Well-Written…. But…

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.

13 thoughts on “Well-Written…. But…”

  1. darcherd says:

    The entire “post-modern” phase in literature seems to stress self-destruction or destruction of the protagonist by outside forces. When the trend started, I’m sure it was seen as bringing “realism” into writing, since much of life is indeed “nasty, brutal and short”. But I find it depressing. If I want to be depressed, I can just look around or watch the news. When I read, I’m looking for some reassurance that hewing to correct and moral living can be rewarded in the end, and that my optimism about life is justified. This is tellingly now called “escapist” reading.

    But the bottom line is that if there is not a single character I like, I don’t like the work of art, whether book, play, or movie.

  2. Daze says:

    I have actually had a few occasions lately where I’ve thought “I don’t actually like any of the characters in this novel enough to care what happens to them – not even enough to be bothered to jump to the last chapter and read that”: and put the book (or Kindle) down and read something else instead.

  3. Tim says:

    I agree with @darcherd. Escapist or not, in the evenings I like to read to relax and not to be shocked, appalled or revolted. The real world has enough of the other to balance it nicely.

    Over the years, I have bought many books and DVDs only to use them precisely once. Then they are donated to a charity shop or gifted to friends. Those I retain tend to be those that become familiar and friendly territory, well-structured with intricate plots. Imager books for example.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Could the story in question reasonably be held to be a cautionary tale?

    Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll forgive excesses in storytelling (including negativity, violence, and a modest amount of prurient content), _if_ a story otherwise has a constructive purpose, and those problematic elements are a credible and more or less necessary part of the story, and not merely added on to boost sales or shock value or propaganda impact. On the latter point, take the novel “Level Seven”, by Mordecai Roshwald, if memory serves: a war nobody really understood, lots of ironic imagery, and (spoiler) _everyone_ dies. I think I was ten when I read that, and I wasted the rest of the weekend being thoroughly depressed, although the explanation that it was _intended_ to be manipulative brought me out of that; even before, and doubly since, I don’t appreciate anyone trying that hard to mess with my mind. Somewhat later, a good teacher suggested that much communication is manipulative, merely more subtle; and that one always needs to ask why a story is told the way it is – what purposes are being served?

    1. I remember Level Seven, but I don’t think the novel I mentioned qualifies, especially since it is the first book of a series which features the same protagonist apparently [at least from ad copy] doing the same thing.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        Some authors do like to not merely challenge but torture their characters. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels come to mind (although the final novel’s ending was more merciful). But unless there are more than mere passing moments of hope for the character you mention, I wonder how long people will buy into a series that sounds so depressing, regardless of the fashion in such matters.

        1. invah says:

          >Some authors do like to not merely challenge but torture their characters.

          You just reminded me of why I stopped reading Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. I did enjoy “Wizard’s First Rule”, but somewhere in the second or third book I gave up on the series.

          Not only do some authors like to torture their characters, but they do it to titillate.

  5. invah says:

    >yet also arrogantly and persistently self-destructive in pursuit of greater and greater “shock value” in the name of artistic creativity

    This reminds me of conversations I’ve had with people regarding, of all things, organization. They justify their disorganization and mess because they are [insert character trait] and therefore not only are they messy/disorganized, but anyone who is organized and tidy lacks that character trait and, even further, caring about organization and tidiness is the purview and signifier of a ‘small’ or lessor mind.

    >the near-absolute correlation the author suggested between extreme creativity, shock value, and self-destructive behavior

    Following the pattern of cognitive distortion, anyone who isn’t self-destructive or doesn’t include shocking elements in their work isn’t creative, and therefore a smaller, lessor mind unable to escape the constraints of societal convention.

    It’s a brilliant method of values-switching.

    1. invah says:

      Lesser! Argh.

  6. aleciaf says:

    I recently read the 1st book of a series which ran through 6 books to date, and the entire story was based on the frying pan/fire school of writing. It not only gets boring, but there really isn’t much of a story, regardless of how well the various characters may be depicted or how well the world-building is done. Where there is no character development, growth or some greater understanding, what’s the point in writing or reading the result? It is nice to know that some writers realize this – it seems like the nihilistic aspect of writing is more popular than it should be, & really good books harder to find, and I don’t know if it’s laziness, lack of skills, or the latest fad; I just hope it stops soon.

  7. Andreas says:

    I can and have enjoyed a book with some shock value,or even a bit of self-destructive behavior, if it helps develop the character into something or someone better. Take any if Sara Douglass’s books. A book that focuses so much on self-destruction probably tries to make a killing, because it echoes some parts of life and hopes people want to read about a cold hard reality as opposed to reading about hope or someone overcoming their abilities and challenges while they can’t. That said, I don’t want to read any more books like that, I had to read too many of those while studying.

  8. Earl Tower says:

    I have read several books where the character’s self destructive tendencies or the situation batters the characters into a bloody emotional pulp. I do not mind occasionally to have such in the fiction I read, but I always desire it to be offset by some hope and introspection on the part of the character.

    One of the reasons I was always a huge fan of the late Father Greeley was his characters tried to find hope and a better way of living in his stories. I might not have always agreed with the Catholic ethos from which he wrote, but there was some feeling that as long as life went on there was hope. And even death could be its own respite under certain circumstances.

  9. Wine Guy says:

    It started with Job. God and Satan screwed with him mercilessly… and though, in the end, he got a new wife and new things and children…. his old wife and children were dead and his old life where he was happy was gone forever.

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