Saturday, October 16, 2004

Writers With Bad Personalities

Are there great artists whose work you admire, but whose personalities turn you off so much that you can't enjoy their work? Now, when I say "personality," I'm not talking about what the artist was like in private life; I'm talking about the personality he or she projects in the art itself. Many artists have been complete creeps in real life, but, in their work, they somehow became generous, tolerant, and good-hearted. But sometimes the combined things that make up a literary personality -- the way the artist portrays his or her characters, the things he or she chooses to celebrate or condemn, the general attitude to life -- turn me off so much that I feel, when I read or see that person's work, that I'm in the presence of a very unpleasant person.

Again, this has nothing to do with the artist's non-literary personality. Jonathan Swift, in real life, obviously held many of the same opinions and attitudes that he expresses on the page, but he evidently could be quite likable if he wanted to be. But in his work, he comes off to me as horribly unpleasant, basing his work on attitudes that I find intolerant and almost anti-human: humans aren't only stupid to Swift, as they are to most satirists; Mark Twain was nasty too, but I get the feeling he hates human folly, not humans. But I always feel that Swift just plain hates people: hey're horrible, repulsive, brutish; bodily functions disgust him and the human mind disgusts him even more. Reading Gulliver's Travels is like listening to some guy tell you how much he wants to eliminate most of the human race and start over again with only the righteous.

Another writer whose literary personality turns me off, but for almost opposite reasons: Anthony Trollope. The Way We Live Now is in many ways a wonderful novel. But the personality and attitudes I detect in his work are, again, kind of a turnoff to me. Not a complete turnoff; Trollope is justly celebrated for being fair to his characters, able to present them sympathetically even when they're acting badly, able to portray women three-dimensionally, etc. But some of the time, what I see in Trollope is a smug, almost Podsnappian attitude to anything outside of his own world of city life, country squiredom, and political party politics. He's suspicious of anybody who exhibits strong passions, uninterested in other cultures (hence the business with the Emperor of China in The Way We Live Now, and the portrayal of the American Mrs. Hurtle, whose defining characteristics are that she's abominably passionate and likes guns too much), sniffy about other ethnicities, just generally not very concerned with things that are outside his narrow purview of how people ought to behave. Do I find this in other English novelists? Sure. Does it bother me as much? No. It's something about Trollope's personality, as a writer (again, this has nothing to do with what he did or said in private life), that makes me feel somehow that I'm in the presence of someone I don't really like that much.

Conversely, sometimes I'll wind up liking a writer's literary personality even though I'm supposed to dislike it. In college, we were practically ordered to hate Kipling, or at least say that while he could sort of write, he has unacceptable attitudes. But while some of his attitudes are a turn-off, he also has a genuine interest in and even love of other cultures and people outside of his own class and culture; an understanding of the limitations of his own culture and of its power; and just a real love of people. So when reading a good Kipling story, I feel I'm in the presence of someone who projects a personality that I can like and even admire. Though I don't know as I'd feel that way if he were agitating for the British to invade and occupy my country.

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