravitas 07.24.13 at 9:57 pm

So I don’t think ‘it’s all good’ gets very far as a critique of the status privilege of art.

It can if we recognize that most artists – nobody I know of course – are not working on art of worth.

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novakant 07.24.13 at 10:30 pm

I confess to not having read the piece, but I read “Augie March”, “Seize the Day” which I would both recommend highly (especially the latter – it’s short too) and the one about the professor of botany, which wasn’t bad either. As I said, I don’t care about his personal life.

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Bruce Baugh 07.25.13 at 12:14 am

CarlD, the fact that you’re writing about cooking in those terms sort of makes my point for me. There’s a lot more to cooking possible than that, and in fact I know a fair number of people who do a lot more than that on a routine basis when they cook. (Heck, just check out the serious side of Kevin and Ursula’s discussion of real food and the fixing thereof on the hilarious Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap podcast.) The same is true for a lot of other crafts, as John Kovalic illustrated quite well in an episode of his comic strip. These things become, so far as I can tell, not qualitatively different from writing and other fine arts in terms of competing for attention and time with the rest of life, and yet darned seldom are they held up as sacred.

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James Wood 07.25.13 at 3:14 am

James Wood

As the author of the article in question, might I just add a few comments? First, that Corey Robin says something very wise and acute (which I wish I had expressed so eloquently in my piece): that it is difficult for all of us, whether the children of famous writers or of accountants and dentists and schoolteachers, to acknowledge that our parents have consuming and rich inner lives that – as Robin nicely puts it – are not exhausted by us. Thank you for framing the issue so well. I suppose I was getting at this when I praised the memoirs by Alexandra Styron, Janna Malamud Smith, and Susan Cheever, for the psychically healthy way in which those children “grant” their parents their independence. To let one’s parents go, in this way, seems crucial: it also lets the child go too, lets the child grow up. (This filial independence is also an obvious strength of Martin Amis’s memoir, a book – contrary to the assertion of one of the commenters – I did indeed mention in my piece.)
When the child of a writer grants this kind of independence to her literary parent, a large part of that bestowal is obviously involved in understanding what it means to have a parent who is occupied day to day AS a writer – where “writer” means “someone who goes away into a study all day and lives very intensely in another, private realm. A private realm which is then made indiscriminately public when said parent publishes the book.” I don’t suggest that this would be an easy thing to have to learn or accommodate, and I’m very glad that I don’t have writer parents. But what was dismaying about Greg Bellow’s book was that, at 69, the poor man still wants something from his father – love, involvement, sheer fatherly presence — which he never got. As I say in the piece, this is humanly understandable, and should elicit a great deal of sympathy from us. But alas it takes the form, in Greg Bellow’s memoir, of an intense hostility to the very idea of his father being a writer (it seems telling, for instance, that he gets all the dates of his father’s books wrong). It also takes the form of a constant, unfinished complaint – a form which seems, at best, undignified when you are almost seventy, and at worst has the effect of making an old man seem like a whining, dependent child. (He didn’t, after all, have to publish his memoir: many children write briefs against their parents which they refrain from publishing.)
Most of the commenters have not read my review, so I’m not sure how seriously one should take their criticisms. But I hope it’s obvious that in talking about the writer’s ‘sacred’ devotion to art I was in part trying to understand the late romanticism of this particular generation of mostly male postwar artists. (Though not exclusively male: there is a striking moment in Susan Sontag’s journals where she is watching her small son, David, play in Central Park, and writes something to the effect of: “Just as I spent my childhood waiting to be an adult, so I now spend David’s childhood waiting for him to grow up so that I can get to my work” – a sentiment I sympathize with but find rather repellent: why have children if this is how being a parent seems? Readers might also look at books by the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante and the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, both of whom reflect on the tensions of writing and parenting. I’ve reviewed both of them in the New Yorker.) Janna Malamud Smith quotes her father, when his first book was published, writing to his wife: “Now I join the sacred company.” Like it or not, many of these writers thought like this. We may mock it, like some of the commenters do, but it’s not clear that today’s writers are writing better books than “Herzog,” “Against Interpretation” and “The Assistant” just by being great mums and dads. Personally, I suspect that to create something of lasting worth does indeed take an effort that might be likened to something religious. Like one of the commenters, I generally dislike the kind of limp-wristed snobbery that sets the great “effort” of writing apart from more artisanal tasks. But there is, surely, a difference between trying to compose a great symphony or write a great novel and doing the cooking, or darning one’s socks. Take it from me: I do the cooking every night in our household, and it’s a pleasure, mostly, and sometimes a tiring chore. (My father did all the cooking when I was growing up, unusual for father in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s.) But cooking, or gardening, or whatever, doesn’t take me from my children and family life. Quite the opposite: it’s part of the familial rhythm. To create something lasting and beautiful is intensely, selfishly, absorbing, and it’s naïve to suppose that there isn’t some tension between this lifelong project and the intense and absorbing and beautiful project of raising children. I’m a writer, married to a writer, and we have two children, and we struggle every day with that tension (which is an ethical struggle). What is striking about writers like Styron and Bellow (not to mention scores of other novelists – e.g. Muriel Spark, who was a complete shit to her only son) is that they don’t seem to have felt that tension very strongly (if at all).
A couple of the commenters have suggested that because I admire Bellow’s writing (and I do), I was bound to review Greg Bellow’s book negatively, because it must cause me pain to see the gilt rubbed off my idol. I hope that wasn’t true. I don’t have any illusions about how difficult it must have been to grow up as Saul Bellow’s eldest son, and I suspect that most of Greg Bellow’s bitter complaints (and they are indeed bitter, despite the book’s implausible attempt at “closure”) are true: an intermittent, often terrible father to his eldest son; self-absorbed, selfish, and so on. Careful readers of my piece will notice that nowhere did I attempt to argue with Greg Bellow’s assessment of his father’s patriarchal sins – it’s not my place, it’s unseemly, and anyway I only knew the man in the last decade of his life, when he was sweeter and easier company. I didn’t argue with this side of the memoir. I did not attempt to defend vices that I know nothing about, and which are not defensible anyway. I argued with Greg Bellow’s literary assessments (which are grudging at best) and I argued with Greg Bellow’s idea that you can separate what he calls the “private” and “public” sides of a famous novelist (especially one, like Saul Bellow, who wrote so closely from life). Commenters who think I was hard on Greg Bellow should, first of all, read his book, and see what they think; and then turn to much sterner reviews that appeared in the UK: from the novelist Adam Mars-Jones in The Guardian, the biographer Jeremy Treglown in The Spectator, and the novelist Clive Sinclair in the TLS.
Finally, I have no interest in making Saul Bellow my surrogate father, nor did I ever have. I have a wonderful father, still going strong at the age of 85!

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CarlD 07.25.13 at 3:39 am

There’s an infinity to cooking, and anything else. There’s nothing that can’t be sacralized. What folks happen to sacralize is a great question that interests anthropologists a lot. What I’m getting at is conditions of production.

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js. 07.25.13 at 5:01 am

bianca steele:

no one says Bellow was a bad parent because he was an “artist,” but because he was by his own account a selfish S.O.B. who divorced four times, had three sons by different mothers

But isn’t the point (in the post and the thread, tho maybe more in the thread) that the relevant set of actions by a self-described “selfish SOB” are treated and interpreted quite differently depending on whether or not the person in question is or is not a successful novelist? So, while your strict causal claim might be right, the fact that Bellow was recognized as a major artist or whatever is surely relevant.

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js. 07.25.13 at 5:08 am

who cares if Mozart was a bad husband, Beethoven a curmudgeon, or Goethe a womanizer – the handful of people they might have made unhappy are outweighed a million times by those they inspired.

You feel the same way about Sid Vicious? Just curious.

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Meredith 07.25.13 at 5:15 am

Aeschylus died when a Sicilian eagle dropped a turtle on his bald head, don’t you know? Euripides died from an unhappy encounter with Maenads in Macedonia, by some accounts. Even the even-tempered Sophocles had his troubles, since (some say) he was confronted in his very old age by a son before an Athenian magistrate with charges of incompetency (to which he responded with the ode on old age in the Oedipus at Colonus)…. There’s a fabulous modern literature on the conventional “biographies” of the ancient Greek poet, who mattered because of his (or, very occasionally, her) poetry, which provided grist for these “biographies.”
When does a work start to need an author (creator, initiator, witness) other than the Muse(s)? That’s an interesting question to me. When exactly does god (do the gods) die and the human author take his/her/their place? Or is there always a tension, or a dual role? Well, lots of questions….

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floopmeister 07.25.13 at 11:10 am

who cares if Mozart was a bad husband, Beethoven a curmudgeon, or Goethe a womanizer – the handful of people they might have made unhappy are outweighed a million times by those they inspired.

Well , they’re outweighed until one of that handful writes about their unhappiness, which was rather the point of the article, I would think.

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Rmj 07.25.13 at 12:14 pm

We may mock it, like some of the commenters do, but it’s not clear that today’s writers are writing better books than “Herzog,” “Against Interpretation” and “The Assistant” just by being great mums and dads.

As I said, it’s Romantic clap-trap, even if it’s “late romanticism.”

But it doesn’t mean I automatically think “today’s writers” are “writing better books” than those cited. Writers write, and the quality of their work is judged by shifting standards. And yes, I’m sure these writers in particular still clung to the idea of the sacral nature of their efforts; that doesn’t save the idea from being clap-trap.

And this:

To create something lasting and beautiful is intensely, selfishly, absorbing, and it’s naïve to suppose that there isn’t some tension between this lifelong project and the intense and absorbing and beautiful project of raising children.

Again, I don’t know how true that is. It sounds great, in a Late Romantic context; but in any other context, it sounds rather silly and sophomoric, and an excuse for being “a selfish S.O.B.” (to quote another source entirely). I’m not convinced one cancels out the other, or that one is necessary for the other. But it brings me back to this:

Personally, I suspect that to create something of lasting worth does indeed take an effort that might be likened to something religious.

Which is where I really part company with the “art/thought/music/literature is sacred” precept. Religious experiences tend to lead people back into engagement with the world, not further into a purely self-centered engagement with one’s “art” and what one can produce for one’s gratification from it. The concept of the “sacred” can’t be stretched so far as to encompass polar opposites.

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bianca steele 07.25.13 at 2:02 pm

js@56
The problem with the comments focusing on the supposed special requirements of the artist is that the review is pretty specific that Bellow’s son isn’t and wasn’t especially bothered by his father’s ignoring him while he worked. He’s mostly bothered by his father’s unreliability, rudeness to family members, etc. (but even more so by the publishing industry).

Cheever and Styron are probably not good points of comparison, I think, because those are memoirs about growing up with an abusive alcoholic and closeted homosexual, on the one hand, and a seriously depressed father, on the other. Those could have been written even if the fathers hadn’t been famous artists. Their daughters, however, were also bothered by their fathers’ being visibly antisocial, which they attribute to the special requirements of the artist, and which as adults they say they’ve completely come to terms with. Wood could be read as suggesting that Bellow makes the same complaint, but I didn’t read it that way. I agree with Bruce Baugh that there’s something off about this, I think because there’s an implication that they couldn’t have forgiven their fathers for being distant or working too hard if they hadn’t been famous artists.

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Marc 07.25.13 at 5:19 pm

Reverse snobbery also has a long pedigree: the idea that it’s unseemly to distinguish writing, or art, from doing crossword puzzles, chores, or being an accountant. It’s no better an impulse than blind worship of the artist cult – I find it as tiresome as a boring sermon.

Creative work is that it can materially change the lives of a lot of other people. If you’re very, very good and lucky then you have a chance at a kind of immortality. This is a heady combination and it can draw your whole being in. There is something very different in work that has boundaries and rules – the space between being on call and not on call can vanish.

It’s not unique to writers and artists, of course. Science, being a professional chef, starting a new business, finance – all can push related buttons, with a varying mix of art and craft. The rewards can vary – a lot of people who make big heaps of money do so by devoting themselves to Mannon round the clock. But the capital for others is more social.

As far as families go, it may simply be that the traits that go with being an exceptional outlier in some ways may not be the same ones that make a good father or mother.

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novakant 07.25.13 at 10:06 pm

#57

So you’re saying that everybody who ever enjoyed looking at a Caravaggio or read Althusser at uni is guilty of some strange type of thought crime – should his paintings be destroyed / his works struck from the syllabus? Or for that matter should we stop reading de Man, Pound, Sartre or anybody else who wasn’t exactly a model citizen? What is all this self-important moralizing supposed to achieve? I guess it’s like Hello magazine for intellectuals.

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etv13 07.25.13 at 10:58 pm

James Wood at 54: My father was a fighter pilot who went away to a foreign country for months at a time and presumably lived very intensely there while piling up that stack of medals. Is that supposed to be easier for me to comprehend than if he had been a writer? Harder? How is going away to a study all day different from going to an office thirty miles away? And it seems to me a huge stretch to say that the writer’s “private realm” is made “indiscriminately public” when the book is published; I don’t think the experience of reading a book bears all that close a relationship (or, really, any) to the experience of writing it. Or, for that matter, that the outcome (art vs. hackwork) necessarily bears much of a relationship to the intensity of the effort involved.

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Main Street Muse 07.26.13 at 12:13 am

“We may mock it, like some of the commenters do, but it’s not clear that today’s writers are writing better books than “Herzog,” “Against Interpretation” and “The Assistant” just by being great mums and dads. Personally, I suspect that to create something of lasting worth does indeed take an effort that might be likened to something religious. Like one of the commenters, I generally dislike the kind of limp-wristed snobbery that sets the great “effort” of writing apart from more artisanal tasks. But there is, surely, a difference between trying to compose a great symphony or write a great novel and doing the cooking, or darning one’s socks.

….

“To create something lasting and beautiful is intensely, selfishly, absorbing, and it’s naïve to suppose that there isn’t some tension between this lifelong project and the intense and absorbing and beautiful project of raising children.”

This is kind of appalling. Raising a family isn’t really an “artisanal task.” That there are people, however productive, who ignore their families – for whatever reason – is not necessarily something to worship. It is not “naive” to think that a creative, intelligent writer (CEO, filmmaker, trader, lawyer, professor, etc.) who completely abandons the family in pursuit of the career has failed in someway. As Woods relates, the art of creating the family dinner is a valuable contribution (though at times stressful!) to one’s life.

What my father (a trial lawyer) taught after my mother died: showing up for dinner is a really big deal. And yes, the career suffers in America when the parent shows up for dinner. But it allows the family to bloom.

Saul Bellows may have been a great writer. But he has an elderly son who finds him a failure as a parent. And yes, in the wholeness of a life, that matters.

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Ronan(rf) 07.26.13 at 12:41 am

From my, admittedly limited, reading of the lifes of this class of egomaniacal great artists, it wasn’t so much commitment to the craft that kept them from the dinner table as a commitment to drinking, or to having affairs, or just general cavorting.* Not that I’m oppossed to the first and last, or the second if it’s agreed upon by all involved, but the romanticisation is a bit much, perhaps?

Although I assume I’m probably missing something

*Which also sounds a lot like a commitment to a religious order, so the comparison is probably apt

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Bruce Baugh 07.26.13 at 12:55 am

Inventing a better condom almost certainly materially improves more lives than just about any novel I can think of, and yet we don’t hear much about plastics R&D as this sacred task or anything. And I mean it: giving more people more control over their reproductive life is really, really huge in terms of ability to have and pursue goals, and wanted children are at way less risk for all kinds of abuse. A sense that you have, via reading, come to some real insight into another person’s thoughts and feelings is genuinely important. So is not being beaten all the years you grow up, or dying of a venereal disease.

I think a whole lot of life goes under-valued and that this neglect plays nicely into the hands of those who’d like to buy and sell as all. A touch of sacralization all around would be good. So would simple respect for craft and effort.

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dax 07.26.13 at 11:17 am

I don’t get the people who simultanously defend “there is nothing special about art over selling used cars” and also claim that a writer who is an uncaring father should be condemned. If there are ethical values, then IMHO there can be aesthetic values; and conversely, if there are no aesthetic values, then there are no ethical ones, either.

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ragweed 07.26.13 at 2:18 pm

” and, two, that the windows of parent-child interactive opportunity (the bedtime routine, say) are exactly what these boozy bad parents miss out on performing.”

But I think that is the appeal. The middle-aged children of that generation are drawn to the show because it gives a window into what their parents were doing all that time they weren’t interacting with their children. Its like peeking through the stairs at the grown-up party when you should be in bed.

Of course, there is also a “see how far we’ve come” (and yet, not so far) aspect of it that is also appealing.

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Ronan(rf) 07.26.13 at 2:32 pm

I always thought someone like Pedro Almodovar could have done a good job on Mad Men, you’d certainly lose a lot of the earnest humourlessness (Jon Hamm looks into the middle distance, ‘how will I sell these lampshades to a captured market’ rinse repeat)

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b9n10nt 07.26.13 at 3:13 pm

Bruce Baugh @ 67:

I think a whole lot of life goes under-valued and that this neglect plays nicely into the hands of those who’d like to buy and sell as all. A touch of sacralization all around would be good. So would simple respect for craft and effort.

But perhaps the easiest way to collectively celebrate our own accomplishments is actually through the celebration of great art. Perhaps the special attention given to great art is exactly how we sacralize our own personal, yet common, strivings and transcendence.

(There would then be a certain logic to glorifying in the debased personal lives of great authors: they become the Alien, the Stranger, who visited Us and found us beautiful and worthy. We can see ourselves in great art and be flattered that some bohemian hedonist, some mess-of-an-ego, from beyond the boundaries of social convention, was able to take inspiration from our world.)

Maybe the question is not “do we collectively have a means to value our own prosaic efforts?” but “do we want this sacralization to be collective and public (via the world of art) or private and internal?”

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b9n10nt 07.26.13 at 3:23 pm

dax @ 68:

If there are ethical values, then IMHO there can be aesthetic values; and conversely, if there are no aesthetic values, then there are no ethical ones, either.

Beauty is truth and truth is beauty, right?

Except the question I think Bruce gets at is not, “are there such values?” but:

“Do we see imagine that these values exist outside of ourselves, as ideals that only a few can represent and even fewer can reach, or are these values actually within us and intrinsic to Life? Does an act of adding a splash of turmeric to you pilaf have the same quality of creative discovery as beginning your symphony with a funeral march?”

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js. 07.26.13 at 3:56 pm

If there are ethical values, then IMHO there can be aesthetic values; and conversely, if there are no aesthetic values, then there are no ethical ones, either.

Or you might think that while there are both kinds of value, ethical value trumps aesthetic. I’m not defending the view (not just now, anyway), it’s hardly unheard of.

novakant @63: Not sure if you’re really responding to me at 57, but if you are, I have no idea what you’re saying. My point was just that if Mozart, etc. inspired a lot of people with their music, so did Vicious. And I certainly don’t want the thought-police (or any police!) to take away my Sex Pistols records.

bianca steele @61: That makes sense.

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Substance McGravitas 07.26.13 at 6:06 pm

I don’t get the people who simultanously defend “there is nothing special about art over selling used cars”

As the person who mentioned used cars, I should here mention that it was essentially in support of the idea that there might be a consuming urge that takes a parent’s time/creativity as much as whatever-we-think-art-is does (and may in fact be an art in itself). I much prefer art to used-car salesmanship, but I don’t think my prejudices (art good, commerce boring) should lead me to believe that people who do things that don’t interest me lack the ability to observe, reflect, create, be absorbed by a task, et cetera. But to go the other direction, people who cook the way I do cannot be said to be exercising a spark of creativity while doing it.

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novakant 07.26.13 at 10:17 pm

js:

It seems that I have misunderstood you, apologies. The connection between Vicious, Althusser and Caravaggio is that they all have killed someone. Since the discussion was partly about the moral failings of artists and how we deal with them, I assumed you had mentioned him in this context and asked if I would still appreciate him as an artist even though he committed a heinous crime.

After all, if one condemns Bellow for being a bit of a dick, one should surely condemn those three. I don’t, because I’m not interested in artists private lives all that much and focus on their creations – I’m not into Sid Vicious’ oeuvre though, I’m afraid.

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PJW 07.27.13 at 2:50 am

“I’m actively irresponsible…I’m selfish, okay? I want to do my physics.” (Feynman)

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floopmeister 07.27.13 at 3:20 am

Given the thread appears to be approaching terminal exhaustion, this is probably the right time to bring up TISM (‘The Mystery of the Artist Revealed’, from the album ‘Great Trucking Songs of the Renaissance’):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYkeZV6FV6U

“Deep down I’m guilty still
about my cruelty to my peers
I used to think that they were the fiddle
and I was Nero, and Rome was burning…”

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floopmeister 07.27.13 at 3:30 am

And for another deeply tasteless criticism of the Cult of Fame:

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Ronan(rf) 07.27.13 at 12:36 pm

Since this thread has petered out a little, do you mind if I ask has anyone read Bolano’s 2666 and if so would you recommend it. I’d like to give it a go, but it’s creeping up on 1000 pages..

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js. 07.27.13 at 3:20 pm

Ronan @79:

2666 is amazing—really spectacular. One thing that may make it less daunting is that it can be read as and thought of as five separate novels. Though to get the full effect of it, you have to approach it as a single unified novel I think.

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bianca steele 07.27.13 at 3:36 pm

I’d like to see a blog post showing how Saul Bellow’s work can be approached from the standpoint of The Reactionary Mind (I think this can be done without touching on anything overtly biographical).

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Ronan(rf) 07.27.13 at 4:48 pm

Thanks js, that’s what I keep hearing alright. Booked and ordered, i’ll report back in 2 years!

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novakant 07.27.13 at 10:06 pm

The Bolano book sounds amazing (Wikipedia lists some rave reviews). Speaking of long books, has anybody read “A Book of Memories” by Peter Nadas? I have it but, never got around to reading it properly.

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