Divorces and Failed Marriages

FRANCINE PROSE writes a enjoyable review of a Eudora Welty biography:

Like her subject, Marrs understands that character is ultimately unfathomable and wisely makes no attempt to explain how, by the tender age of 22, a well-brought-up Mississippi girl found the intellectual confidence and flat-out nerve to send Virginia Woolf a fan letter expressing her affection for ”To the Lighthouse” while criticizing the ”lesser surges of inspiration” responsible for ”The Waves.”

This is an example of “designeritis” (something I posted once about). And that is good. College students are great at rejecting the advice/opinions of authority figures. As a literature teacher, the most important thing I learned was generally to discourage students from seeking out secondary sources, for fear of polluting their opinions. Great writers sometimes write crap (even they would admit it sometimes). Maybe when they work on something, they think, “hey, this is going to be interesting!” and yet when they finish, they can often see very clearly how the artistic work falls short. But when that happens, what do you do? Throw the book or movie away? Of course not. Just release it and hope people see only the good parts. A failed work is not necessarily a tragedy, not necessarily a waste of time. I wrote a brilliant novella in my 20’s which I refer to as an “interesting failure.” Not a great work, but parts of it are great and fascinating, and it’s definitely worth reading when I put it on the web (sometime next year, stay tuned). I might even write a little preface explaining my attitude about it.

But if a marriage is less than perfect, does a person have to get divorced? A writer is committed to his or her projects. It’s rare that he or she abandons them altogether. When you start talking about financial investments, hey, you have a different story. There’s more at stake if a film company is throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at a movie likely to be a stinker. But most of the time, the writer sticks with it, and if the writer already has a “brand,” there is no point in not making it public (especially if there’s money involved).

For the rare artist like Hitchcock or Chekhov or Philip Glass, every work is great and practically perfect. But other great artists (I’m thinking of Picasso or Hemingway in particular), are capable of greatness too, but work more in volume. Their mistakes may reveal something about the artist’s personal life or the vagaries of time. Often, they may reveal some theme that is later realized more successfully in another work. Hal Hartley, for example, is real hit-or-miss for me. But I wouldn’t dream of missing his movies. The same is true for David Byrne. I like an artist who takes chances, who is willing to strike out sometimes. In mainstream publishing, we always hear about the artist who has “hit upon a successful formula” and then ended up using this same formula to gain more artistic freedom and resources to pursue a project. I’m thinking of Quentin Tarantino, a brilliant director who (I’m sorry to say) has not really done anything bold or interesting in a long time. On the other hand, he’s making a lot of money, getting top talent and getting the freedom that comes with being an A lister. If he plays long and hard enough, he may very well be able to create the magic of earlier works like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction.

Failures are good; they are healthy and very very constructive. The Coca Cola CEO who bombed out with “New Coke” in the 1980’s later became their most successful executive. Failure means that you’re taking chances. One Stanford U. admissions counselor told parents to worry if their son or daughter has a 4.0 average after freshman year; that is a sign that the student is not seeking out new challenges or applying himself.

Part of developing your artistic side is learning to criticize other prominent artists as equals, not as deities. The romanticist idea of the artist treats them as heroes or superhumans or someone born with oodles of god-given talent. Actually though, the distance between mortals and artists is quite small. Yes, certain disciplines (sculpture, musical composition, etc) require training and resources, but artistic success (and I don’t mean external success but internal success) boils down less to talent than inclination and simple determination to get the job done (at the expense of family, finances, mental health).

So when 22 year old Welty was pronouncing her cocky opinions to Ms. Woolf, she was also pronouncing her ambition to outdo Ms. Woolf in her own peculiar way. She was also recognizing that artists (even great artists) can and should fail spectacularly.