Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Author and Character

IBSinger.jpgMost of us have favorite authors, and it is not uncommon for us to fall heads over heels in love with the author only to meet the author or read about the author and to discover the author was a creep or a jerk or far less than we had hoped. We could broaden our vision here and say the same about professional athletes — I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Michael Jordan, for instance. 

We vary on this: what I might put up with in someone is what might turn you off completely and what I can put off you may found unacceptable, and if we were to survey readers and admirers and fans we’d fine variety on those we’d tolerate and still enjoy and those we find insufferable. I relished reading Dorothy Sayers, was entirely shocked to learn that she handed off her son to someone else, but kept on reading her nonetheless. Nor will I stop reading her stuff.
One of our approaches is to distinguish the author (and character) from the author’s works. I never had any allusions of purity about Tiger Woods, was still surprised at the extent of his corruption, but I like to watch him play golf. Very few of us will write off someone and entirely ignore their works — be they in the world of writing or acting or sports — just because of what we know about them. 
Who has some thoughts about author and character? What does the conflict or disparity between author and character teach us?
Which brings me to, drumroll please, I.B. Singer, or more completely, Isaac Bashevis Singer, that great Yiddish storyteller. Singer’s prose and storytelling are world class; his character shady.

Ever since I read about Singer in Joseph Epstein’s Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life
, I’ve wanted to “meet” the man more directly, as in reading his stories or a good biography. On top of that, he’s often quoted or cited or alluded to as if one ought to know who he is. So, recently I began reading The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer
and I really like what I’m reading … and that meant I wanted to know more, so I got Florence Noiville’s Isaac B. Singer: A Life
. Where I did learn more, and sometimes more than I wanted, but her biography is sober and appreciative without being hagiography or cover-up.

Singer came from a pious family — father a Hasidic rabbi with deep roots, even back to Baal Shem Tov, and a deep reading mother. Poland was suffering, and then came the German rise, and then they got separated and his brother took off for America where his brother, Israel Joshua Singer, began a successful writing career — only to die too young. I.B. Singer waited a while, and then came to the USA — meeting up with his brother before he died and abandoning a woman and his son (who became, eventually, a successful journalist in the Land of Israel). Singer’s career in the USA floundered; he got married; he was famously unfaithful; his career began to take off when Saul Bellow translated “Gimpel the Fool” and Singer never thanked Bellow and was deeply envious when Bellow was awarded a Nobel — but Singer got one later. 
SingerWriting.jpgSinger was a brilliant writer who wrote in both Yiddish and in English. 
The Yiddish speaking and writing establishments didn’t like Singer because he had too much sex in his (pious) Yiddish world creations and because they thought he was co-opted by the English-reading public, where he made lots of money and acquired fame. He collected a “harem of translators” and we are led to believe not all of those translators simply translated. He didn’t seem to have a bone of loyalty in his body, except to his writing craft and to his career. 
And yet … his stories are beautiful, sensitive probings of the inner world of the Yiddish, of the piety of Hasidism, of the conflict of belief in God with the utter bleak realities of suffering and injustice. Humans in his stories are like Singer — torn between loves. What makes Singer both so powerful as a writer and so difficult as a person is that he loved both loves and not just one.
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posted August 17, 2010 at 2:23 am

“Very few of us will write off someone and entirely ignore their works — be they in the world of writing or acting or sports — just because of what we know about them.”
Well, I guess I’m one of the “very few.” Roman Polanski. Yes, good director, but raping a child crosses a line for me.

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posted August 17, 2010 at 3:13 am

I love the writings of Scot McKnight. But he is a shady character because he is a Cubs fan.

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posted August 17, 2010 at 7:10 am

The issue of the character/personality of a writer versus his works is an interesting one. The cult of the writer means writers are almost bound to disappoint, and we tend to impose our values on writers of different eras. Sayers, eg, took good care of her child financially, even though it was impossible to be a single mother at that time (at least, it would have been career suicide.) Coleridge arrogantly refused his wife’s request for a 3-year hiatus in the child-bearing that was wearing her to a frazzle. I still read and appreciate Coleridge’s poetry and realize he was a person of his time. Another irony is that a poor writer do good works and/or are very decent humans–am I going to read Michener because he gave generously? No, but I honor him for his decency.
Thus, I tend to focus on the works. While I deplore some of SInger’s problems as outlined above, it’s hard for anyone to be a saint. And a great writer too.

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Randy G.

posted August 17, 2010 at 8:30 am

Yes, this author vs. character dynamic applies to musicians as well. Billy Joel has always been my favorite musician, primarily because of the difficulties and troubles he writes about. His character however has at times been darker and more violent than his music.
Randy Gabrielse

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Randy G.

posted August 17, 2010 at 8:41 am

A related area that I recently encountered regarding the biblical book of James:
A commentator noted how parts of the epistle read like a classical guide to virtue. But the commentator then notes that James has two characteristics that deviate from classical guides to virtue. First, he refers to the MORALITY of a COMMUNITY, rather than the character of an individual. Second, James writes of a people accountable to God in an open system where God provides gifts, rather than of a person or people simply trying to maintain their defined social position in a closed system where they attain status and virtue on their own.
Randy G.

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John W Frye

posted August 17, 2010 at 9:10 am

Ernest Hemingway comes to mind. I’ve read most everything he’s written because he represents a continental shift in writing. On the other hand, his character (morality), while robust and wild, was nothing to emulate. Skill isn’t dependent on character (as this post affirms). Some very skilled athletes, musicians, Hollywood stars, authors are moral dunces. Perhaps that’s why Christian writing is so mediocre, often insipid, hoping that good character will cover deplorable writing and acting. Something to think about…

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Jana Riess

posted August 17, 2010 at 9:40 am

I remember being crushed when I found out that “Forrest Carter” was a fabricated persona for the man who wrote “The Education of Little Tree.” I had come to love the book, which passes itself off as memoir, and was disappointed to learn that not only was it actually a novel, but its author, Asa Earl Carter, was in real life something of a racist scumbag.

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posted August 17, 2010 at 10:48 am

It teaches us that public figures, be they authors, celebrities, athletes or prominent members of our communities, are flawed individuals as we are. They may be talented and extraordinarily gifted, yet have an Achilles heel. I’ve gotten better over the years at listening to people whom I may have disagreements with, although there are still individuals with whom I have deep, fundamental disagreements that I won’t listen to. I feel their arguments are the same thing that they’ve always espoused and I don’t see an openness to thinking broadly. It is probably those types of individuals that I have the harder time listening to.

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posted August 17, 2010 at 1:55 pm

It seems to me Martin Luther fits this bill.

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Patrick Hare

posted August 17, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Moses and David come to mind . . .

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posted August 18, 2010 at 3:30 pm

The ethos of a speaker was classically regarded as the most important part of rhetoric. When you moved to publishing, you could have a public ethos and a private one.
I hate to say it, but for most authors the public ethos or the author heard in the work is probably what they wish they were. But, the real world is tougher. It doesn’t just require mental assent, but physical and emotional agreement. (A living faith and not just a philosophical one.)
Given a belief in original sin, I would expect the two to be different. The people who amaze me are the public figures of history who seem to have been the same people in life as in writing: Washington, Grant, Coolidge in politicians. Unlike comment #9, I think Luther fits this pretty well. He was very salty in person and in writing. Read Melanchthon’s eulogy. His contemporaries new it.

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