Whatever Happened To “Reverence For The Artist”?

Celeste Ng’s 2014 novel Everything I Never Told You, which I reviewed back in June, has won Amazon’s Book of the Year award.  While I do have some reservations about her work in regard to the appropriateness of its tone in relation to the subject matter, the award does recognize the fine, psychological acuteness with which Ng depicts a traumatized family, and I am pleased that she won it.

What’s interesting is that Ng has evidently been deluged with questions on social media since the novel’s publication, but she has been criticized for her reluctance to answer all those questions.

In light of the backlash against her, my own question is, “Whatever happened to the idea of “reverence for the artist?”  In the old days (that is, as far back as one wants to go from the present moment), a man or woman wouldn’t dream of disturbing a writer or painter or sculptor at his or her place of work.  We might write letters to such people praising their work, but we wouldn’t insist on a reply, as if it were our right to receive one.  You’d find the occasional writer, like J.R.R. Tolkien, who graciously answered many hundreds of questions in letters from fans, but even he could not and did not answer every letter, and even he complained occasionally about the time such replies often consumed.

In the present day, I myself have dispatched e-mails and tweets to poet Dorianne Laux, columnist George Will, and philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  I received gracious acknowledgements and replies from Laux and Nussbaum, but I expected and required none of them.  The point of writing to them was to praise their work and to share my own.  They do not know me or owe me anything, and I certainly do not know them.

Art in any form stands between the artist who creates it and the audience for whom it is intended, just as the camera and the big screen stands between the actor and the audience in the movie theater and the camera mediates between the TV pundit and his fans.  In each case, we do not “know” the artist, and it is folly to think we do, even if, as Johnny Carson and Jon Stewart did, the artist projects a warmth that seems to invite familiarity.

What we are given is the art, whether it’s a snappy one-liner that puts a pompous politician in his place or a sculpture of such heartbreaking beauty that it transforms our understanding of what suffering and glory may be.  That art is all we are entitled to, and it is both rude and wrong to expect anything else from those who create it.

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3 thoughts on “Whatever Happened To “Reverence For The Artist”?

  1. ramonawray says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, John. It has come to a point where the mystique regarding this has been all but shattered. People are becoming more interested in the hand that wields the pen than in what that pen puts down on paper. A crying shame. I’m glad she took a firm stand about it – it’s high time that someone did that.

  2. Thanks, Ramona. Back when I was teaching the research paper to my comp students, I sometimes suggested that my students get in touch with one of their sources if a contact number was available. “You never know,” I said, “they might answer you!” But now, the situation is evolving differently. Writers like Ng and Emily St. John Mandel are being deluged with tweets and letters and phone calls–to the extent that it is *impossible* to be gracious, even when one wants to be. Ng’s problems are exactly the kinds of problems that persuaded J.D. Sallinger and Thomas Pyncheon to stay out of the public eye after writing their novels.

  3. Pingback: Is Fandom Broken? | Books Here And There

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