On a recent trip, I read a book by an author I’ve known, on and off, for more than twenty years, a book that had gotten good reviews from a publication that seldom gives them. I’d never read the author’s work, but others I know have and thought highly of it. So I read the book.
The first thing I’ll say is that it was extraordinarily well-written. The language, the sentence structure, the revelations about the main character, the pacing… and I had to force myself to finish the work, although I did.
Why did I have such trouble reading to the end? Because it was about an extremely gifted and creative artist, who was intelligent and perceptive, often empathetic, and sometimes kind… yet also arrogantly and persistently self-destructive in pursuit of greater and greater “shock value” in the name of artistic creativity. The writer portrayed the protagonist brilliantly, and in a fashion that left little doubt about the writer’s understanding of the protagonist’s struggles, faults, and failures in dealing with the world, but primarily in dealing with other largely self-destructive and arrogant individuals. The book ends on a single upbeat note… with the absolute implication that the struggles, failures, and self-destructive behavior will continue past that momentary resolution and single grace note of happiness.
In some ways, it’s almost a masterpiece, and in some readers’ minds it likely is. It’s certainly true to life, because I’ve not only read about such self-destructive behavior, but I’ve also seen it and known individuals like that, particularly creative ones. I’ve also seen far too many painters, film-makers, writers, photographers, sculptors, musicians, and others attempt to perpetuate shock value for the sake of shock value while touting it as creativity. The book certainly raises the question of whether creativity and self-destruction are the two faces of the same coin, as well as the suggestion that there’s a darkness beneath the font of creativity, and to that last possibility I’d have to agree. With what I don’t agree is the near-absolute correlation the author suggested between extreme creativity, shock value, and self-destructive behavior, although there’s little doubt in my mind that there have been and likely always will be those highly creative individuals who are also highly self-destructive.
In the end, I could barely finish the book simply because I find that self-destructive behavior, and shock value for the sake of shock value by creative individuals is a waste of human potential and talent, perhaps a tragedy in the case of those who cannot help themselves, but all too often a failure to accept the fact that creativity is almost never fully appreciated by the majority of the human species and almost invariably is ranked well behind material sustenance and personal power, regardless of the greatness and excellence of that creativity… or the toll taken on those who create.
A book that portrays creativity as the path to self-destruction and near nihilism certainly represents one possible life-path, especially today, when the public value of any artist is measured primarily by the cashbox, and when all too often the excesses of shock value are highly rewarded. I just can’t praise a book so depressing, or find a character that unwilling or unable to turn away from the darkness worth either a mention by name or a read of subsequent adventures. Creating is hard enough and good creators scarce enough that reading about those who cannot deal with the pressures and the challenges of their own abilities [and turn to the dark side, if you will] is the last thing I want to read about. But sometimes, it takes just such a book to remind me of that.