June 23, 2014

When Feet of Clay Crack

by Kiersten Hallie Krum

Author Amy Jo Cousins wrote a post this week on the fantastic Wonk-o-mance blog called When Heroes Fall about her great disappointment in learning the dark behaviors and/or beliefs of writing idols, admired authors whose works had greatly impacted her life along with her writing. It’s an excellent if open-ended exploration of whether it’s possible to separate the work from the creator and if the impact of those works on our personal lives is depleted by the realization of the author’s flawed and possibly criminal behavior and philosophies.

feet of clay

As I nodded along while reading, I thought about the nature of “idols” especially in a culture suffused with the veneration of celebrities to the exclusion of others more worthy of admiration. For every grassroots meme from Think Progress or even Buzz Feed about regular being amazing, there’s a gazillion posts about Kardashians and “housewives”. Idolizing people is part human nature, part cultural indoctrination. We’re a media-crazed culture where five-minutes of fame is enough to last a lifetime and a good PR team can reboot anyone’s smeared career. But there’s a big difference between Robert Downey, Jr. admirably getting his life together after jail and rehab and the long-term child abuse allegations leveled against the recently deceased Marion Zimmer Bradley, of which Cousins writes so eloquently. (I use “alleged” for legality reasons, not to cast doubt on the victim’s statements.) And let’s be honest, were RDJ to relapse, how many would publicly rally to his side?

Social media comports the issue too as platforms like Twitter (come on, you knew that, with me, it had to come back to Twitter at some point) create a false intimacy that make those we “worship” appear to be our very best friend evah. Yet those platforms also humanize and reduce the size of the pedestal on which we raise them to an arguably dangerous degree.

I’m not a huge fan of Bradley’s novels, but The Mists of Avalon was a game-changing book of its time and continues to have resonance and impact today. Would we have The Red Tent without Bradley’s first retelling of the Arthurian mythology from the women’s perspective? Perhaps not. Do her alleged crimes negate the lasting impact of that novel? I’d be hard pressed to believe anyone could read it now without being influenced but the work likely still stands. I remember my disappointment when I learned about the fraudulent crimes of romance writer Meagan McKinney. McKinney was one of the writers whose work inspired me to pursue a romance writing career. That influence isn’t negated by the revelations of her illegal actions. I’ve loved McKinney’s books for a long time—I still have the original copies of many of them that I bought in the 90s. The pleasure I take in those stories is about the emotional resonance of the characters and plot, not the dubious activities of their creator. Sure, when I re-read them, I’ll no doubt linger over the memory of her crimes, but that won’t change how much I like Lions and Lace, When Dawn Tames the Night, The Ground She Walks Upon...

Great things have been accomplished by people who were inspired by their idols who themselves achieved great things. But with all the gloss and glamour, it’s easy to forget they’re flawed, complex people whose public image may hide terrible things. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that all idols have feet of clay just waiting for the wrong moment to crack.

Follow Lady Smut. We may have feet of clay, but at least they’re covered with fabulous shoes.

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  • Post authorKel

    I think there’s a need to separate people’s art from them in order to continue to appreciate the art. While many people refuse to support an artist because they have issues with the artist’s political or personal life, I believe that art should stand alone. I also believe that art should be viewed in context; both in comparison to its creation and in comparison to its viewing to be fully appreciated.

    I’ve always been good at compartmentalization.

    Humans are fallible. Someone who is a good actor, or an amazing poet, or a moving storyteller, or a wonderful chef might be a terrible human. This does not make them a bad actor, poet, storyteller or chef… it makes them someone not to emulate in life. It’s really a very easy distinction to make; love the art, dislike the unacceptable action. It’s exciting when you can like everything about someone, and it’s disappointing when you build someone into a person more admirable than they actually are… but realizing that people aren’t infallible is part of accepting them as people. You can love people, or parts of people (i.e. their art), without thinking everything they do is perfect.

  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    This is a challenging topic to respond to — I mean, celebrity is it’s own unique cluster-f***, even if you’re the good guy — so imagine what it’s like for folks in this day and age if someone — anyone! — condemns them as the bad guy in situations that are fraught with ambiguity.

    In these situations celebrities are punished in the court of good opinion. Woody Allen is still serving time.

    That said — people feel free to condemn someone on one hand and continue to buy & support their artistic products on the other. This seems contradictory creatures and not consistent. But as you mentioned Kiersten–it happens. I do it too.

    Yet maybe what we’re doing is going along with a gut distinction that the artist is not the art. The author is not her books. You have to learn that eventually as a writer if you want a long term career. But I think the audience gets that distinction intuitively — despite the way people play at conflating the two…

    I never really like MZB’s writing, so I’m perfectly happy to push her work further away. But try to convince me to never watch another Woody Allen Movie…

    Meanwhile, I’m perfectly happy to see someone like RDJ redeem himself and not waste his talent and life. This maybe is one way in which celebrity really helps – by having massive fans cheer you on your hard road to recovery.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
    • Post authorKel

      Would you feel that someone should loose their job as an accountant because they were accused of a crime? How about if they were convicted of possession or expressed a political view you disagreed with? You would, of course, have the right not to hire them as your own accountant, but do you think they should no longer have the right to support themselves?

      Why do we hold artists to a higher moral standard than anyone else? They are fallible humans, they have the right to be wrong, to fail, to make mistakes… and to still make beautiful things.

  • Post authorElizabeth Shore

    Guilty as charged. I don’t want to do so – and Kel makes an excellent point about separating the art from the artist – but I would be lying if I said I can always practice what I preach. Still, I do try.

    Reply to Elizabeth Shore

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