Upon hearing that her controversial genital art would be denied an audience, CU Student, Clarissa Peppers said, “I don’t feel that, as an artist, I’m responsible for the reaction of the viewers.” The writer/editor in me cringed. Have we gone that far down Narcissism Road that we creative types can essentially say, “bite me” to our audiences?
Well, of course we can—first amendment and all. But are we now so self absorbed that we care nothing for those who we are supposed to be addressing if not entertaining? What was Clarissa’s haughty defiance all about? Was she thumbing her nose at the free market that simply wasn’t interested in studying her sculpted vaginas? Or was she pushing against virtually nonexistent 21st century boundaries? Like a self absorbed child testing limits, maybe she was throwing all her p.c. energy into a temper tantrum—hey I’m here! It’s me! Don’t look away! Pay attention to me! Me me me!
Some popular writers do it, too. Self conscious prose, show-off dialogue, unnaturally manufactured plots, social messages that slap us in the face. Some are so cocky in their communication they insult. We’ve become a nation of narcissists. And authors aren’t immune to the effects.
When it comes to writing, it’s hard to determine the line between grandiosity and healthy rebellion. We writers have historically been recognized as drivers of new ideas, even if a little off-tilt. Brazen writing stands out. Sometimes it is extremely visceral. The Happy Hooker by Xaviara Hollander, is tell-all sexually explicit, meant to shock--especially the scene with the dog. Some are violently brazen like Hugh Howey’s I, Zombie which comes with a warning: “This book contains foul language and fouler descriptions of life as a zombie. It will offend most anyone, so proceed with caution or not at all.” Even children’s books like Captain Underpants capitalize on crude. One might call such books brash, impudent, shameless. But why not call them bold?
I’m reading Gone Girl and can’t help but feel riveted, even though it seems audacious, chichi, and smug. Gillian Flynn’s style is self-important, her characters smart ass. They manage to scorn and insult. BUT what Gone Girl doesn’t do is disregard the reader. In fact, I think it may be its unexpected defiance that holds my attention.
”The woman was… beyond the scope of everyday ugly: tiny round eyes set tight as buttons, a long twist of a nose, skin spackled with tiny bumps, long lank hair the color of a dust bunny. I have an affinity for ugly women. I was raised by a trio of women who were hard on the eyes…”
Normally this wouldn’t be a character with whom I’d want to take a 400-page journey. In fact, I’ve set popular, lyrical books down because of shameless characters, like Ha Jin’s tacit approval of adultery, Waiting. I’m not a prude, but I also want my heroes to have some scruples, at the very least redemption after they hurt others.
Gone Girl is different. It stomps over taboos, but it has brilliance about it, a brilliance I haven’t encountered since Tinkers, by Paul Harding. His is another one that is brazen in its own way. We float along with nice enough characters, but they aren’t memorable. What makes Tinkers genius is Harding’s willingness to boldly defy the rules we learn in craft books. His poetic voice is a rebellion but not an insult.
I believe, unlike Ms. Peppers, Harding and Flynn do care about the reaction of their audiences. They are brazen but they are generous to their readers. When I teach narrative voice I emphasize courageous writing. I suggest writers be unabashed but that they not belittle their readers. I think we have a responsibility to our audiences.
Do you?---from the Inkpot