This post belongs under the “other” category for site metatags. It’s full-blown lit-nerd, artsy lameness. If you came here for video game reviews or commentary on the geek peripherals, feel free to click one of the links in the bar above or scroll past this one. I won’t be offended. I will, however, be flattered if you like my style or appreciate my opinions enough to keep reading (and maybe add some comments of your own).  

I was reading an article from The Economist this morning. Man Booker Prize Winner (basically the Pulitzer-light of writing), Marlon James has trouble reconciling his love of Charles Dickens with the fact that Dickens is a racist prick. It’s an issue I’ve personally struggled with. Not in the case of Dickens, I hate that guy, but other authors/artists. James ultimately goes one way with his assessment but allow me to expound. I think the most important thing is that you weigh the art versus the artist. There are times I can separate the two and times I cannot. It’s a bit of a conundrum that I don’t have the solution to but hopefully by writing this – maybe discussing it – I can elucidate matters to help us all make decisions for ourselves.

Even as an English-Lit Major, I’ve never been particularly fond of Dickens. It makes it easier for me to dislike him and his works. The man was paid by the word and wrote the equivalent of soap operas in news papers for his time. Think about that laborious intro to Tale of Two Cities. It is the exact opposite of all the rules of writing anyone will ever teach you. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” It goes on for more than a full paragraph along the same horrible pattern. Repetition. Run-ons. Comma usage. Predictability. Violation of the ‘rule of three.’ Obvious comparisons (cliches). Etc. Etc. And he got paid for every single word of it which is why I suspect he wrote it that way in the first place rather than some artistic drive. I’m a bit of a voice of dissent amongst the literary community. It’s something I struggled with all of college. I hate Dickens, think sci-fi and other genre fiction can be literature, respect Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and David Mitchell above their contemporaries that fall more concretely beneath the “Lit-Fic” genre, believe Ursala K. Le Guin should’ve won the Pulitzer in 1997, and refer to video games as the next evolution of storytelling. All of the above pretty much makes me crazy in the eyes of the literary community. It’s easy for me to dislike Dickens since studying him. I can’t un-see his xenophobia and racism and I just don’t like the man, the artist, or the art (with the exception of one book). I’m not saying this to discourage anyone from liking or reading Dickens. Quite the contrary, you should read him and make the decision for yourself. I’m merely building off of Marlon James’s example.

It would be easy for me to say my dislike of Dickens is an extension of my initial childhood resentment toward being forced to read him but I know it’s more than that. Steinbeck and Hemingway both fell under similar categories of hatred but as I aged, read, and studied the works, I came around to them in a way that I just never did Dickens. Then I consider that I still love Mark Twain and he was pretty on the nose with his beliefs and language – but a helluva lot more entertaining. My teachers always told me he wrote the way he did because “it was the times” but it never softened certain word usage for me. I was just able to see the other things he did. His social commentary. His quotes outside of fiction. His biography. It helped me see him more like the crazy uncle that said some bonkers things mixed in with wisdom and other more enriching things.

What I’m really saying is that Art vs. Artist is a conundrum and it perplexes me too. When an author writes a book, it’s all different versions of the artist’s self on paper. The id and the ego and the conflict between them are on display under different filters. The skill of the artist is in the ability to alter those personas and change them into distinct characters – that the the characters are unique individuals and not just the author dialoguing with the voices in their head. Sometimes as readers we can glimpse the artist in the art and depending on the intensity it can ruin or enhance the art itself. This is part of the reason I don’t like Kevin Smith movies the way my peers seem to. When I watch them, all I hear are the voices of Kevin Smith having conversations with himself and setting up his own punchlines. Personal knowledge, experiences, education, and vested interests in the subject material alter our perceptions of the art. When I say you have to weigh it, that’s what I mean.

As a writer and English major I try damn hard to dilute myself within my own work (the paradox being I want to preserve a my own voice and tone). Some things I write have intended (allegorical) meaning but I know that readers will find meaning where I’ve attempted none. That’s the beauty of art. It can be personal and mean many things to many people. On the other hand, I can recognize the conflict of other authors when I read – it’s not always just about the pure entertainment for me. Sometimes outside factors can poison the art. Recently Orson Scott Card came out using his books as an opportunity to preach his personal bias toward the LGBT community. I LOVED Ender’s Game growing up but watching Card use attention from the movies to spew his ignorance rendered me incapable of enjoying the books anymore. I have my memories and those are still intact but I am no longer able to recommend others read them or go back and read them myself – I see the propaganda even where it may not have existed before. I’m genuinely happy for those that can still read the books without Card’s personal douchebaggery tainting them.

Like anything, education is key in solving the conundrum. Reading a plethora of books across different time periods and several genres falls under the category of education. You don’t have to read biographies and histories about the authors to form an opinion on their books. Reading different authors within a similar time period can help you distill a more informed opinion. There are no tabloids dedicated to witnessing the personas of the long dead writers in any direct manner. They must instead be measure by their peers. In general, I give all the old dead guys the benefit of the doubt – including Dickens. Their art pushed back against a dominant culture in some way and withstood the test of time for a reason. Maybe Dickens wasn’t as much of a racist as his contemporaries. Maybe his focus on poverty was more substantial than the occasional jab at how stupid he thought other countries were. You’ll have to decide those things for yourself – part of art being art.

The takeaway point? Art and artist both matter. Someone can be both a good writer and a real sonovabitch. Sometimes they’re a worse sonovabitch than they are a good writer. Other times the reverse is true. The most important part though is that you, the reader, the consumer of art keep reading. Think about what you’ve read. Measure it against your experiences and other art and let it enrich your life. But most importantly remember, Dickens WAS a piece of shit and his books are overrated.

Of course, I don’t have a Man Booker Prize yet so weigh everything I’ve just said accordingly.