Swapping art forms is tricky
(Vintage Canada, October, 2013)
I am acutely aware of the fact that having a talent or skill in one line of art, does not mean you have the same level of skill in another line. A good actor does not automatically become a good screenwriter or novelist. A good painter does not automatically become a good sculptor. A good multimedia artist does not automatically become a good writer. Rather, chances are that a mediocre or amateur painter will be come a mediocre artist in another medium. Each art form has its own skill set, its own techniques, its own history, context, methodologies and discourse. Enter into the world of a specific art form and you are dumped headlong into a world as different from whatever else you had been doing, as chalk is to cheese. Change from the world of entertainment or art to that of commerce and you are in yet another world. More than one celebrity has discovered that moving from acting to fashion design or retail takes new skills, a lot of work, and a lot of learning. And even so, might not succeed.
What does it take to transpose oneself from one discipline to another, and from one medium to another? An artist who has had a successful parallel career as a writer is Douglas Coupland. But consider how few the artists are, who have turned into genuinely talented writers and whose books have, one could argue, gained them more fame in the long term than their movies have. Many books by actors or celebrities may sell initially but will soon be forgotten. Not everyone shows a natural aptitude for a medium or form different than what they have specialized in – like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon with their thriller, later screenplay, Good Will Hunting, that won them the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Screenplay (1997). Both Affleck and Damon have proved themselves to be multitalented and creative.
An actor who turned himself into a writer is of course, Stephen Fry, reviewed on this blog. But there are quite a few like him. An even more successful actor-turned-author is Dirk Bogarde, (born Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde, 28 March 1921, died 8 May 1999, aged 78), who churned out 10 autobiographies and 6 novels, all of which were (are) terrifically popular and enduring, and, apart from the handful of serious art films he made later in life, were much better than his many popular if rubbishy “heart-throb” movies. My favourites – and I have all of his books – are A Postillion Struck by Lightning and Snakes and Ladders, about his childhood in Britain, and A particular Friendship, about a literary friendship and exchange of letters.
It is an expression in our family that we must put on our “hates” when we go outside, because that’s what Bogarde and his sister called their hats in his memoirs – since they hated them. I still hate “hates” and I am still amused every time I use that very fitting expression. Bogarde was an exceptionally private person and his acting roles were masks for his real personality. But in his books, he revealed a different picture, wonderfully eloquent and often witty.
He was awarded the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1990, and received an honorary Doctorate of Literature on 4 July 1985 by St. Andrews University in Scotland, and an honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1993 by the University of Sussex in England. He won two BAFTAs and was knighted by the Queen, but in my view he was much better in his second career as an author, than as an actor.
Another actor who took the leap from art form to art form is Ethan Hawke. His novels The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday have been well received. Hawke acknowledges the skill that goes into producing literature, when discussing Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, as one of the novels that have made a difference to him:
“I found this novel so surprising. I thought it would be a deep, interesting tale like Anna Karenina; instead it’s a giant prose poem that, paragraph by paragraph, has some of the most beautiful writing in the English language. But I won’t lie; it’s homework.”
Steve Martin cast aside his image as a funny-man to write the insightful novel about a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, The Pleasure of My Company. His other novels are Shopgirl (which was filmed) and An Object of Beauty (2010). Martin has written many pieces for The New Yorker, as well as stage plays, adaptions of plays, and screenplays. His memoir Born Standing Up, was ranked in Time magazine as one of the Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007, ranking it at No. 6, and praising it as “a funny, moving, surprisingly frank memoir.” For his writing, Martin has received the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from California State University Long Beach and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Which other actors have published serious, well-received literature? (I mean more than one book, more than a children’s book, more than just a memoir, all by themselves without help, and more than just…not-worth-a-second-read-type stuff.) And how does Douglas Coupland fare in this transition?
Viggo Mortensen is a prolific poet, writing in English, Danish and Spanish, and often illustrating his work with his art and photography, resulting in edgy multimedia volumes like the abstract 45301 or Canciones del Invierno – Winter Songs (2010), in Spanish and English with his own photos. He founded Perceval Press, which publishes his own books and helps unconventional writers and artists get published. He has published several photo books, including Coincidence of Memory, SignLanguage, Linger and The Horse is Good. His books are a treat for the eye but also, I think his poetry is excellent, truly atmospheric and redolent with feeling.
Mortensen is not the only actor turned visual artist – perhaps the urge to move to painting or photography comes with the business of constantly being part of created images. Brad Pitt, Drew Carey, Bryan Adams, James Franco and quite a few other actors and people in the entertainment industry have made names for themselves as accomplished photographers.
Woody Allen has published four collections of short stories featuring pieces that have also appeared in publications like The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review, and The New Republic. He also won the prestigious O. Henry Award for his story “The Kugelmass Episode,” which appeared in his 1980 collection Side Effects.
William Shatner has been prolifically writing about Star Trek and producing Sci-Fi for decades. He has created the TekWar series, co-written with Ron Goulart, 1989 to 1997 (9 books), the Star Trek series, with Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, 1995 to 2007 (10 books), the War series, 1996 to 2002 (2 books – sole author), the Quest for Tomorrow series, 1997 to 2002 (5 books – sole author), Believe (with Michael Tobias), 1992, and comic book adaptation William Shatner’s TekWorld, 1994, and Star Trek: The Ashes of Eden, a 1995 graphic novel. The man is multi-talented and indefatigable.
Carrie Fisher’s books include Postcards from the Edge, The Best Awful There Is, and the non-fiction Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic. I don’t know about the others, but I still have my copy of Postcards from the Edge and I re-read it every now and again – very sharp, very disturbing – but also wickedly funny.
And now for Douglas Coupland
Which brings me to Douglas Coupland, the artist, and Worst. Person. Ever. Coupland is terribly famous, not only in Canada. He has won heaps of awards. When I was reading this novel he had an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery which featured a giant head on which people could stick gum (they did – the smell and texture in the summer heat was interesting) and his exhibition was all over the newspapers. His sculptures are high profile and instantly recognizable. In The Guardian he was described as “…possibly the most gifted exegete of North American mass culture writing today.”
A disappointing read
So I apologize in advance for what I’m about to say to all the fans of Douglas Coupland. I think this novel was supposed to be funny but I was not amused. I picked up on Coupland’s frequent angle of “criticism of consumerism” but it left me unmoved. Perhaps I was supposed to care about these characters throwing money around and swearing like teenagers and living a life of conspicuous consumption. But that wasn’t the case and I did not find the main character, Raymond Gunt, to be particularly convincing. He certainly did not come across as the “worst person ever” – though other characters in the novel call him that. (The question is, can a typical anti-hero be the worst anything, since anti-heroes are commonly identified by lack of strong traits, lack of control, as well as confusion and ambiguity.) But even if Gunt were depicted as a villain rather than an anti-hero, there were rather too many vague and sympathetic elements in the character to evoke a strong response in the reader.
Contrary to what one would expect from the book title or the blurb on the back, Gunt is not the worst person ever and does not set out to harm anyone other than pointedly taunting a fat man on a plane – who then has a heart attack. He is depicted as mostly drunk, high or in hospital from macadamia nut allergies. The other characters are caricatured and clichéd; a homeless man morphing into a movie producer and babe magnet for instance. As for the other elements in the novel, the plot of blowing up the Great Pacific garbage patch (the Pacific trash vortex) with a nuclear bomb, is frankly, laboriously arrived at and implausible. And the ending in which the pretty woman turns out to be a man? Too pat and predicable for my liking. And there were too many disconnected themes – the end of the world, movie-making, weird tribes and islands, running footnotes on pop culture, the fork/spork/foon gag, and so on.
Following on famous anti-heroes
If I think of memorable anti-heroes in novels I’ve recently read, these come to mind: the sinister Lionel ASBO by Martin Amis. And that terrible 18th century Venetian count, Minguillo Fasan, in Michelle Lovric’s The Book of Human Skin. And the suicide-obsessed delinquent Gabriel Brockwell in DBC Pierre’s Lights out in Wonderland. You want to depict anti-heroes? You will be walking in the footsteps of giants. The anti-hero character has been a staple of literature since Lázaro de Tormes appeared in 1554 – think of Harry Flashman, Jay Gatsby and Dexter Morgan as well. Judging by this novel – not his others – Coupland’s visual art is better than his writing. The title should rather be: Disreputable. Person. Mostly.
While I was disappointed in Worst. Person. Ever. I realize that Coupland has been a serendipitous discovery – another famous author living in Vancouver, like William Gibson. An artist as acclaimed as he must surely have something to enthuse over amongst his 13 novels and short stories. I’ll just have to keep reading.
About Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland (pronounced kohp-lənd), OC OBC, born December 30, 1961, is a Canadian novelist and artist. His fiction is complemented by recognized works in design and visual art arising from his early formal training. His first novel, the 1991 international bestseller Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, popularized terms such as McJob and Generation X. He has published thirteen novels, two collections of short stories, seven non-fiction books, and a number of dramatic works and screenplays for film and television. A specific feature of Coupland’s novels is their synthesis of postmodern religion, Web 2.0 technology, human sexuality, and pop culture. Coupland lives in West Vancouver, British Columbia. He published his twelfth novel Generation A in 2009. He also released an updated version of City of Glass and a biography of Marshall McLuhan for Penguin Canada in their Extraordinary Canadians series, He is the presenter of the 2010 Massey Lectures, and a companion novel to the lectures, Player One – What Is to Become of Us: A Novel in Five Hours. Coupland has been long listed twice for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2006 and 2010, respectively, was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2009, and was nominated for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 2011 for Extraordinary Canadians: Marshall McLuhan. Read the rest on Wikipedia…