On Loving Art, Imperfectly


I’VE ALWAYS DREADED certain questions, among them any variation on this one: Who are your top-five favorite writers? Why do I not like this question? Well, for one thing, how can I possibly narrow down to five the number of writers who have given me happiness and solace and sustenance in my life (or even ten, for that matter). And for another thing, by asking me to consider this question, you have unknowingly exposed a shameful secret about my relationship with literature.

Which is to say: I can love a writer, I can put a writer in that coveted top-five position, for only one book, maybe even part of a book. Or, if in a certain mood that day, a mere page, mere paragraph, mere passage. At times my brain seems to be made up of a near constant stream of favorite lines from books, which is either a perfectly normal love of language or some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder. So if I name a favorite, it does not mean in any way that I have read the author’s entire oeuvre, or even half of it. I may have read a minor work by them instead of the major one they’re known for. Does this mean I’m a half-assed reader? Perhaps. I freely admit this, although I still wish you hadn’t asked in the first place.

I would put Paula Fox on my list, for instance, but have read only two of her nine books for adults. Denis Johnson would undoubtedly be up there, and I’ve read only 3.5 of his eleven books of fiction. (Yes, I’m also guilty of “putting books down,” even by favorite authors, but I sometimes think I make up for this by obsessively rereading other books by them in their entirety.) Don DeLillo: a paltry five out of seventeen. James Joyce: 2.75 (skipped around in Ulysses). Delmore Schwartz: exactly one, and I could love him even for just one story, the title one of that collection, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Paul Auster: four. Richard Yates: two. Faulkner: a pathetic two out of nineteen novels. Mary Gaitskill: 2.25.

A college professor of mine once gave the class this advice about writing: Stop when it starts feeling too good. I consider this some of the worst advice I’ve ever been handed, and can think of various activities in life for which that would be a terrible idea. The professor’s reasoning, I guess, was that if you’re feeling too good you’ll get carried away or get sloppy or start making bad choices. It took me some years to stop heeding this crap advice while writing, but I wonder sometimes if it somehow informed the way I experience art. Did it contribute to the feeling that if I was getting too carried away loving someone’s writing or music or filmmaking or whatever it was, I should stop before something went wrong or the artist disappointed me? If I loved one book or one record and the next one stank, would that mean I had to think differently about the one I loved? It doesn’t mean that—not at all, in fact. But I didn’t know that for a while.

So, really, it was a fear of disappointment that sometimes kept me from exploring further into someone’s work. Which was also, I think, related to a fear of commitment: Could I accept them if they let me down? And with a fear of commitment come the gray, drifting clouds of the fear of death, the realization that everything comes to an end in the end. But maybe that’s getting too far ahead of things right now.

Lately I’ve been thinking what an incredibly flawed human being I am. This is not a bad thought, it’s a good thought—a relief of sorts. So I am flawed as a lover of art. I pick and choose shamelessly. I do not commit.

And perhaps it is about control. If you love a person, love them righteously, you have to love the whole beautiful, scary mess of them. You can’t delete the things you don’t like or want. I love my daughter even on the days when it feels like, to paraphrase Louis CK, she is “eating my dreams.” And my mother, in her decline, is often not the mother I need or the mother I used to have, but I can’t eliminate those facts. I have to love the whole of her.

But with books, with music, with other art, I can determine what I love, and I reserve the right to do that in my secret heart. You can do this too. In siphoning off what speaks to you the most powerfully, you can give yourself the most potent hit of love you want. You can have a narcotic-like experience without damaging your body or soul or family or friends.

I often do this in the car by myself, when I play a song that I love over and over again—or even a part of a song, or a guitar solo, an intro, a movement, a particular favorite verse. The feeling is very concentrated and pure. This is when I become a heap of embarrassing sentimentality, but what better place to become this heap than in the privacy of your own car moving through space and time? The shell of composure splits its seams for a moment or two, a feeling that is positively heart-shitting. (Heart-shitting: an image borrowed from a David Berman poem.) This is when I might start talking in my head to a dead man I still miss a great deal. Or when I picture my young daughter as a grown woman who doesn’t need me the way she needs me now. And the windshield starts to look very damp and blurry, but then I realize it’s my eyes, not the windshield, that just got damp and blurry. And then the moment passes and it’s over, and I’m okay. Really. I’m perfectly fine.

About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of Editrixie.com, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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