Uncomfortable Truths: Five Authors Who Do Not Live Up To Their Mythology

Discovering your idols have feet of clay is rarely a total disappointment. Prone as we are to erecting statues to those we admire, we’re also only a misplaced tweet away from tearing down those same statues and reducing them to tiny pieces. In today’s social-media-penetrated-world, the business of myth destruction is easy. Canny celebrities hire specialists to manage their twitter accounts, but the separation between our gods and ourselves has never been thinner, or easier to breach.

Perhaps that’s why the myths that are most enduring are those which cling to the writers of the past. Would Poe’s admirers feel the same about their hero if he posted his terrible poems on his blog? Or stuffed his FB wall with raven memes?

Perhaps not. The myths which endure the longest are those unchallenged by a sobering dose of reality, and for that reason, it’s easier to idolize the dead than the living. But even the departed aren’t immune to the spotlight of truth.

William S Burroughs – Trustafarian

It was a tiny cameo, but no one who saw Drugstore Cowboy will forget it. Ravaged, magnificent; Burroughs as Tom the Priest in Gus van Sant’s film adaptation of the James Fogle book expounds on the healing power of narcotics, separates sissy drugs from the hard stuff, and generally holds court against a backdrop of seedy hotels and street corners. This is Burroughs as we imagine him: the unrepentant libertine, existing in noble squalor, willing to accept the degradations of poverty imposed by a lifelong commitment to addiction.

The truth is a little different. Burroughs came from money, the grandson of an inventor who patented and produced an adding machine. Coy about his inheritance, Burroughs claimed ‘…it gave me a little money, not much, but a little.’

It gave him a monthly allowance for life: His parents, who sold their interest in the family business, handed over part of their capital to their youngest son. The money freed Burroughs from the burden of having to earn a living. Burroughs liked to claim that shooting his wife in the head during a misconceived game of William Tell made him a writer. It might be closer to the truth to say that the security of those few hundred dollars a month gave him the chance to write.

JG Ballard - Househusband

Unlike Burroughs, Ballard did not enter the writing profession equipped with a financial cushion, giving up the security of a medical career to pursue his literary dreams. But Burroughs was an influence; the brooding presence behind the surreal and disturbing landscapes of Ballardian epics such as The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.

Fans (like me) could be forgiven for expecting Ballard to resemble his mentor in other ways: an omnisexual consumer of industrial quantities of drugs, a habitué of rundown bars and rooming houses, a dabbler in the darkest corners of human experience.

Ballard was no such thing. Left to raise two small children after the sudden death of his wife, Ballard made an unswerving commitment to suburban domesticity. Like many women writers, he fitted in his work around household chores and childcare. His only vice was to relax with a whisky and some classical music once the kids were safely in bed. He tried LSD precisely once and found the experience so harrowing that it put him off any kind of drugs, including aspirin, for life.

Jack Kerouac – Mummy’s Boy

We all know how Kerouac left New York in the summer of 1947 and hitchhiked to Denver to be with his friend Neal Cassady. We all know this because Kerouac immortalized the experience in On the Road, and this is a book we have all, at some point in our early twenties, read. And sometimes, with varying degrees of discomfort and peril — my own experience of hours on a gritty bypass only to be given a lift by a truck driver who liked reciting his own poetry is doubtless typical — imitated.

Aware that On the Road is substantially biographical, it’s hard not to assume that the freewheeling lifestyle that Kerouac depicts is a fair representation of the rest of his life. We imagine him perpetually on the verge, thumb extended, ready for his next adventure; scribbling his experiences in a worn notebook or on the back of menus. We know he must have come down to roost occasionally, but imagine him couch surfing his way around New York, usually in the company of the rest of the Beats. We imagine him fearless, unrestrained, rootless and free.

We do not imagine him tied to the apron strings of Mama.

Yet apart from those trips, that’s how Kerouac spent the rest of his life. A devout Catholic, he felt responsible for taking care of the widowed Gabrielle, but in practice this meant not only buying her a house, but living with her in that same house, even during his brief attempts at marriage. On a visit to their place in Northport, Gabrielle told the journalist Alfred Aronowich, ‘I’ll tell you right now, he always lives with me, outside of when he travels. Once in a while he takes off, visits his friends, he goes on a ship. But he always comes back.’ For his part, Kerouac once said, ‘Gabrielle was the only woman I ever really loved.’

Sylvia Plath – Pain in the Ass

Most great writers have fans. Some great writers have fanatics. Sylvia Plath is one of these. Relatively obscure at the time of her suicide in 1963, Plath quickly became the figurehead for the Andrea Dworkin generation: young women arriving at adulthood in the 1970s, armed with the contraceptive pill, an education and a burning conviction that Men were The Enemy.

Plath killed herself after her marriage to Ted Hughes — poster boy for poetry’s 1960s New Wave — broke down. A decade later and her grave had become a shrine for young women who felt Plath had fallen victim to the oppressive forces of the patriarchy and who liked to express this by chiseling the ‘Hughes’ from her headstone.

What Plath felt about all of this we will never know, but it is clear that most of those same young women might have found the reality of Plath in person much less invigorating than the ideal. Biographies are tactful, but read between the lines and listen to the interviews with those who knew her and a picture emerges of a person who was best in very small (possibly microscopic) doses. Here’s one example: while Plath and Hughes were on honeymoon, he decided to go for a walk on his own. She wanted to come with him. He needed some space. They came to a compromise: Hughes could go for his walk, but only if Plath followed him, at a distance. Fatal Attraction anyone? Plath drew the line at bunny boiling, but she did on more than one occasion reduce her husband’s manuscripts to shreds because he had pissed her off. As one friend put it, ‘she had a blind spot about cause and effect.’ That blind spot meant she tried the patience of others to its limits and it’s hard to blame Hughes and those close to her when eventually their tolerance snapped.

David Foster Wallace – Not Quite a Genius

There are two ways to react to overpraise:

1. See it for what it is;

2. Believe it.

When Esquire called Infinite Jest ‘a work of genius’ and the Atlantic dubbed its author ‘a wild card savant’, it’s not all that surprising that instead of choosing the sober, well considered Option #1 as his response, David Foster Wallace chose the forgivable and more usual path of believing every word they said.

When actors and musicians hit the big time, they like to get wasted, usually in public and in the company of a gaggle of acolytes. Some writers go the same route (here the name of Easton Ellis floats into view), but mostly writers shun the company of others and must therefore find other outlets for their newfound status as demigods.

Wallace chose to express his by believing that writing fiction with a tangential connection to mathematics meant he actually understood the mathematics. In his next full length work, Everything and More: a Compact History of Infinity, Wallace the writer became Wallace the interpreter of mathematical theory. But as someone once put it, to interpret science for non-scientists, you need to understand the subject in question about nine times better than everyone else. Wallace, for all his undoubted smarts, simply hadn’t done enough time at the coal face. His work was not only riddled with errors, immediately seized upon and exposed by real mathematicians, he adopted a gratingly lofty tone: ‘Mathematically speaking, the truth about the Continuum Hypothesis is more complicated than pop writers let on,’ he intones, oblivious to the possibility that he might (avert your eyes children) actually be one of those pop writers himself!

Everything and More, despite its flaws, sold well, but it exposed Wallace as an amateur, and an amateur, however gifted, is not the same as a genius.


It’s good, perhaps necessary, to have figures to admire, but as the next best seller rolls into town and we’re invited to believe that its author is capable not only of writing a good book but also of turning water into wine and reviving the dead, this list might help us all remember that reputations are often much bigger than the people behind them.

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Comments

TS's picture
TS May 31, 2013 - 4:10pm

Burroughs would not have become the writer that he was if not for his friends, Kerouac was one of them, collecting up the pages from his opimum addicted floors. They didn't have near enough money to ever support their habits and lived in relative squaller a lot of the time back in those days that lead up to the infamous game of William Tell.

 

About Kerouac, I've read multiple biographies on the man and this is a mischaracterization of him at best. He felt a great deal of responsiblity to his family in an old fashioned sense, particularly as his older brother had died when they were children, and men of that time were often raised to be concerned for the well being of their mother's in this way. He might have been something of a "Mama's boy" but there wasn't anything paritucularly bizarre or salacious about it, at all. He respected and admired her. A lot of men feel a responsibliity to care for their mothers in their fathers absence or inability to do so, they just aren't Jack Kerouac. He was, however, pretty right wing and towards the end had little to do with his former cohorts having been mostly along for the ride as observer, he was going through a phase, as it were, and returned to his religious roots but drank himself to death none the less.

 

Plath... I am not a Plath fan but wish that people would get this right because it is irresponsible to say such things about a brilliant writer who was suffering from a mental illness and committed suiced as the result of having been given medication  that she was in fact allergic too. Plath was at least bi-polar and suffering from a severe dissasociative anxiety disorder.  "The Bell Jar" is surprisingly auto-biographical. While in England and separated from Hughes, who left her with two small children to care for on her own and not much to do it with as he shacked up with another woman, Plath was prescribed a medication for depression that she was known here in the states to be allergic to however in England the medication had a different brand name than here and so no one realized the mistake until after the fact. To characterize someone battling a mental illness as a "pain in the ass" might not be inaccurate but it is certainly not telling the entire story. What you've written gives the impression that Plath was a spoiled prima-donna obsessed with Hughes when in fact she was an incredibly insecure young woman who was dazzled by Ted Hughes and his success and it is rumored that he routinely, arrogantly, belittled her efforts and sought the arms another woman as Plath's star finally began to rise. She had abandonment issues, thus wanting to keep him in sight on the beach, and was devastated when he left her and felt that if she could be successful he would come back her to her.  I am trying to recall which and what biographies of her that I've read and apologize that I cannot.

 

So yeah, for me, those three at least, hold up. When it comes to writers it is the quality of the work they produce that matters the most, it has to be, sometimes, though not always despite the quality of human they may or may not have been. We all have feet of clay and live in glass houses, who are we to say.

Banz's picture
Banz from Brisbane is reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman June 1, 2013 - 12:22am

Sincere questions: Is there a mythology surrounding JG Ballard suggesting that his writing reflected his real life?  Or is it more that, having read his work, you would imagine his life to be pretty odd?

I'm not a huge Ballard fan although I am currently giving him another go via a complete collection of his short stories.  

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast June 1, 2013 - 4:54am

That's a good question Banz. I'd say Ballard has less of a legend surrounding him than the others, but that he's definitely depicted as much less of an ordinary guy than he actually was, (usually by those who wanted to see his work banned).

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones June 1, 2013 - 8:10am

I admired Ballard for being a "househusband". He was of an era where he could have easily pawned his kids off to elderly realitatives while he spent his days writing, but instead he dedicated his life to being a great parent and a great artist.

And everything about Burroughs was a self created illusion.

Owl131's picture
Owl131 June 1, 2013 - 9:45am

I just finished working on a project that required me to read a very large volume of biographical materials related to Plath. Her journals reveal immaturity and a penchant for melodrama (in my opinion), but they also reveal the condescending attitude Hughes and his friends seemed to take toward her. I obviously never met the man, but his affairs are well documented. The woman he abandoned Plath for was supposedly moved into Plath's bed two days after her suicide, and given a set of strict instructions about how to run the home. Hughes allegedly withheld affection from the daughter he had with this woman. Six years later, she committed suicide and took the life of her daughter after she realized Hughes was having an affair. All of this tragedy, and yet, if you read the things he continued to say for decades after Plath's death, well...it sounds very much like a man concerned with his own reputation.

Of course, its always odd to comment on the lives of people we don't know. But to take the popular characterization of Plath as a difficult woman (or, to use the author's more trivial wording of "pain in the ass"), to suggest that she destroyed her husband's manuscript simply because he "pissed her off", and then to use these notions to bolster a comparison to a cinematic representation of female psychosis so cliched it's often used as shorthand for feminine rage and emotionality run amok seems to me borderline misogynistic. 

Owl131's picture
Owl131 June 1, 2013 - 9:51am

I should add, Im sure you didn't intend to offend anyone, I just think the "Fatal Attraction" comparison was really uncool

TS's picture
TS June 4, 2013 - 6:52am

Oh exactly, I didn't mean to imply that the comparisons were meant to be offensive either, or to offend anyone myself, only that it seems kind of a shallow portrayal of Plath in particular and yeah, Hughes was known to be something of a "womanizer."