The Temptation of Fame: Art and Motivation

…or, why writers, like bands, are better before they’re discovered.


So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.” Virginia Woolf

I write because I like the world — as it is — and want to see it, up-close.  I can’t find the world in many people’s books (by and large). The real world seems like a faded copy of a copy in a lot of stories; even the grit is unreal, much too thoughtful to do any damage. I read many stories, everything from University of Iowa grads to porn-pervs, and am largely left with an elevated sense of distance. So much of what “writers” do places their talent front-and-center; what might have otherwise been a quick trip to the park becomes an exposition of (boring) botanical expertise. Why do they have to mention the names of trees —  every tree?  Is that a requirement — authors must wear long, drapy scarves, not know how to say hello in a coffee shop, and know the names of trees? 

What I want is a story I can walk around in, where characters are actually people who have jobs other than “writer,” “teacher,” “bookstore clerk,” or “student”  — and don’t know the difference between beech and magnolia trees. I want a story written by an adult who can do something else, like fix an air conditioner or play football. This is why I like TC Boyle’s stories so much. His characters legitimately work — as in, they have jobs.  Real jobs, like mechanics and nurses. But Boyle and Cheever, Jackson and Hurston — not to mention Larry Brown! — stand out in a field constructed by luminous mannequins whose deep feelings veil experiential limitation. (No, I’m not going to name them. Throw a rock and it will hit one of their books. Especially if it’s in a classroom.) Their works, like them, are museum-art, rarified and thoughtful, not things that can survive in the wild.  I cannot live in these worlds because they are basically intellectual prison-blocks where the guards, though they are the most interesting (and sexy), are mute. They must be mute; the authors have never been to prison.  

I write because I like finding meaning in hitchhiking, when I was 14, from Salt Lake City to Reno just to escape a step-dad.  Two great truck drivers, one who missed his wife and the other who let me drive, bought me dinner, and told me to pay it all forward. I want to tell that beauty. Serve it. Not show the world I can write.

“Poverty is the great reality. That is why artists seek it.”  Anais Nin

The desire to live off of art is quite the ubiquitous dream, one that I am prone to entertain and one I hope to always strive against.  The dream is cunning, and therefore quite difficult to guard against. It’s basically a variation of capitalism (“think ’bout how much good you could do if…”), mixed with an apparent love of art. For me, it goes something like this: “I don’t need to be rich, just comfortable. Actually, just enough to be able to write full-time.  Then I could concentrate….and produce beautiful stories.”  It seems like a reasonable request of the world. Then, after buying into the ArtMart, I begin to imagine the life of the writer as necessary, lyrically composed of long walks through wet Vancouver forests and breathtaking epiphanies…that I could share with others! All those who, as Emma Thompson put it in Idler, “do jobs they don’t enjoy” (November-December 2019).  I alone can save them!

Don’t we all need more beauty in our lives? And isn’t that what I do? Create beauty, and truth, or a diversion? And shouldn’t I get paid for that?

But I must be careful.  Underneath the supposed allegiance to art is the true want  — to get paid for love. And that changes everything, transforms what might be exquisitely faceted (like Proust’s invisible fish) into a painted caricature constructed only to please (as in Svidrigailov’s child-prostitute in Crime and Punishment). Dostoevsky is really the master here, explaining in blood-curdling detail the demented relationship between caring about a person, about art, and trying to use one’s love/creation. “Here, honey, you’re so beautiful.  Now get on that platform and shake your shit!”  Is there any other word for such an “artist” than pimp?  Worse than pimp, really, because most pimps aren’t peddling the people they love, unless they live in Hollywood. For such artists, that desire for payment, that goal of selling, shackles both the art and the artist; for just as a Church can’t reasonably take money from and effectively criticize billionaires, neither can the rich pimp claim to be doing anything other than supplying a need — the creator, using his creation in a furious bid to be liked, validated, supported by his or her addicts.  

Pimping my work before the masses, hoping the fickle crowds will give me what I need (for ART!), I become their puppet and my art, its dog.  If they like me — really, really like me — I get to supply more, push more, become oblivious to the fact that being liked by the public is probably a better sign that I’ve fed its cravings than unleashed truth.  Or anything else that can really stir. The maddening crowds, after all, don’t tend to gravitate towards those who tell them to fuck off (excepting, perhaps, French existential readers), who point out that people who claim to be “sad” when thinking about how hard others work think, in their myopia, that their “sadness” means something.  Popularity, fame, fortune — these things expose mediocrity, just as success among thieves just means you’re a better thief.

It’s a good thing to remember.  

Now, if I’m lucky and the marketplace rejects me, I have a couple of options:  start producing what people want to read (go back to square one, Pimpery 101), or reject the idea of living off my art.  (A third option exists, one touted by Hemingway: make the public fall for what I’ve written.  Curiously, he only seemed to advocate this after he was….loved by the public. And then, well, you know…the gun.)  The former — accepting the whims of the populace — means accepting that my artistic vision is basically a back-road to which house I want to live in. And that is okay, I think, if I accept the commercialization that comes with it.  And the exposure of my true motivation: Art as a means to an end, love and art a means to fame and fortune, which makes art…powerless. Fun. A fuck-doll. Which is, again, not bad in a moral sense (though I’ve never really understood the fuck-doll phenomenon). It just doesn’t seem wise to confuse a living, breathing spiritual being with something made of plastic. If I’m not careful, I might end up believing the two are interchangeable, that the man I live with is the same as the man who was paid $1000 to make me feel a certain way. Not a wise confusion. No.  Never.

AND incidentally, this is why many bands are only good until that hit-single.  Not because success changes the artist; it’s that success reveals the band’s true nature.  Of course we won’t really know, but I suspect there are many un-famous bands out there that would knock our socks off.  And who don’t want to be famous because that would show them to be people they’re not.

Now…the last option — resisting the idea of making money off my stories, poems, and thoughts —  that’s where I want to be. Not a follower of Anais Nin, but someone who reads in her words the regret of success.  The best part of me does not want to sell, to turn my love into something that works for me; and the only way I have found to inoculate myself against virus of “success,” the only thing that guides me towards service to the Muse, is to remember Vincent van Gogh, who only sold one painting during his life — after creating more than 2000; and Emily Dickinson; and Franz Kafka. These are my idols, everyone for whom the choice between art and fame was obvious. My gods? All those whose names I don’t know… yet.

After the inoculation, a defense: being lifted up by the public is like being protected by hyenas — they’ll only be happy as long as they’re fed what they like, and then not for long.  Who wants to be loved by such an animal? Appreciated by the same public that “doesn’t think the time is right for a female president”? Artists shun the affection of the masses, knowing that embedded within that affection is a terrible insult and consequence. Being loved by fascists is no compliment. Neither is being popular in prison.

I want something else. I want to love my work, not use it.  

Plus, I can always get a job.


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