I was reading some online reviews and discussion of a group of books by a certain author. (I'd read and liked one of this author's books, and was trying to decide which one to read next.) An ongoing theme in the discussion gave me pause. Essentially, this person's readers loved the writer's early work, but seemed to feel that success had spoiled the later work. The author's new, more privileged position in life (which had occurred, ironically, as the result of the success of the early books) was now harder for the readers to relate to.
It's a common
problem for artists whose work succeeds in a big way. If your early
work is about living with roaches and collapsing ceilings and scraping
together quarters to buy some ravioli at the corner grocery, plenty of
people can relate. But if you become so popular that your art not only
supports you but enables you to upgrade your lifestyle, is your audience
still going to care when your new problems are which butler to hire and
how much caviar to spread on your morning toast?
We should all have such problems, I can just hear the writers in my audience saying. Success, fame and fortune? Bring it on!
I was already thinking about issues of art and fame because I recently rewatched the movie Stardust Memories, which is about all the glop that accumulates around a successful artist. Stardust Memories makes
fame look like a constant hassle, and the main character's art (film,
in this case) is getting buried beneath a mountain of corporate baloney,
criticism (especially from those who want to pigeonhole him, who want
his new films to be just like his previous films), and personal
problems. And somehow Stardust Memories manages to carry this off
without making the main character repellent. Every time he slides into
self-indulgence, one of the other characters delivers a snappy, often
funny line that lifts the scene. Sometimes the main character even
accomplishes this himself, as when he imagines a space alien telling
him, in the voice of all his critics, that if he really wants to make a
difference in the world, he should stop with all the gloomy pondering
about mortality and "'Tell funnier jokes.'"
I doubt I'll ever
have the problem of overwhelming fame to deal with myself, but all
artists eventually have to deal with the expectations of their
audiences, with the ongoing viability of their work in the marketplace.
They have to decide whether they want to continue to tell the same kind
of story that brought them attention initially, or to take the risk of
trying new genres and subject matters and attitudes. Artists also
change: the person who writes the fifth book is not the same as the
person who wrote the first book.
In Stardust Memories, the
redeeming spark in the center of all the pressure and nonsense is the
art itself, the very human attempt to capture the fleeting wonder that
is at the center of the crazy miracle we call life. Sometimes it's
struggle and setback, but then there are those moments: a wet kiss of
forgiveness, or a perfect Sunday morning with a loved one.