Wednesday’s WIP: Notes on Fallen Idols

1. I am unabashedly stealing the structure of this post from Daniel Nester, who is currently posting “99 Days of Notes” on his site. All last week, I was especially moved by the several Notes on Grief. You can find links to each post in the series and read all about the project right here.

2. I’m hoping that this format will help me say something at least semi-cogent regarding Margo Rabb’s essay, “Fallen Idols,” which appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

2a. Rabb’s essay evoked many thoughts, only some of which I’ll attempt to articulate here.

2b. I’ve never met or corresponded with Margo Rabb, but I admire and have often recommended her short story “How to Tell a Story.”

3. “Fallen Idols” essentially presents us with exemplary instances of disillusionment resulting from discoveries that esteemed authors have flaws.

3a. The essay begins with Rabb’s own admiration for Rainer Maria Rilke; having Googled him, Rabb discovers enough to make her wonder, “How could the kind prophet whose lengthy passages I’d copied into my teenage diary be a selfish, sycophantic, womanizing rat?”

3b. Similar examples–especially insofar as the womanizing theme may be concerned–dot the anecdotes from other writers, who in many cases report on actual, face-to-face (rather than face-to-Google) encounters with living people.

4. Some interesting points complicate the essay.

4a. It turns out, for example, that “some writers enjoy discovering the darker sides of their favorite authors.” The discovery can be reassuring. As Mary Karr is quoted as saying: “Even the best of us are at least part-time bastards.”

4b. Further, not every discovery of or interaction with an author’s human self is destined to reveal darkness. We’re provided with at least one example in which “some writers exceed expectations.”

5. Rabb’s essay would like us to consider, I think, not merely whether certain writers are “good” or “bad” people, but also what it means for readers to have evidence of writers’ selves off the page.

6. Like Rabb, I’ve been disillusioned to discover certain facts about writers I began admiring when I was a teenager. Take T.S. Eliot.

6a. I often wonder if there’s a difference in my reactions in these cases depending on whether the author is living or dead.

6b. For example, Eliot is dead. He isn’t signing petitions or advocating boycotts these days. He isn’t Tweeting. He isn’t showing up at venerable reading venues and using them as the most noxious of bully pulpits.

6c. So Eliot’s anti-Semitism doesn’t make my blood pressure rise as, say, Alice Walker‘s anti-Israel activities and statements do. I still read and marvel over “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” even more than I did in high school But I haven’t been able to bring myself to re-watch “The Color Purple” (which I also first encountered during high school) or reread the novel on which it is based for quite awhile.

6d. I know the argument–“anti-Zionism isn’t anti-Semitism.” No, not always. But, in the words of one recent commentator, “the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is getting thinner all the time. These two worldviews are, if obviously not the exact same thing, then at least very close cousins.”

7. I’m quite aware that by writing this post, and by (again) making clear that despite its flaws (as with people, even the “best” of countries have them), I stand with Israel, I may alienate some of my own readers, just as those writers who consistently distort (or ignore) history and fact as they demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state alienate me. That, in my own small way, I may become a “fallen idol” myself.

8. All of this has been on my mind lately in the aftermath of Helen Thomas’s passing.

8a. Helen Thomas is an example of a fallen idol.

8b. There were years when I watched her pitch questions to presidents and admired her stamina and outspokenness. And her obituaries have widely praised her path-breaking role as a woman journalist.

8c. But oh, the things that Thomas said about Israel and “the Jews”!

8d. Don’t take my word for it. Read Jeffrey Goldberg’s commentary (be sure to click through and read the interview he references) or Adam Chandler’s (which is subtitled, incidentally, “The personal overshadowed the professional”).

9. Which brings us back to the question of Fallen Idols.

10. Aren’t there instances in every field in which the personal overshadows the professional?

10a. Or is there something unique about our fallen authorial idols, in particular?

10b. Moreover, are readers-who-are-writers more likely to experience (and think about) this issue more than readers-who-aren’t-writers do?

10c. The examples in Rabb’s essay typically depict not the “general” reader encountering a literary idol, but rather a writer–a writing student or an author–encountering another writer as a teacher or colleague. That’s important to recognize.

10d. Isn’t it?

7 thoughts on “Wednesday’s WIP: Notes on Fallen Idols

  1. Ewrin K. Roberts says:

    The manner of your introduction to a writer can make, or break, what you think of that writer, or their work. I’d never heard Eliot’s personal/political views, because I wish I’d never heard of the man, at all.

    This stems from spending about a full week as a senior in high school being forced to wring symbolism out of every line of “The Hollow Men.” My English Lit teacher was a twenty-something woman on a mission. And you’d better not disagree with her views of the GODS. Eliot was still alive in the Fall of 1964 and gave an interview to Time magazine saying he had no idea of the symbolism of his earlier work. Didn’t matter, the symbolism was there, now find it.

    This is a bit off topic, I know. Nearly fifty years later I still wonder how many students this type of “instruction” got turned away from reading for enjoyment.

  2. Clive Collins says:

    For me, Auden says it all in his poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”:

    “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all”.

    And continues (in verses he later saw fit to delete):

    “Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and the innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique,

    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives;
    Pardons cowardice, conceit,
    Lays its honours at their feet.

    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him for writing well.”

    But there are no easy answers here.

    1. Barbara Baer says:

      The Auden lines are magnificent, as so much of Auden is…and I remember him arriving so drunk for a poetry reading at the New School that it was a miracle he got to the stage and could mumble anything. Perhaps there are failings we judge less harshly, drunkenness, even womanizing if it’s not violent etc, whatever it may be, but deep-rooted hatreds based on race are different. I like Erika’s blog and your response. Thanks

  3. Judy Long says:

    The post and the comments above are insightful. I have to confess that, until now, I hadn’t thought about authors-with-clay feet (except for Orson Scott Card) as much as I have about film makers such as Woody Allen and, especially, Roman Polanski.

  4. diana rosen says:

    It is always shocking to learn that writing icons (can’t bring myself to say idols) have prejudices and weaknesses and, sometimes, ever aberrations of behavior and thought. This is especially acute to me when I realize the anti-zionist, anti-semitic, anti-Israel, anti-black/Asian/Hisplanic beliefs that way too many writers hold are part of their writerly being.

    It doesn’t make them less talented or creative as a writer. Still, their appeal does diminish in my eyes and I’m much less likely to read their next book or watch their next movie, especially when choices of books and other written media are so varied and accessible. Yes, everyone is entitled to their POV and, perhaps, even to their prejudiced POV.

    It is no small thing to be read or heard, and one’s influence is much more far-ranging that one can imagine. By revealing and, in some cases, crowing about one’s POV, one can influence many people and this, of course, is the danger.

    What are the writers’ responsibilities? Should their beliefs and politics be silenced so as not to offend or should they always be true to these beliefs and politics? Are writers obliged only to write well and shut up? What’s the difference between being politically correct and being milquetoasts? A fine line, I think. And yet…good writers can inspire hate, anger, war. And, good writers can inspire love (or at the very least, respect), kindness, peace.

    Perhaps the questions should not be what writers should or should not do but how everyone can learn to read with discernment, understand the difference between propaganda and pure storytelling, ask, always, why emotions are stirred with words, and what is the intention of the writers?

  5. Erika Dreifus says:

    Thank you all for the generous and thoughtful reception of this post–and for your own additions to the discussion. Deeply appreciated.

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