With Great Artists, Their Greatest Detractors are Themselves

With every artist at the start of the career, there’s an albatross on the horizon, looming and waiting. Some artists never get far enough out to shoot the albatross, while others have it slung around their neck all too soon.

The albatross is, of course, the popular work. Most well-known artists have one. It can both make and break a career with its influence.

For an example of this, I’ll refer back to something I remember the Arcade Fire saying in an interview. When asked about the critical falling-out that happened after the band released their second full-length album Neon Bible, one of the members pointed out that Rolling Stone Magazine gave the album a mediocre grade not because it was by any means bad, but because it wasn’t as good as their first album.  The band member then pointed out the irony that, in the same issue of Rolling Stone, Fall Out Boy’s newest album was given a better grade than theirs.

When artists come into their own, when they develop the fabled “voice,” they suddenly find themselves alone on a plane where all they can be compared to is themselves. Critics are prone to use words like “sophomore slumps” for follow-ups not as good as the first works, and, in literature, second novels are quite frequently devalued. Yet, as the Arcade Fire pointed out, sometimes there’s unfairness when, just because a work of art isn’t as good as it’s predecessor, it’s still better than so much of what’s out there and no one seems to notice.

For another example, let me take a well-known pop culture icon: Elvis Presley. His later years in the Vegas nightclub circuit are constantly lamented and mocked because, as video footage will tell, he looks like only the mere shadow of his former self, here put on a stage and mechanically going over the songs he popularized decades before–but let me put it this way: if this were the 1970s and I was in Vegas, I would much rather see Elvis perform in his slump than see Tom Jones perform in his prime. Plus, who would really expect Elvis to stay young forever and only put out hits like Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock?

Artists are always losing critical praise because of the work they put out in their prime. In literature of the 20th century, there’s possibly no more saddening example than Joseph Heller. To this day, he’s known as the writer of Catch-22, and not for much else. Catch-22 is a very widely read book; some high-schools even teach it. His other books though are barely read, and when they are, people complain they’re not enough like Catch-22. The tragic part of this is, Catch-22 was Heller’s first book. At the very start of his career, he was placed on a downward course, and the most unfortunate part is, many of his other books are excellent in their own right. For years, Heller made a point not to write a rehashing of Catch-22. Each one of his books are different. I for one greatly enjoyed God Knows (a comical fictional retelling of the life of King David) and The Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man (an amusing satire on the writing life). When Heller eventually did write a sequel to Catch-22 called Closing Time, it seems he made a point to make sure it was different than the original, which also meant he doomed the book in the process.

There’s plenty of other examples in literature as well. Anthony Burgess is known mainly for A Clockwork Orange while he’s written dozen of books, many of which were better than the tale of Alex’s sordid escapades. Vladimir Nabokov had a long, rich, diverse career as a writer, but the only one people seem to read is Lolita.

It’s not only paid critics who fall into the trap of pitting artists against themselves: most audiences do as well. Sales figures prove it. So many stores don’t even bother carrying a famous artist’s lesser known works.

One Way To Get Around this Problem:

With books in particular, I make it a point not to read the well-known masterpieces first. I’ll usually gravitate to a lesser known book by a famous writer first, and, if I like the writer, I’ll save the masterpiece for last. In this way, all of the writer’s other books aren’t somehow tainted for me. So many people who read masterpieces first don’t bother to read the writer ever again. They must be thinking ‘why bother?’ You can miss out on a lot of good stuff by thinking this.

I’ve read around ten books by Vladimir Nabokov, and I have not yet read Lolita. A lot of my friends read Lolita and nothing else by him. I for one am happy I avoided this trap: in such fashion, I discovered other books by him I now love, like Mary, Despair, and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Similarly, I’ve read a lot of books by Henry James, but haven’t read Portrait of a Lady. How happy I am to have discovered Washington Square, The Ambassadors, and The Spoils of Poynton. These aren’t just books I liked, but ones that inspired me as a writer. One of my other favorite writers is Saul Bellow, and I haven’t yet read The Adventures of Augie March, but if I hadn’t read his lesser-known book Herzog, I don’t know if I’d be a writer at all at this point.

So, please, be eclectic in your tastes. Judge an artist by the wealth of their output, not just by the pieces that have attracted the largest crowds.

Read other book reviews.

Please check out my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories now available in paperback or as an ebook.

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