Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Death of the Author Struggle

"I caution people against meeting writers whose work they admire. Once you find out the guy's a slob in real life, how can you not let that color your impression of his work?" - Mark Gruenwald

Recently, Joss Whedon's ex-wife has spoken out about how he treated her during their marriage, particularly about his conducting affairs with younger women in his employ and emotionally manipulative behaviour towards her. This has caused some hand-wringing amongst Whedon's fanbase as they try to come to terms with the legend of Joss Whedon they themselves eagerly fed versus the reality of Joss Whedon.

The Death of the Author theory is just that, a theory. As much as we claim we can separate the work from its artist, we truly can't. If we could, we wouldn't spend quite so much time delving into documentaries and biographies of famous artists, would we? But I suppose this is a lesson every generation has to learn about its heroes and in the age of the internet it is a lesson which is disseminated much more speedily. There was a time (say, 20 years ago) where you could be a huge fan of Roman Polanski's films yet be entirely unaware of the controversy surrounding him; now, simply printing his name online is guaranteed to provoke a discussion of his statutory rape charges. Once you learn that about him it's up to you to figure out how you feel about his art; does it make a difference to you, or doesn't it?

It was about 20 years that one generation of fandom was disillusioned in its adulation towards George Lucas. As Star Wars fans struggled to come to terms with the prequels and how they felt about Lucas, many migrated their devotion to the then-rising star Joss Whedon. Although for about a decade he was just a cult TV series writer, he seemed to hit upon everything fandom valued: sharp dialogue which was lathered in sarcasm and deep cuts from popular culture; a genuine affection for many pop culture works; a particularly strong emphasis on female empowerment.

Time will tell how he will be remembered; it ought to be enough that he put his name on some works which people have a fondness for. In Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry is widely-beloved not so much for any of his personal beliefs or even particular scripts he authored but because he was the first to conceive of Star Trek. So Whedon is assured to be well-thought of in the future as people will continue to enjoy Firefly et al. He also directed one of the most successful film of all time (The Avengers, in case you forgot) so he's guaranteed to be remembered in histories of popular culture of the 21st century.

What I am observing is a fanbase which feels personally betrayed by these allegations; George Lucas was simply a man who helped tell some good stories until - uh-oh - he didn't. With Whedon, there was an ethical component: people looked to him as a moral teacher -- which means you've got problems if you're looking to popular culture to orient your moral compass.

Personally, I like it when my values are reflected in the media I consume. On the other hand, I like media which challenges my values as well, to a certain degree; I can handle a bit of Steve Ditko's Objectivism, Robert A. Heinlein's freaky free freedom or Mad Men's narcissism, although each of those three have inevitably tested my tolerance. I think what I've most responded to in Whedon's work has been his existentialist philosophy, which doesn't perfectly mirror my own but strikes along similar lines.

It is fallacious to think that any human could be a great moral teacher - people will let you down sooner or later; that's the cynical response to the fall of Whedon. However, I'm not comfortable leaving it there. Occasionally there are creative people who have been exposed from behind the curtain and not found wanting. Above I quoted Mark Gruenwald, about whom there seems to be not a single negative anecdote; his work certainly isn't above reproach but his personal life appears to have been a honourable one; my favourite comedian Jack Benny is another whose personal life holds up under scrutiny. Yes, we each have our failings, but some skeletons loom larger than others; not every creative person has a Polanski-esque skeleton in their closet, but if you're placing your hope in a creative person it might be best for you to imagine that they do.

"It's my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another." - Mal Reynolds, Jaynestown

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