the artist is not the art

I’m on a reading-books-for-adults kick, apparently, because not only did I just finish The Borrower, but I also recently read The Casual Vacancy (which, as you may recall, I got when I saw J.K. Rowling speak at Lincoln Center).

I feel bad saying this because I love J.K. so much, and I don’t want to hurt her feelings (should she by chance stumble across, but: I did not like The Casual Vacancy. I really did not.

I read the whole thing out of respect for J.K.’s work, and because– I will say this in its favor– I did want to know how the story ended. (Answer: not well, for anyone involved.) But had it been a manuscript submission, I would have stopped reading and rejected it long before that point.

This novel was everything I say I don’t like about adult fiction: loveless marriages, parents who resent their children, children who don’t respect their parents, the idea that all perceived friendship or love is just an illusion, the impossibility of meaningful hope or happy endings for anyone.

That’s why I love kids’ books, by the way: because there has to be hope, and the possibility that someday, somehow, things will end happily.

I tried expressing to some of my friends how much I didn’t like this book, and their responses always included statements like, “It’s so much worse because it’s J.K. Rowling! This book wouldn’t bother you so much if you weren’t so disappointed with her. How could the author of Harry Potter write something so depressing!”

But I disagree with this assessment. It contradicts one of my fundamental beliefs about art. That belief is as follows:

The artist is not the art. You ought not judge a person by the work he or she creates, nor can you judge the work by its creator.

I’ve heard arguments that The Sun Also Rises isn’t a good book because Ernest Hemingway was a misogynist and a drunk. I’ve heard that Atlas Shrugged isn’t a good book because Ayn Rand was an Objectivist.

I do not buy any of these arguments. If you like a book (and I happen to very much like both The Sun Also Rises and Atlas Shrugged), that is sufficient– you can still denounce the writer at the same time. And if you don’t like a book (e.g. The Casual Vacancy), that’s okay– you can still have complete love and respect for the author. (J.K., you are a genius.)

One of my top five writers of all time, Oscar Wilde, wrote about this idea a fair amount. Of course now that I’ve said that, I can’t find any of his famous lines about it. But I remember being in high school and first reading his theories that the artist and his creation are two separate things, to be judged separately. That resonated with me. It still does.