On the Death of Artists

The literary world was dealt a double blow this week as two very different writers passed away at ripe old ages — Harper Lee at 89 and Umberto Eco at 84. Harper Lee published one book during her lifetime (evidence suggests she had little to do with the publication of Go Set a Watchman); Umberto Eco published around fifty, a combination of bestselling novels, literary criticism, and books for children. Practically every American who reads has heard of Harper Lee, while I would wager that only a small percentage of the US population has ever taken note of Umberto Eco, despite his prolific output and international success. Upon hearing of Lee’s death, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Eco? Two people I know (only one American) mentioned it.

It brings to mind questions of output, influence, and reach. What makes everyone able to connect Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird while most of us scratch our heads when faced with a headline about Umberto Eco? Why does one morality tale from an unassuming Southern woman outshine decades of intellectual rigor and innovation from an Italian man who was, by all accounts, a literary giant?

I’ll be the first to admit when I heard Eco had died I was a bit embarrassed that I couldn’t call to mind even one of his books. I knew I’d read Eco’s literary criticism in college, could even remember the professor who had assigned him, but I couldn’t immediately call to mind any titles. Scanning his book titles online, nothing jumped out at me. I’d forgotten him.

Surely I’d find him in one of my anthologies, those bricks of onion skin pages English majors lugged around in college. I’d see what I’d underlined and it would all come rushing back. Only, he wasn’t there. Had I imagined it? Had I simply seen and heard his name so many times in literary circles that I assumed I had read him? Or, perhaps more likely, my professor had made copies for his students to read from some out of print book, copies I simply lost track of or threw out sometime in the last fifteen years.

Had I ever read a word of Umberto Eco?

Now, there are all sorts of explanations for this. Americans heavily favor American writers when teaching literature. (The prof who had assigned him in my World Lit was from Gibraltar.) Americans don’t read in translation. Americans don’t read foreign-sounding names. American institutes of higher education have lower standards and expectations than those of Europe. Americans are stupid and self-absorbed.

And sure, a lot of those criticisms are based on valid, quantifiable data. But there is also the plain fact that reading Umberto Eco can be hard work.

Let’s compare Eco’s bestselling historical mystery/philosophical treatise The Name of the Rose with Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both seem to have sold about 50 million copies and both are sitting pretty in the top ten or fifteen Amazon ranking in their categories, depending on what edition you’re looking at. Both have about four and a third stars from their many Amazon reviews (though Lee’s 8,385 reviews as of the writing of this post far outstrip Eco’s 550). Both books have been made into movies with big stars, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose.

All in all, they seem fairly similar. But check out these reviews of Eco’s work:

“The book became a hit despite some obscure passages and allusions. This deftly abridged version…retains the genius of the original but is far more accessible.” — Library Journal

“Although the work stands on its own as a murder mystery, it is more accurately seen as a questioning of “truth” from theological, philosophical, scholarly, and historical perspectives.” — The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature

One Amazon reviewer called it “a rewarding but painstaking read.” Another said “As others have said, it’s wordy and at times difficult, but it’s very rewarding for those who persevere!” And these seemingly contradictory words from a review of his second novel, Foucault’s Pedulum, are revealing:

“If a copy (often unread) of The Name of the Rose on the coffee table was a badge of intellectual superiority in 1983, Eco’s second novel — also an intellectual blockbuster — should prove more accessible….Dense, packed with meaning, often startlingly provocative, the novel is a mixture of metaphysical meditation, detective story, computer handbook, introduction to physics and philosophy, historical survey, mathematical puzzle, compendium of religious and cultural mythology, guide to the Torah (Hebrew, rather than Latin contributes to the puzzle here, but is restricted mainly to chapter headings), reference manual to the occult, the hermetic mysteries, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Freemasons– ad infinitum . The narrative eventually becomes heavy with the accumulated weight of data and supposition, and overwrought with implication, and its climax may leave readers underwhelmed. Until that point, however, this is an intriguing cerebral exercise in which Eco slyly suggests that intellectual arrogance can come to no good end.” — Publishers Weekly

Now compare those to these words about To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon reviewers:

“I was simply floored while reading this novel. I wasn’t expecting a ‘classic’ to be so readable.”

“It is so well-written and moving that it reads like poetry.”

“This novel is beautifully written, transporting the reader into the souls of all the characters…If ever a book was written that should be mandatory reading (not necessarily in schools but rather in life) this is that book.”

Did you notice what I noticed? Readable, readable, readable. Both authors explore interesting and important issues. Both have devotees (and Eco’s are generally more erudite than Lee’s when it comes to the reader reviews). But one is difficult and the other is not. Both are described as slow in other reviews I saw (Lee’s at the beginning and Eco’s at about the 2/3 or 3/4 mark), but one is compared to the slowness of a hot, sultry, summer day while the other is compared to slogging through mud.

Eco lovers might argue that he is dealing with far more complex philosophical and theological issues than Lee, and therefore he needs those 200 extra pages to get his point across. And that is likely true, and I don’t mean this post to be critical of such writing, because I certainly like reading (and especially rereading) difficult books when they deliver the kind of reward Eco’s are known to deliver. I recently had my first brush with Italo Calvino, another Italian writer, and found him both endlessly frustrating and completely riveting. As a reader, I don’t mind being frustrated. But I think I’m in the minority.

At any rate, Lee’s world of racial strife and systemic oppression and generational sins, and Eco’s world of 14th century religious schisms and hypocrisies, both seem, on the surface, to be just as important and applicable to life today. Our country is as racially broken as it ever was, and criticism of the church is always in vogue. Both narratives follow crimes and seek to divide the guilty from the innocent. And, quite honestly, I’m sure that just as many people have an unread copy of To Kill a Mockingbird at home as those who have an unread copy of The Name of the Rose, though likely most Americans have had at least a brush with Lee’s book in high school, whether or not they really did the required reading.

When it comes down to it, perhaps the difference is found in these terms: experimental versus experiential. Eco’s tome is very aware of its form and structure, and plays with those elements purposefully if the reviewers are to be believed (and why shouldn’t they be?) whereas Lee’s book is rooted in the world she lived in and the people she grew up with. Eco seems to have written what he thought about. Lee wrote what she saw and what she lived. And unfortunately, most of us today see it and many today live it too. She wrote what she knew, and what she knew is still in many ways our reality.

When David Bowie died last month I was amazed at how devastated people seemed on social media. With a few exceptions where it was obvious that the person had been deeply affected by his life as an artist, I had a knee jerk reaction to most of the postings, and it was the same as my reaction to people crying in the halls in high school when Kurt Cobain died: You didn’t care about him until he was dead and I can all but guarantee you don’t own even one of his albums.

In contrast, when Michael Jackson died I felt that most people who expressed sadness were likely actually sad about it because his music had been the soundtrack of their young lives. Worldwide internet searches for news on his death crashed Twitter and Wikipedia and forced Google to block searches because they thought is was an attack. People weren’t just searching and posting about him so they would seem like they were part of an elite group, like they wore a badge of artistic superiority. They were searching for something that exposed it as a hoax. They were searching for someone who would tell them it wasn’t true. Because to like Michael Jackson didn’t take a lot of effort. His music was experiential, melodic, catchy — readable. Bowie’s was experimental and odd. (Though, admittedly, they were both quite odd and provocative in appearance).

I imagine reviews for the music of Michael Jackson and that of David Bowie might mirror those of Lee and Eco. One accessible and singing a melody we are now more than familiar with, the other less accessible but worth the effort. And I wonder, when all is said and done, if fifty years from now Bowie’s influence on music might be far greater than Jackson’s, if Eco’s influence on literature will far outstrip Lee’s. And how much of it is the listener or the reader looking for someone to tell them how to feel about things rather than allowing the artist to leave it up to the audience to sort out on their own. When artists expect us to do our part, are we less likely to embrace them? If so, why?

One thing of which I am certain in all of this, is that whether you write one book or fifty, whether you’re the King of Pop or a wily rock subversive, to die as an artist who contributed something of yourself, who offered up your ideas and visions for others to make of them what they would, is a noble death, whether it comes in your sleep in your 80s, from cancer in your 60s, from an overdose at 50, or a gunshot wound at 27. It is in a small way to live on, in the hearts and minds of your audience and in the work of the artists who come after you who might point to you as someone who influenced them.

We may wish our favorite authors and musicians and actors wouldn’t die, especially when they die in tragic circumstances. But an artist is never really dead as long as their work continues to be experienced, in large numbers or small.

What can we glean then from the death of an artist? A call to press on, to create, to share, to contribute to the story of mankind. Make your mark. And make it a good one.

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