Writers are not heroes. No matter how many works they write, or how many people they inspire, they remain utterly and tragically earthbound. Meet a writer and you’ll see what I mean. Now I’m not talking about your average writer with a dream to write a novel and who blogs about the process every week. I mean the kind who really makes it, whose very lives are seemingly carved out of granite, making them statues to be adored or worshipped. People who go by a single name and who could sell books on their reputation alone (and indeed, sell books even when they no longer care about writing them). The ability to take words, the same words we use every day, and fashion them into something astonishing, remarkable, emotional, and otherworldly...only a modern-day Prometheus could do that.
So we buy all their books and put their pictures on our walls and bulletin boards (or screen savers) and race out to meet them at book signings and have them scribble some vacuous nonsense on our books to honor our imaginary relationship. Sure, in that brief meeting, they seem like wonderful people—they even shook my hand! Yet what happens we when we pry further into the writer’s life? When we follow them through their day-to-day routines, ask them about their most deeply held convictions, and even—gasp!—follow them into the voting booth? Are they still the heroes who write the books we fall in love with?
I had the great privilege of meeting one of my literary heroes when I was in college. In fact, I enrolled in the college specifically because my hero taught there every Spring, expounding on the grand tradition that his own novels and poems were part of. Without naming this writer, let me just say that in the 60’s and 70’s he used to fill soccer stadiums with people desperate to hear his poetry (obviously this wasn’t in the States). I adored his work, and more importantly, responded passionately to his ethical view of humanity. He was a man who stood up for what was right and wasn’t afraid to commit it to paper—and damn the consequences! He stood for artistic truth and human beauty, and once told me, “only people pure of heart can write beautiful works” (or something to that effect).
I slowly worked my way into his confidence, speaking out in class and writing my best work for his inspection. Eventually, he invited me to his house to help him prepare English translations of his work. What an honor for a barely twenty year-old student, who felt hopelessly provincial beside a man who had traveled the world, met the greatest leaders in history, and had become a one-name author (few could pronounce his first name, anyway). Yet rather than discussing lofty topics of art and immortality, I spent most of the time shivering in his attic study, with the windows open in bracing thirty-degree weather, working for hours at a stretch. He often excused himself to do various tasks, including eating dinner, while abandoning me in his study without even asking me if I wanted a bite. It smelled pretty good, though—and warm!
I caught glimpses of his domestic bliss outside the door and in the hallways while coming and going: non-stop arguments with his wife, selfish tantrums, and children who paid him little respect (and had become all-too American for his taste). When one of his kids dove off a diving board into an empty swimming pool and cracked his head open, he merely scowled and said “I don’t have time for this!” and retreated to his room. Hard to imagine the man who spoke so nobly of women and all humanity having so little patience for his own family—and indeed, he was on his third marriage at this time.
At the time, I found all of this highly diverting and thought nothing of the miniscule slight to myself. What hurt much more was when he dismissed me. He had a reputation for flirting with young female students, and when one caught his eye in class, he could think of little else. After one class, he asked a collegiate beauty what she wanted to do in life, and she gave the typical response, “I want to be a famous writer.” He beamed with pleasure and said, “I’m sure you will be, you have such a sensitive nature!” He turned on me gruffly and asked the same question, and I, with already more modest prospects, answered, “I would be happy just being an editor or working with other writers.” He scoffed and said, “I don’t have time for such people.” I never went to his house again.
To be fair, in later years he occasionally contacted me and threw a few favors my way. And yet, I had to admit that for all his poetry, he wasn’t much more than a man—flawed, indiscreet, petty, spiteful, and subject to the grossest flattery. Most people would say, “so what? He’s just a man, what did you expect?” But that’s just it, I expected my hero, someone who breathed air from a different planet, who saw past the human vanities, fixed on an eternal light. I have to admit I had trouble reading his work for years after that. Gradually, I came to terms with the fact that writing is one thing, and living quite another. He didn’t have to be a good person, much less a hero. He had enough trouble simply writing his books: I still remember when he thought he erased an entire file on Word, which he was still in the process of mastering; the entire household had to suffer until he retrieved it.
A kleptomaniac can write a work about the evils of theft; a die-hard atheist can write about the joys of religion. Art bridges the gap between who we are and what we can imagine, to the point that the best writers don’t resemble themselves at all. Rudyard Kipling said that writing was like being “telegraph wires,” as something larger simply writes through you—and only the greatest writers have the ability to be a tool, rather than a presence (what Keats earlier called “negative capability”). The painful truth is that the presence you feel when reading has nothing or little to do with the author; it’s you, the reader, seeing yourself in the text. A great book serves as a mirror and reveals your naked presence in a favorite character or passage. That’s why you fall in love with it—it’s a version of you, as you want to see yourself, yet you mistake yourself for the writer. This confusion makes the inevitable disillusionment all the more painful.
By way of conclusion, consider the music of Richard Wagner. One of the great composers of the 19th century, Wagner’s operas forever changed the way we hear music—and composers composed it. He popularized the leit motif, a theme which represents a specific character, object, or idea in a work (which John Williams made popular for a new generation with his Star Wars scores). Wagner’s operas drew on Teutonic myth and medieval chivalry for its themes, and directly inspired Tolkein and an entire century of fantasy writing. Yet the man himself is another kettle of fish: he was vain, selfish, anti-Semitic, and an adulterer (he ran off with the wife of his greatest supporter, the conductor Hans von Bulow, who happened to be Jewish, so perhaps Wagner felt he deserved it). Worse still, after Wagner’s death the young Hitler was deeply moved by his music and went on to establish Wagner as the official composer of the Third Reich. His music was played at important state functions and even, reports claim, at the death camps as prisoners marched to their doom. Is such music redeemable? Can we possibly ignore his biography in the face of the horrors of the 20th century?
Of course, every listener has to make this decision for him or herself. History doesn’t disappear just because we stop looking. Yet on the same hand, a musical note is just a musical note—it can’t commit murder. The same goes with books. A book, unless its an overt political text, isn’t conservative or liberal. Or moral. Or corrupt. It simply tells a story or conveys a message through the lens of art. Biography can enrich our understanding of a piece, but it should never define it. Bad work dies no matter how glorious or infamous the author. But good work, work that continues to reflect our image in its most rarified form, will persist no matter who writes it. The only true heroes are found in art, between the pages of a book or in the notes of a score. Authors do their part, and we should certainly thank them for it; but don’t expect them to resemble the worlds they’ve dreamed up. Instead, remember what they resemble of you, at your best, when you can vanish between the covers of a novel.