Yesterday I received a quote that a friend had found and kindly forwarded to me. I always like it when friends send me something that they think I might find interesting — especially when I find it interesting in a way that’s probably different to what they’d intended! (I can be a contrary son of a bitch at times, so I beg the sender not to beat me across the head with a dictionary of quotations until I’m nothing more than a bloody mass quivering on the floor! )
The quotation was from the American novelist Alice Walker, and it really did make me sit up and take notice, for all the wrong reasons.
“Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for.”
On the surface, there’s a kind of sense to this. I can see that. The lives we lead unquestionably influence our fiction. I can see and accept that. But, naturally, being the kind of person that I am, I had to look at it a little more closely.
What is “a good book”? That was the first question I found myself asking. I could probably ask this of ten of my regular readers and get ten quite different answers — but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Ms Walker means “a well written book”. Is it possible for “a bad person” to write a “well written book”, a book that has something to say, something it communicates effectively? Well, actually, I think the answer is a resounding “yes!” The reasoning behind this is quite simply this: fiction does not have to be nice or even moral to be of value.
But, of course, this led me to another question… one that, frankly, I was amazed I even had to address. What is “a bad person”? Or, more to the point, what does Ms Walker consider to be “a bad person”? Someone who cheats on his wife, drinks heavily, smokes excessively, shoots wild animals, drives irresponsibly, abuses her daughter, doesn’t believe in God, does believe in God, participates in orgies, tells fans to “fuck off” when asked for an autograph, is a supporter of the Republican Party, is a supporter of the Democrats, is wealthy but doesn’t give to charity, receives charity but squanders the help he’s been given, has a lesbian relationship and who is no longer interested in being a mother to her daughter… what? Because, you see, as I’m sure we all know, it’s more complicated than that. Life on the whole is one big grey area and to throw around phrases like “bad person” willy-nilly will inevitably end up with one shooting oneself in the foot.
Now, I’m sure we all know bad people. We can all talk about the things they have done and how they should be dealt with. But I get the distinct feeling that this isn’t what Ms Walker was talking about. I’m happy to be corrected on this, but it strikes me that she’s making a moral judgement of writers who live their lives and approach their work differently to her.
And that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.