Hating the player, not the game.

I tried to write this post a couple months ago.  In fact, I DID write it, but as I clicked “publish”, iWeb froze and I lost the whole post.  It was the final straw that made me switch over to WordPress.  I thought I would give it another whirl.

I have a problem separating a work of literature from its writer.  Not so much if the writer has been dead for a sufficient amount of time, but for contemporary  writers, if I don’t like the writer, it effects my view of the work itself.

One excellent example is Jonathan Franzen.  I have been told by three people, whose opinions on books I trust implicitly, that The Corrections is the best thing since sushi but I happen to have seen Franzen in a couple of interviews before picking up his book and now I can’t get more than a couple of pages into the Corrections before setting it aside because I can’t get the guy’s pretentious, better-than-thou, douchey voice out of my head.  I am sure it is as good as I keep hearing, but I’ve started the thing three times now and I just can’t do it; and remember, I’m not a guy who sets books aside once I start them.  The only book, besides The Corrections, that I can remember not finishing is “Ulysses” and I don’t personally know anyone who can get through that one.

The strange thing is, I don’t have the same reaction to artists that use other mediums.  The fact that Axel Rose is an incredible ass doesn’t stop me from listening to Sweet Child of Mine.  From what I’ve read about him, Dali wasn’t really someone I’d want to buddy-up with but it doesn’t stop me from admiring and enjoying his work.  In fact, visual artists, musicians and performing artists, I somewhat expect to be on the crazy, self-absorbed asshole side of life and it won’t stop me from buying their stuff.

Recently I read Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane.  I am a fan of Lehane.  I read and enjoyed all of his Kenzie/Gennaro books, along with two or three of his stand-alone novels.  I’d say he’s one of my favorite crime writers, because his books are an excellent combination of really good prose and a well-structured mystery.  A lot of times you might get one or the other, but to have both is rare.

About two years ago, I was discussing Lehane with a good friend of mine, and he pointed out an article in Entertainment Weekly entitled Done Baby Done.  You can give the article a read if you want, but basically it talks about how shitty his Kenzie/Gennaro books were at how he’d never write another.  In fact he said,  ”I was never comfortable with them anyway. I’d be writing these friggin’ whodunits,” he laughs, getting excited, ”and I could care less. I wanna tell everybody on page 2, he killed so-and-so, he done it! If you look at my books in that regard — and I’ll be 100 percent honest about my flaws — you can see how I was whipping out the kitchen sink just to obscure s—, like the identity of the serial killer or whatever, and that’s why the books got so labyrinthian in the last 100 pages.”

So…I have a bit of a problem with this because it someone belittles the opinion of all of the people that went out and bought those books.  The very people that put him where he is today and made him a very rich man.  But hey, there’s nothing to say that someone can’t go back and look at something they did in the past and judge it to be a giant steaming turd.  I can respect that.  Every artist wants to grow, and in fact he goes on to say, “My publishers, they’ve been clear if I ever wrote one, they’d back a truckful of money onto my driveway, but I don’t want to be the guy who goes back to the well just so I could buy another house.”

So, ok.  No more Kenzie / Gennaro novels.  He’s on to bigger and better things.  But then a few weeks ago I was looking for something to read and came across Moonlight Mile, which just happens to be a new Kenzie / Gennaro novel by Mr. Lehane.  I guess that truckful of money was more attractive than he first thought.  OK.  I can still get over it.  He’s a sell-out.  That’s ok.  Everyone needs a new boat every now and again.  Maybe his wife hit up Neiman Marcus a few times too many and he was in a pinch.  Maybe his kid needed an operation.  Fine.  Everyone needs to get paid.

Now comes the spoilers, so if you have any desire to read this book, then stop reading this blog.

BUT BUT BUT, then the guy turns Patrick Kenzie into spineless tool.  One of the appeals of the character is that he is smart, practical, street savy and a total badass when he needs to be.  But in the end of this book, he finds he just has no stomach for the private eye life anymore and he turns down a lucrative job at a big security firm to go back to school and become a friggin’ jr. high teacher.

Lehane completely emasculated the character of Patrick Kenzie.  It was almost like Lehane hated this character that he created and wanted his readers to feel the same way.  It’s a little like how Doyle turned Sherlock Holmes into a drug addled deviant so his readers to stop wanting to read him.

The thing is, if you don’t like a character, then stop writing him.  But to do it just for the money, when you already have loads, and then to do the character and your readers a disservice by  turning the character into a spineless idiot is a fairly shitty thing to do.  It’s flipping your nose at all the people who made you the success that you are.

I keep hearing that The Given Day is a great read, but now I can’t bring myself to buy it.

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Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 9:02 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I also heard that The Corrections was fabulous, got it as a Christmas present, and started it. However, even without the interview, I couldn’t finish it. So I sold it to a second hand shop before the paperback came out. And I refuse to feel badly about it.

    • 🙂 I haven’t been able to sell mine yet. But I have a real problem getting rid of books. It’s the only thing I can’t seem to throw away.

      What about The Corrections didn’t you like?

  2. Great post.

    I also have a hard time separating the author from his or her work. I think it’s just the nature of the medium. We’re walking into a person’s innermost psyche when we read their novels. It’s natural to want to know more about the place we’re taking up residence for the duration of a book. And though writers may say they’re not comfortable with that curiosity in their readers, I think that to some degree they like it, and invite it to a certain degree. But a readers’ familiarity with a writer (or perceived familiarity) can cut both ways for a writer. An author can be awarded more loyalty than they deserve if they’re perceived as likable (King), or they can lose a swath of possible readers if they’re perceived as unlikable (Franzen).

    I have an issue similar to the one you have with Franzen with Jonathan Safran-Foer. From interviews I get the sense he’s a hugely pretentious, hipster-y writer (in the Times, when describing the then-new, ridiculous Brooklynite preoccupation with ping-pong, the inset photo featured Foer standing on one side of the ping-pong table, eagle-eyed, holding a paddle at the ready). To me he seems like he’s successful in part because, yes, he’s gifted, but also because he played the right angles in the academic and publishing worlds that other, more talented writers did not have access to. As I’ve heard from some friends, this view is not necessarily aligned with reality: what they say is that in addition to being a great writer, he’s a down-to-earth guy whose success is deserved. If I had to guess, I’d say my friends’ view of Foer is closer to reality, but doesn’t matter, because I’ve tried to read him. I’ve read 25 pages of ‘Everything is Illuminated’, and, like you with ‘The Corrections’, to plow further into the book would require a level of masochism I don’t have. The word that comes to mind when reading him is ‘precocious.’ So regardless of his relative merits as a writer, he just hits me the wrong way, and he does that, in part, because of all that I know of him outside of what he’s actually written. If I took his book in complete ignorance, knowing nothing about the author, it’s possible I might think differently of the writing.

    But I really doubt it.

    Also, I’ll agree that Franzen can come off as holier-than-thou and pretentious in interviews, and some of that snobbery shows up on the page. But I also think Franzen is more concerned with his reader than a lot of “literary” writers. (Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, Wallace, etc.) And because he’s thinking primarily of his readers when he writes, he spends a lot of narrative energy building up whole plot threads with these uncannily realistic characters (Patty in ‘Freedom’ coming first to mind — and btw, that you may never read about Patty seems like a sad thing to me), to create these indelible moments that stick with you. What he’s able to do is a pretty rare thing in publishing. So while I think he’s a great writer, I totally get how he might hit you the wrong way, because yeah, he personally kinda comes across as a jerk.

    • It makes me think that it would be better, somehow, to be completely anonymous as a writer. On a personal level, I mean. Write under a pseudonym and never do any interviews, readings or book signings. Of course, that sounds like an awesome way to never sell any books. I can’t really think of anyone had a successful career while writing anonymously, except maybe Saki but it was easier to do then, I think. And maybe Lemony Snickett…although I think either everyone knows he’s Daniel Handler or is too young to care..

      But I do wonder how my opinion of the Corrections would differ if I’d just stumbled upon it at the 2nd hand book store and had never heard of Franzen. Who knows.

      However…your single comment on Patty in Freedom is making me consider reading it.

      I guess that’s just the kind of effect you have on me, you big stud.


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