I avoid learning about the lives of writers or artists whom I admire, even though more than a few literature and perhaps some creative writing professors think that sort of knowledge is relevant when reading a novel, poem, or story. I prefer to let the work stand on its own, in a sort of literary vacuum where nothing exists about the work except the work itself (and perhaps the work that preceded or followed it).
As a teenager, I loved reading books by Richard Bach of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame. For a while I was reading all of Bach’s stuff, thinking about whether or not astral travel could be really achieved, believing in soul-mates — the whole bit. Long after that phase, I read about how Bach and his second wife Leslie broke up and he fell in love with someone else – and that someone else happened to be 33 years younger. I read that Bach had six kids he never mentioned, ever, even in his supposedly auto-biographical books, and that he essentially abandoned them with his first wife because he “didn’t believe in marriage” even though he had married twice after that. I felt myself judging the man and his work.
When my husband suggested we watch the biopic on Leonard Cohen based on Sylvie Simmons’ biography, I’m Your Man, I declined. I don’t want to find out if Cohen of the once golden voice and the beautiful sentences was mean to his lovers, neglectful of his children, massively self-centered. Maybe he’s a saint, maybe he’s not. I simply don’t want to know.
I know I’m not alone in my respect for the recluses — Harper Lee, Denis Johnson, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Anne Tyler, many others. I don’t want to know about my favorite artists’ affairs, whether or not their children or parents love them, their various neuroses. I don’t want to wonder if the cowboy is a painful characterization of the writer’s former lover or who the writer will vote for in the upcoming election.
Willful ignorance, that’s what I’m going for here. Most of the time I just want to read, to examine the words on the page.
But I wonder:
Can I love a writer’s work if that writer is an alcoholic? Yes.
A seducer? Yes.
A bigot? Maybe.
A sexual deviant? Depends.
A Trump supporter? Ummm…
Just an all-around jerk? Probably.
Note: A version of this musing was originally published in the now archived and unattainable “Another Loose Sally” blog on Hunger Mountain‘s website.