Started thinking about this reading a junk novel at work this week.
The particular junk novel is one in a series by a writer called Laurell Hamilton.
She's a prolific novelist and has several concurrent series, one of which is something called "Anita Blake" and started out as a pastiche of the standard gothic/vampire/supernatural horror story grafted onto a murder mystery root. It's a sort of "vamp noir" thing, and by all accounts the stories are very popular. I read and enjoyed the first couple of them myself.
Frankly, the novel I read - fifteenth in the series - was pretty much junk. Page-turning junk, of sorts, but solidly in the category of junk fiction. Draggy plot, poor pacing, turgidly written. What got me thinking, though, was all the sex.
And, no, sex usually sends the blood flowing to other organs of my body, thanks. But in this case the issue was the change that has occurred in Hamilton's writing since the first book in this series. Specifically, her heroine started out as a tough, Sam Spade sort of supernatural P.I., whose relationships with "the monsters"; vampires, werecritters, was lethal. She didn't date them, she killed them. By this book she has become some sort of superhuman goddess of vampire sex, coupling with a stable of various good-bad preternatural boys on the way to killing the bad-bad boys and girls. The entire 200-some page book has about enough actual mystery/detective/noir/horror plot for a couple of thin chapters. All the rest is taken up with the sex, talking about sex, sexual relations and sexual politics, between the various characters. As anyone who went to high school remembers, sexual politics is like watching paint dry, with pouting.
This change has created some marked degree of comment from, and in some cases hard words between, her fans and the author. The fans accuse her of laziness and self-indulgence, of descending from the hard-edged style of her earlier works into an aimless softcore pornography. The author, in turn, has fired back at these "Negative Fans". She claims to be pushing the limits;
her detractors claim that she's a whackjob who has confused her characters with her life.
(As an aside, is there something about junk art, and I include junk fiction here, that encourages a more intimate, less reverential attitude from the public?
Do we stand dumb before the giants of the Arts, the Great Painters, Sculptors, Dancers and Musicians, but feel perfectly capable of backslapping, fist-shaking and ranting at the creators of popular art because it IS popular, just regular crap we see, hear or read every day? I mean, I couldn't write a hip-hop tune to save my ass, but it never stops me from saying "I like that" or "Damn, that sucks" to the radio. Would I walk out of Mozart's "requiem" saying "Well, that sure sucked ass."?
Did anyone every wander up to Picasso at a showing and while munching a pretzel, murmur; "Dude, your Blue Period, like, really bit, y'know? Why didn't you use some, like, red? Just sayin'..."? Are movies, TV and other disposable entertainment so far below High Art that we don't feel intimidated by the creativity needed to produce them, or the creators themselves?)
Anyway, so the thought that occurred to me, the main point that got me thinking about all this, is this: what is the "responsibility" of the Artist to those who read, see..let's call it generically "consume", the Artist's Art?
For example, regarding the book series I was reading, I get the sense that the readers felt that the author had failed, failed her own ability, in producing less-than-adequate books. That they were angry in the way that Steve Prefontaine was angry when he said "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift." By her response, the author seems to be saying: "It's my Gift, and I'm the only one qualified to say what is or isn't 'the best'". The lines were pretty strongly drawn - both sides were angry at the other. Clearly, there was a strong disagreement.
This was even more dramatically highlighted in the OTHER work I've been reading while watching people build walls: Dave Sim's "Church & State" collection.
I can't even begin to explain Sim or his monumental work "Cerebus". If I say "Well, it's a 300 volume comic work about an aardvark" you'd think I was nuts. But the problem is, it IS a 300 volume comic work about an aardvark. The devil, like everything, is in the details. Several years back someone over at Livejournal wrote up perhaps the best synopsis of the thing: if you're interested, start here.
For one, Dave Sim may just be the world's single best living draftsman, line artist and graphic artist.
The. Best. Living. OK, maybe he would have to win a playoff with Frank Cho and Mark Schulz. But, seriously, this guy is our generation's Hal Foster or Winsor McKay. As a creator of illustrated fiction, his combination of drawing skill, plot and pacing ability, talent for writing spoken dialogue and mastery of layout are...well, like I said, he's the best.
He's also a flaming nutjob. His hysterical misogyny can almost be excused as a foible compared to his utterly whacko religious beliefs, which make the Old Testament prophets seem like marvels of sophisticated modernism. Which would all be by the by...if it hadn't worked its way into his Art.
By the end of his magnum opus, "Cerebus" has become a completely unreadable discursion on the Torah. A word. For word. Discursion. On the Torah. The real Torah.
It's unreadable. If you don't believe me, here's another take on the subject. And, to make things worse, his misogyny has become so intense it warps the entire fabric of the story, forcing female characters to behave in ways out of the character we have seen established over 300 volumes so they can be wedged into the author's loopy idea of women as the Font of All Evil.
So here's a guy: brilliant artist. Brilliant.
But whose art centers around telling a story. He's not a painter, a Klimt or Picasso whose work you can just look at. It has to work as a story to succeed. And yet, the guy is so fucking totally bughouse that his whackadoodleness prevents him from telling the story. (Think about it - you hate women soooooo much that you pretty much guarantee that 50% of your characters are going to be loathsome. Like a football bat? Yep.)
Does the flaw destroy the value of the drawings as drawings, too? Does the failure of the whole mean that the parts fail as well? And what about the entire body of work. If a portion of the artist's work fails for me - as the last body of "Cerebus" does - does that taint the work as a whole? Can I still say "Dave Sim is a fucking genius" and expect to be respected? Do I, the reader and viewer, define genius? Does Sim? Who does?
So, as a lawyer would say: who benefits? Who SHOULD benefit? Does Art HAVE to appeal to the viewer, or the reader, or the listener? If the author, or artist, is so egotistic, or so crazy, that their artwork pleases only themselves...can it still be considered Great Art? Or even art at all? Is it the music of a sphere so celestial that only they can hear it? Or just the gifted scribbling of a madman, the savant doodlings on the padded wall of the cell of a manic?
(And let me say that, since I'm male and the worst sex can be for me is good, though I don't have a problem with all the sex in these "Anita Blake" things, can't someone have just regular old so-so sex for a change? All the sex in the book I read was head-banging, ground-shaking, screaming-and-clawing-the-wall-incredibly-terrific, mind-blowing sex.
Nobody had the kind of late night/busy day/just tired/oof-I-ate-too-much/sluggish morning/distracted-by-other-stuff sex that occasionally happens to real people.
NOT that the sex around here isn't ALWAYS head-banging, ground-shaking, screaming-and-clawing-the-wall-incredibly-terrific, mind-blowing sex. Hi, honey!)