Tonight it was suggested to me, by one of my small band of loyal-but-merry admirers, that I’m depriving the world of my artworks. (This was said by someone who had been reading my blog, and so, you know, the blog is how I’m actually NOT depriving the world, but giving the world more than it necessarily wanted.)
I am pretty brilliant, I’ll admit, but I just don’t know that the world needs my work — or anybody else’s, really.
I mean, in my younger days, I did work that was necessary, that supported life and/or that people were willing to pay for: I made food as a McEmployee (“made” there being used in its loosest sense), I picked strawberries, etc. I have more recently done work that my bosses were willing to pay me to do: write crop report articles, read soybean futures into a microphone, teach teenagers how to punctuate dependent clauses. These are things I do with the understanding that those who write my paycheck want these things to be done.
But no specific exchange, of course, exists when an artist puts some art out there. Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe nobody pays for ideas (I’m thinking here of artistic or philosophical sorts of ideas — and of course, there is the problem that ideas can’t be copyrighted; only expressions of ideas can be). I mean, I doubt I’d be willing to pay for one particular story or essay or cartoon in The New Yorker magazine. I subscribe, perhaps, not to receive specific articles on specific topics by specific authors, but to feel I’m getting what the magazine’s editors think is worth printing. I’m subscribing not to get particular articles, but rather to feel I’m not missing anything, I’m not being left out.
Lately I’ve been thinking that what an author needs to make money and/or get famous is the attention of lots of people he/she doesn’t know — in other words, anonymous people. It’s nice when my friends and family appreciate my creative writing (although I will also say that there may be less mystique in encountering the work of one’s friends and family, no matter how good the work is). But if I wanted to publish and make a profit, I’d need thousands more people, more than I know, to buy. But it seems so strange to want people I don’t know and, frankly, don’t personally care about, to do me such a kindness.
And maybe this is the weird emptiness of celebrity: people who don’t know you as a friend are just interested in you as an idea, as an image, as a persona, or maybe as a myth. Gopnik makes the point that
There are certain artists, and some art, that become so popular that everyone peers into them, finding whatever they will, however they will. All the usual tests of sympathy, natural feeling, and do-I-really-respond-to-this? are lost in the gravitational pull of ubiquity. Not surprisingly, the artists who are, briefly, the beneficiaries and thereafter the victims of this kind of attention get totally freaked out by the intensity of it all: not too long after, Bob Dylan, another of the tribe, recorded his notorious “Self Portrait,” just back out in a new version, trying to demonstrate to his admirers the simple truth that he was an American singer, with a broad taste for American songs, not some kind of guru or mystic or oracle, please go away. It didn’t help.
In this condemnation of Jack Kerouac’s poetry, which is being printed in a Library of America edition, Bruce Bawer says it’s unfortunate that other writers who made better poems haven’t received the reward of having their work printed in that “magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature.” Well, duh — and it’s unfortunate that flowers die in the frost.
Printers print and re-print Kerouac’s writings because, well, there are people who want to buy Kerouac’s writings. I have no doubt that the three writers Bawer names — Louis Simpson, Donald Justice, and Frederick Morgan — are also fine writers, but they don’t stir the imagination as Kerouac, for better or worse, did.
I mean, why do we buy any book? Isn’t part of what we want from a book a sense of being transported, of reading words of someone who has lived differently from how we have lived, and hoping that reading these words will show us that life can be lived differently? I was attracted to the sense of possibility that I found when I first read Kerouac, and then I became disenchanted with both Kerouac, and eventually, the idea that others’ lives are somehow more interesting, more vivid, more meaningful, than my own.
Instead, part of what drives me as a thinker and a writer is becoming aware of and dismantling the myths and images that make me think life is better someplace other than where I am.
But I can recognize the power of myths and images to move products — what would advertizing be if it didn’t use the incantatory power of words, the inebriating power of story, the seductive power of image?
I don’t want that to be an indictment of advertizing or of consumers (but maybe I’d be OK indicting words, story, and image?). I don’t want to change the world, at least, not by criticizing others. I don’t need to appeal to all people, as if that were possible. Maybe, more than impressing others, all I really want to do is write what I want to write (something that’s easier said than done!). Maybe all I really wanna deprive myself of is the illusion that I ought to be loved by all.