Authors: Adulation or Appreciation?

(What follows is nothing more than personal opinion, about a subject that I find fascinating, incomprehensible and uncomfortably disturbing in roughly equal measure – ultimately, there is no right or wrong here, just differences of opinion and expression. This is just me ranting on a Saturday afternoon….)

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We all have public figures or celebrities that we admire to one degree or another, people who have attained some kind of status for what they do or whose work touches us in some way. For the most part, it amounts to just a grand appreciation for their art, or their charitable work, or whatever it is they do, an appreciation that they have brought pleasure into our lives in some way or that they’re doing something to change the lives of others in a positive way. We’d like to meet  or contact them, yes, just to let them know how much their work means to us, perhaps, or to show them how they’ve inspired us, or just thank them for doing what they do. Sometimes we take a piece of them away with us in the form of a photograph posing with them, or getting their autographs. Sometimes, however, some people appear to take that appreciation to beyond a norm, bordering on the sycophantic.

Maybe it’s just me, but I actually find it vaguely disturbing when people start effusing in public about how ‘awesome’ and ‘brilliant’ their hero/heroine is (when it goes beyond the norm, that is), how everything their favourite personality says or does is of paramount importance and value, and that said personality can do no wrong. I’d expect it of teens or young people, that’s a natural part of growing up and exploring their (and their values’) relationship to the world around them. But when it comes from adults, it just seems to be wrong.

Lately, I have seen a few people make gushing remarks about JK Rowling on various networking sites. Certainly, whatever you think of her writing, whether good or bad, she has done a great many meritorious things: created a bestselling book franchise, all of which have been turned into equally successful films, raised the profile of women writers, earned stratospheric amounts of money while doing so and then simultaneously putting that money where her mouth is by using some of those earnings (£10m) to fund the establishment of a centre to help in the search for a cure for Multiple Sclerosis, for instance. Plus, by all accounts, she has stuck to the ideals and convictions she had before she became famous and fabulously wealthy. Worthy things all. But, does it mean that we should practically worship the ground she walks on?

The bottom line is that she’s human, just like the rest of us; she’s one of the very lucky few who are not only doing something they love, but have also risen spectacularly to the top in doing so. I’ve never read any of her work (and, quite frankly, I’m not really that interested in doing so), nevertheless I have quite a bit of admiration for her for grabbing every opportunity that came her way and also for having the persistence and strength of conviction to pursue her dream. It takes a certain type of person to do that and, quite plainly, her hard work and belief in herself has reaped massive rewards. It’s merely what all of us as writers/artists would like to happen to us as a result of the hard work we put in, but some are luckier than others.

However, when it comes to adults gushing profusely on a public forum, it becomes embarrassing and slightly disturbing, in my view. Don’t mistake me, I’d love to meet Clive Barker, the writer solely responsible for getting me interested in the horror and contemporary fantasy genres back in the 80s and inspiring me to have a go at writing myself (somewhat unsuccessfully back then, it has to be said). I’d like to sit down with him over a beer and just talk to him about his work, like I did with Brian Lumley many years ago.  Just a chance to natter about writing and the creative process with the man – ultimately, he’s just a guy who’s been lucky enough to earn a living from his work and become well-known in the process. Not everything he’s written has appealed to me. He’s human, so am I – none of us are perfect. Some ideas work, others don’t.

(Of course, I say the above from the safety of my living room – if Mr. Barker was to  knock on my front door now, I’d probably blush and faint in his presence and all that rubbishy malarky)

To look at your favourite writer’s work, and judge it uncritically, is, in some ways, doing them a disfavour. All authors want their work to be judged on its own merits and not just because it’s been written by them. They want what they do to be appreciated. I like HR Giger’s work immensely, but some paintings of his speak to me louder than others, while some I positively dislike. It might be that being a reviewer helps, inasmuch as I have to be objective as far as is humanly possible to do my job properly. If I think a favourite author’s work is not up to standard, then I’ll say so. Honesty is always more helpful than dishonesty.

When I was younger, a friend of mine and I used to have a minor disagreement over who was ‘the best band in the world’ (a silly concept in itself): he said Oasis, I championed The Young Gods. But ultimately it’s a pointless exercise – taste is a subjective thing. I didn’t like Oasis, and he thought they were better than The Young Gods. And that’s all it was. The same applies to any other field of human creative endeavour – it’s merely the application of subjective criteria that lead us to favour one author/artist/band over another. When you strip everything away, however, those celebrities we ‘idolise’ are exactly the same as us – flesh, bone, blood, sinew and mucous. It’s just that they’re the lucky ones.

I think that’s why I get chills when I hear sycophantic remarks or compliments about certain people, posted where everyone can see them. There’s a slightly distasteful tang of insecurity about people saying them, especially adults. Praise where it’s due is certainly appreciated – but if your hero disappoints then don’t be afraid of expressing that disappointment. It’s a recognition that they are, after all, the same as us. And whilst I am glad that some may have found something of worth in their lives, something that they feel the need to tell everyone about, not all of us feel the same way. Generally speaking, I can easily ignore the over-the-top statements about personalities, because I also believe that it is peoples’ right to express themselves thusly, but just occasionally I feel a little shiver go through me when I read an overly-gushy comment. Like I say, I feel there’s something slightly distasteful and disturbing about it….

On the other hand, it could be that I am getting to be a cantankerous, curmedgeonly and cynical old sod as I get older (which is inherently more likely)…. =D

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5 Responses to “Authors: Adulation or Appreciation?”

  1. Steve Duffy Says:

    I do know what you mean, Simon – and interestingly enough, the recipients of such adulation needn’t be in the Rowling/Barker bracket of fame and fortune. Read the forums and the Facebook pages, and you’ll see some surprisingly ordinary people getting wholly extraordinary amounts of praise online. (And good luck to them, mind you – god knows a bit of praise doesn’t ever come amiss!) However: there’s praise, and there’s gushing. It’s as if some inflationary tendency is at work, so that nothing can merely be “good” any more: it all has to be “AMAZING!!!” or “BRILLIANT!!!” or “AWESOME!!!” Which is kind of a shame, because apart from making people dubious of recommendations, it pre-empts our ability to respond to something that genuinely and undeniably IS above the run of the mill.

    Alright, maybe we’re both curmudgeons! I suppose we all have critical “blind spots”, which lead us to effuse to a surprising degree over some thing/person or other. Which is okay, so long as we’re aware of it!

  2. That’s a point I didn’t consider, Steve – that by elevating both people and praise out of all proportion, we are in fact devaluing things that are genuinely ‘good’ or praiseworthy…. that we are, in fact, incapable of discerning true worth when it comes along… seems to be a disease of the current times…

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Adele and Jason Baki, Simon Marshall-Jones. Simon Marshall-Jones said: Authors: Adulation or Appreciation?: http://wp.me/pW4jY-rG […]

  4. Well I genuinely believe the Harry Potter books to be largely brilliant and I don’t mind saying so – it certainly doesn’t mean I worship JK Rowling – in fact she isn’t even a heroine of mine – it is the work I admire not the person.

    To me brilliant means something that shines head and shoulders above other works of the genre – in this case children’s books – and I don’t see how anyone could argue that the HP books don’t so that.

    I also think the Dark Materials books are brilliant and so are some works by Alan Garner. The difficulty with JK Rowling is that so far we haven’t had anything other that the HP books to evaluate – so it can look as though people are as you say going over the top about the person rather than the work. Though she does seem to be remarkably nice for someone so successful.

    Harper Lee is another a bit like that – To Kill a Mockingbird was a brilliant book and a one-hit wonder, and I think Gone With The Wind might also be an ‘only’ book – it is difficult to say anything non-gushing when an author has only produced a small set of work and that has been in the main extraordinarily good. It is easier to be snarky with prolific writers who are statistically more likely to put something duff or disappointing out there.

    Heinlein is one of those as is Iain (+/-M) Banks – they have a huge number of books out there and some I find brilliant and some meh.

  5. I was lucky enough to meet an artist I admired some years ago at a friends wedding. He was just a guest – we got talking – in fact we had a really good laugh together and he was quite interested in my job – at the time a busker.

    After about an hour of talk I suddenly felt I had to tell him that I had seen his work and quite genuinely thought it was brilliant – a term I rarely used at the time about anyone. He was brilliant though and I just wanted him to know. As soon as the words left my mouth he got up and left. Never quite forgot that…

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