Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Rotten writers

If writers can only create their master-pieces by being thoroughly selfish and mistreating their family and friends, is that a necessary price to pay or would they be better off writing less and being more likable?

An article today points out that although James Joyce wrote brilliant novels that are acclaimed all over the world, as an individual he was quite unpleasant. His wife Nora is said to have described him as weak and neurotic, ruining her life, drinking too much and squandering money he constantly cadged off other people.

The private lives of many other writers and artists have turned out to be equally unappealing and hard for others to cope with. Behind the glossy public image there is often a less savoury tale of long-suffering spouses and domestic mayhem.

It’s standard practice to play down their shocking personal behaviour and insist that it’s the necessary downside to works of genius that will be feted for centuries to come. In any case, their dissatisfied partners are always free to walk out and find someone more attractive.

There again, it can be argued that they just happen to be inadequate individuals, and their objectionable traits have nothing to do with being writers or artists. They could stop writing tomorrow, and still be a total pain in the arse. In fact their frustrated desire to write might make them even more obnoxious.

If they stopped writing, maybe they would just take up some other all-consuming interest that would make them just as selfish and just as careless about other people’s needs.

Some people would even suggest that their flawed private lives make their creative output more interesting. Doesn’t a book written by a notorious philanderer and drug-addict have more of a frisson than one written by a polite, neatly-dressed tea-drinker? And isn’t it impressive that they even managed to write these extraordinary books despite all their personal failings?

At the end of the day, I guess it’s simply a question of what others are willing to put up with. If their nearest and dearest are prepared to suffer all manner of indignities and mistreatment in the name of public esteem and a distinguished artistic legacy, then who is to say they shouldn’t? Is it any concern of ours?

Picture courtesy of the Missouri Review, University of Missouri


  1. This kind of thing just irritates me. My partner is a musician and one of her best friends is a famous jazz singer who has been nominated for a grammy (never won, though!) several times. This woman is wealthy, but never picks up the check, is always late when she visits and calls at the last minute and expects us to drop everything to make time for her when she visits. She also calls me "dahling" which I find cloying. But, I think my partner is just dazzled by the fact that she dines out with Bonnie Raitt on a frequent basis.

    I don't think it is just writers. I think it is anyone in the arts who thinks they can use their occupation as a reason to behave badly.

    "Their temperaments are more fragile than the rest of ours are!" my partner laments.

    Not buying it.

  2. Sometimes wonder if a lot of people arent quite nasty once you start looking. I wasn't too impressed by the sight of Nigella having her throat gripped. I do think creatives might be a bit more self obsessed than most other people, though

  3. Maria: Good to have some personal experience of this syndrome! Interesting that the famous jazz singer is so aggravating behind the scenes. I love Bonnie Raitt but yes, so frigging what if they eat out together? I also agree that the line about their fragile temperaments is just special pleading. A lot of us ordinary mortals have fragile temperaments too....

  4. Jenny: Indeed, scratch the surface of anyone's personality and some rather hideous things can pop out! Of course Charles Saatchi is not actually a creative, just an art collector - which only goes to show other people can be nasty as well.

  5. Fame gone to the head? I wonder what they were like before becoming famous?

  6. I always figured it was a right brain thing and they can't help it. Or maybe it's nurture because we believe that artists are just that way and can't help themselves, so we give them a pass.

  7. Hold your horses. There are plenty of writers who don't throw hissy fits or neglect their children. Painters who don't cut off an ear and/or go mad, and composers who don't do whatever composers do (bang their fists on their Steinway because they can't quite fathom that note which momentarily evades them?).

    Fact is that there are plenty of complete assholes in every sphere of life. Whether famous or going down the mines. And - let's put this into perspective - how many weren't even famous when they infamously behaved badly? How many lived their lives in abject poverty, often ridiculed by society's high and mighties? And do any of you really think that anyone would actually 'choose' to hurt those around them? I am not here to defend the 'artistic temperament' because there is no such thing, but there is temperament. In all of us.

    Main thing not to confuse the product with the person. Sure, it's a little unpalatable to know that the very person whose output you so admire, was a complete bastard in his/her private life. So what? To every diva hundreds of odious deck chair shufflers.

    Put another way: It's us who put people who "create" on a pedestal. And some people, regardless of their station, in life wrestle better with their demons than others.

    So let the anonymous "well adjusted" not be so high and mighty. And let's hope no one will ever write a biography on any of us. Posterity might be disappointed how little we achieved and how full of hot air and hoity-toity some of us are regardless.

    Black and white the world is NOT.


  8. Happily, I am surrounded by writers, musicians and artists who are fabulous people.

    I am a writer and although I have my quirks and difficulties, my loved ones still like hanging out with me.

    Don't paint us creatives with brushes of the same colour!

  9. Grannymar: Good question. Were they much more considerate or were they total arseholes right from the start?

    Bijoux: I'm not saying all artists and writers are like that, only some of them. But yes, I think we often excuse them on the basis that that's just the way they are.

  10. Ursula: Oh, there's a lot of misunderstandings there! (1) As I replied to Bijoux, I'm not saying all artists are insufferable, only some. (2) I didn't say that the non-artistic are all saintly. Of course their behaviour varies enormously. And yes, I think some people do choose to hurt others. (3) I wasn't talking about poverty or wealth but how self-absorbed artists can become. (4) I'm not acting high and mighty and I'm not at all well-adjusted. I'm sure a biography of me would be cringingly unflattering. I was only commenting on artists whose public reputation and private behaviour are at odds.

    I do agree however that we tend to put creative people on a pedestal. The inflated reputation of certain writers, rock stars, designers, painters etc is absurd. I also agree that some people manage their inner demons more effectively than others. Not everyone has the strength or ingenuity to stop their private hang-ups overwhelming them.

  11. I suspect we only hear about the ones who are asses. I've known artistic types who were lovely people, and also know some behave abominably. Ditto any other field you can name. Is it worth it? As long as they aren't abusing children or mistreating me, what do I care. And if I know they are truly appalling people (say, Mel Gibson), I don't see their movies. I'd have the same rule about not supporting any other artist who was a vicious. For instance, if Hitler had any real talent as a painter, would I buy one of his paintings? Of course not. I also don't patronize the businesses of non-artists who I know to be morally bankrupt.

  12. Agent: Indeed, is it any concern of ours? Not unless the person is doing something we find personally offensive or disturbing. And then, as you say, it's up to us to shun their work, even if others are turning a blind eye to their off-stage shittiness.

  13. As I counsel some young people, I find that flawed private lives are not the monopoly of the creative types. In just about every walk of life we have these specimens, just as we have unflawed people in both.

    Celebrities come under the glare of publicity and get exposed whereas my gardener who gets drunk and beats up his wife does not, nor my millionaire businessman neighbour who ignores his wife and is often seen with bimbos.

  14. Ramana: Absolutely, flawed private lives are found in every walk of life. My point was that people are ready to criticise the ordinary misfits while the private flaws of more creative folk are often tactfully overlooked.

  15. Wow, I find this a bit of an odd post there, Nick. I think perhaps you are singling out one profession for criticism. Do you personally know such defective artists?

    I know many, many writers and artists and absolutely NONE are as unkind and self-absorbed as you claim, they wouldn't long be my friends if so. Or the public's.

    Divas and divos exist in all professions, I can remember some sadistic teachers and we only have to look at politicians and bankers and....


  16. www: Indeed, I could have mentioned other professions where idolised individuals have dubious private lives. And I'm glad to hear you know many writers and artists who are very likable people. But I was only referring to those writers whose creativity seems to depend on ill-treatment of those close to them.

  17. Well, I do think that people who work in largely self-contained environs, by themselves, get a bit wacky & solipsistic. I too know writers, heck my whole family are writers pretty much, of varying sorts, and well...odd lot. Bitchy, maladjusted. Nutty.

    And don't get me started on artists and musicians. We've got those too. At least it's not boring :-)

  18. Leah: Bitchy, maladjusted and nutty, huh? Your family occasions must be quite something! Mind you, I also work in a largely self-contained setting, right now, so maybe I'm turning gradually nuttier? Or should I say even nuttier than before....

  19. Oh that's me. Just ask Husband ...

  20. Liz: Really? You get so absorbed in your writing he always gets pushed to one side? Well, he doesn't seem to mind too much, he seems to be the philosophical type....