The Tragedy of Orthodoxy
Mark Helprin, who wrote Winter’s Tale, which is possibly my favorite book ever, is interviewed at length here. It’s an interesting interview, less for the questions (which are pretty standard) but because Helprin is such an odd duck. As the magazine Helprin’s being interviewed in appears to be a right-leaning one, and Helprin himself is famously conservative, the interview touches on his politics more than a little, and about how being right wing has impacted his literary career:
My friend Tom was walking down the street in New York and he met a woman that he knew, and she was carrying one of my books, I don’t remember which one it was. And he says, “Oh, I see that you have that book.” And she says, “Yes, it’s for my reading group.” And he says, “Do you like it?” And she says, “I haven’t read it, and I won’t.” So he says, “Why not?” Because she was carrying it. And she says, “Because he’s a right wing twerp.” See? Now, I am right wing, and maybe I’m a twerp—I don’t know. But she didn’t even give the book a chance. A lot of people are like that.
I’ve railed before about people who need to give novelists a political orthodoxy test before they dip into their books, but the fact of the matter is that it mostly just makes me sad that some people are so bound to their politics that they can’t escape into fiction made by someone who doesn’t vote as they do. It’s very likely Mark Helprin and I would cancel each other out at the ballot box, but I would not to deny myself the privilege of Winter’s Tale or Soldier of a Great War simply because I find his political views pedantic and a bit fussy. Call me selfish.
But I think this isn’t so much about politics as it is about orthodoxy — an inability to experience something unless it vetted through some particular filter derived from stringent but kneejerk set of criteria. Politics filters, genre filters, gender filters, age filters, so on and so forth. I think filters are fine — you can’t and shouldn’t swallow everything uncritically or under the assumption it is all of equivalent quality — but I think it matters how you construct your filters. Any filter that cuts off work because of an arbitrary value is idiotic. “I won’t read him because he’s right wing.” “I don’t listen to rap.” “I’m not going to any chick flick.” These are the bleatings of morons.
I’ve never been particularly orthodox in any aspect of my life, and I think in retrospect that’s been a blessing. I don’t think everything is good, but I hold open the possibility that everything could be good, and I feel as a matter of intellectual honesty, as much as possible I have to approach a creative work independent of its creator to determine whether that work speaks to me or not. Sometimes this will be impossible: the creator’s beliefs or actions may be too reprehensible to excuse, for example, or the work is so intensely personal that it is inacessible without knowing something about the artist. But most artists are within a couple sigma of acceptable standards of human behavior, and most creators make work to be experienced by others. I love Winter’s Tale for itself; I would love it even if I knew nothing of its author. And who Mark Helprin is, while interesting, is not relevant to my primary experience of the work. I’m glad it’s not.