Friday, May 3, 2013

Brazen versus Narcissistic Writing

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


  1. Everybody is responsible for their OWN actions, period.

    I understand what Clarissa Peppers is trying to say, but, by the same token, is not any artist trying to mess with people's sensibilities? Aren't they, really, trying to get people to react in some way, even if just to think differently. So, in very real sense, artist ARE actually responsible for people's reactions. If a normal, everyday person calmly walked into a gallery and became incensed at some piece of art...would not that person had remained calm had they not viewed a neon vagina, or whatever it was Peppers was displaying? And come on, Peppers is a smart girl, she's in college, she knows exactly what she's doing. She's making a statement. And that's fine...but to act naive and surprised at the outcome, I don't know; as I watched a YouTube video of her interview, I couldn't help but think she was play-acting. All her body language---to me---seemed staged. Trite. Like some wounded pixie---and no "pixie" would be displaying neon vaginas for public scrutiny. Sorry, but from a very young age we all know that flaunting our privates in public is (for the most part) not allowed, and if done, has consequences. I find it hard to believe she was any kind of surprised at what happened. I really think it was all about making a point, consciously or unconsciously.

    To answer your question, it's all circular. We are all individually responsible for our OWN actions, but when we put things out there to instigate, we must also take responsibility for that which we put out into the world. No one lives in a vacuum, and yes, we have a responsibility to our audience, but individuals also have a responsibility to themselves and the rest of the world. To not act like an idiot and wreak havoc just because you don't like something. We're all wired differently, different tastes, different mindsets. Oil and water. Turn away from that which offends thee. Just frigging walk away. It's that easy.

    Great post, Inky!

  2. Damn it, Karen. Now I have this to worry about too?

    It's such a hard question, mostly because what offends or disrespects one reader isn't the same for another. I have been thoroughly annoyed by an author's preaching, but I'm sure somewhere in one or more of my books, I do the same to someone else. It's a good thing to think about in our writing. Thanks for bringing it to the front.

  3. Interesting blog. I guess I've never run into this but I agree that it might be hard to like a main character with empathy for for others. The blurb would have to tell me she grows or give a good reason, that's for sure and if a book must depend on a blurb to recommend it, then it's in trouble.

  4. What a nicely orchestrated post, Karen, and interesting, good comments. For me, it comes down to a pretty easy question: Will what I am writing be a gift to the reader? If not, then why in the world would I expect them to read it?

  5. Seems times have changed for the creative art student. I completed an art program with an emphasis in graphic design. While a student, it was emphasized to me that my graphic design work (typically words with visuals intended to communicate a specific topic) had to take the audience into account, but my creative visual artwork did not. My creative artwork would have a particular meaning for me, but what others saw in it was not for me to say. I think creative visual art and the written word are looked upon differently, but in Pepper's case, the denial tells more about the fears of the program/school. For instance to me a urinal is a urinal but Marcel Duchamp saw a Fountain. (From Wikipedia): Fountain is a 1917 work widely attributed to Marcel Duchamp. The scandalous work was a porcelain urinal, which was signed "R.Mutt" and titled Fountain. Submitted for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Fountain was rejected by the committee, even though the rules stated that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the fee. Fountain was displayed and photographed at Alfred Stieglitz’s studio, and the photo published in The Blind Man, but the original has been lost. The work is regarded by some art historians and theorists of the avant-garde, such as Peter Bürger, as a major landmark in 20th century art. Replicas commissioned by Duchamp in the 1960s are now on display in a number of different museums.

  6. You make a number of important distinctions in this insightful post, Karen. I also appreciated the comments, especially Page Lambert's, about asking whether what we write will be a gift to the reader. That's what keeps me on course, writing with at least the intention of offering a gift, both in the writing and the publication and promotion stages.

  7. Good article. This is an interesting question and brings to mind Munch's The Scream, which evokes powerful emotions. Some people hate it while others love it. There's usually not too much in between for that painting. After taking college classes in art, a piece was considered brilliant based on how powerful the emotion it received from the audience, and it didn't matter which emotion.

    So in any form of art, the artist can have two different approaches, one which is narcissist, which is not necessarily bad, and one where you are trying to gain an audience or in our case readership. I'm going for the second when it comes to writing, but when I draw or paint, it's for my own release and isn't meant for consumer consumption.

  8. This is why we need to keep writing. Whether brazen, bold, narcissistic... There are readers, there are things we want to say and sometimes those things have to come out a certain way that sums up that days motivation behind the words. Not every day is like the next. There's some days we need brazen and bold and some days we need comfort and sensitivity.

    I read Gone Girl and have discussed it with a number of people and gotta hand it to you....your description satisfies my reasoning for liking it so much when the characters were not all that likable.

    And yes, we do have a responsibility to audiences and that's the difficulty because we also have a responsibility to ourselves.