Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cui Bono?

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[1].

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?

[1](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.

I mean...really!

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!)


You Know Where You Are With said...

I think your last (non-italicized)paragraph answers your question for you. I will say that my sister the artist has one huge pet peeve: when someone approaches her at a show and praises her art, but then asks if she can do the same thing in a different color, "so it will match my living room." Heh.

pluto said...

IMHO, great art, by definition, has to be meaningful to somebody besides the artist, otherwise it IS just graffiti.

I abandoned Laura Hamilton as a writer a LONG time ago. Believe it or not, she writes the Anita Blake series when she wants to write about something besides sex. The Merry Gentry series is all-sex all the time and apparently Merry can enjoy every form of sex including rape. Really boring.

If you're going to read the paranormal stuff, check out Patricia Brigg's latest work. MUCH better.

Lisa said...

Per your last query:

To take it out of the realm of this series, with which I am unfamiliar--yes, why is sex usually represented as a head-banging experience (if good), or rape (if bad or good, depending on the genre)? Wouldn't it be nice if people read that really good sex can be slow, compassionate and intimate?

I have always thought that books and movies (where most young people get their ideas) do such a great disservice to the cause of intimacy by suggesting that it must be so hot and heavy to be mind-blowing. Sadly, many people never grow to learn any better, and of course, that level of physicality depicted cannot be maintained. When that goes, ennui sets in.

The opposite should happen.

FDChief said...

Lisa: point well taken.

I always liked Donald Westlake's take on this: when one of the characters drives a car, the author doesn't feel obliged to explain how the left foot works the clutch as the right goes from brake to gas, how the hands move from wheel to gearshift. You know about the "wait-wait-that's it", the fadeaway caress, the feel of lips on skin, and if you don't, you shouldn't get your ideas from books - you'll get the wrong idea.

FDChief said...

But - I should add - the problem with Art is that Art often shows us various sides of love and sex. After all, once you take revenge and greed out of it, what else do we write and sing about..?

And that's where the Artist can knock you sideways. As you point out, these stories where everyone has this incredible, clock-stopping sex - or, conversely, as in the case of this guy Sim I was discussing, the sex is a trap, or fake, or a ploy - don't really give you the full picture. But a LOT of people don't have the experience, or the perception, to seperate the dross from the wisdom.

Jimmy said...

So is it because "most people" don't have enough "everyday" sex, or enough "banging the wall" sex, to see the wisdom?

Lisa said...


Yes, of course that crude dissection is best left for the Gothic romances. As the writer Beckett illustrated so well in his novel Murphy, one can give every single objective detail of individual, and know them no better than when you began.

"What's left w/o revenge and greed?" Now you've hit the crux of the matter. We're all voyeurs waiting for the crash, no better than the typical NASCAR enthusiast.

I would hope that artists show the manifold sides to relationships, but I don't know that "normal" or "happy" relationship is often depicted. Perhaps because that would be "boring"?

Pity, because I don't know too many people who have a truly happy, vibrant and full relationship. That would be the stuff of fairy tales.

FDChief said...

"So is it because "most people" don't have enough "everyday" sex, or enough "banging the wall" sex, to see the wisdom?"

Jimmy: My suspicion - and this is just my uninformed opinion - is that that most of us either don't feel like we know enough about Life, the Universe and Everything to make an informed judgement on what we see and hear, OR we pass judgement on everything, regardless of our level of understanding. This makes it difficult to really analyze and understand what we're seeing and hearing.

In particular, as Lisa points out, where love and sex are concerned. I think we tend to either accept the written and spoken word as Truth, or ignore it altogther. rather than really try and bring our reason and judgement to bear.

Good example: think of all the books and movies we read and see where the happy couple starts ot bickering and fighting and clearly without anything in common. How many couples like that do you now in real life? Yet we accept it, both as fictional cliche and, sadly, often in life, where the quiet girl longs for the wild guy or the shy guy wants the party girl. Or we assume that head-banging sex means we're soulmates. Or get angry with ourselves or with our partners because everything isn't "perfect"...

In short - I don't think it is the sex, spicy or vanilla. I think it's the way we THINK - or don't think - about the sex that gets us into such trouble.

Lisa: One of the things I've always hated about Tolstoy is his phrase: “Every happy family is the same, but unhappy families are all different.” My experience is the utter opposite: unhappy people and unhappy families are usually unhappy for a small set of the same reasons: money or lack or same; health problems; emotional problems and emotional dysfunction. Happiness, OTOH, is a truly complex and difficult thing to achieve.

BUT - happiness is, by its very nature, small, quiet, satisfied. A happy marriage, or a happy family, is usually interesting only to those involved. It's a stock car race with no crashes and little passing, where all the drivers involved work together to get to the same place quickly and quietly.

And how many of us would pay to watch that?

Sad, really...

Lisa said...

Chief: I have always felt the same way about the Tolstoy phrase! Unhappiness arises from a fairly predictable set of objective or subjectives circumstances. (But of course, as a Russian author, unhappiness was his stock-in-trade.)

"happiness is, by its very nature, small, quiet, satisfied." Yes. And your description as anti-NASCAR is perfect. I cannot bear drama queens of either sex, and yet the highs and lows seems to pique most people's interest, I s'pose b/c their daily life is boring to them and drama makes them feel alive. I feel alive watching bugs or birds in the lawn.

I have a dear friend who has offered a ticket for me to attend "Sex and the City" with her; she can hardly wait. To me, what little I have seen of the show is rather tragic.