On Why I No Longer do Shots with the Authors of Left Behind

S. and I met at Summer Language Nerd Convention in Bloomington in, what, 1999 or so, so it’s already more than a decade we know each other, as people say in areas where Yiddish has futzed with syntax a certain way.  Years ago, when I was dating someone who worked in the movie industry*, S. asked if her husband could send him a script he had written, and so she did, and my then-boyfriend never read it.  Years pass, the aspiring screenwriter does the thing where he gets a dozen credit cards and hokks all his friends and holds bake sales and gets the thing made, and then last year I saw it at a little private screening here in town.

“Well done!” I said heartily afterward, because I’m a terrible liar and fewer words left less room for betraying my actual feelings. Which were: hey, it’s swell that you did this. I want to love it because you’re my friend-in-law, and hey, I sure as hell haven’t made a movie, but…it didn’t move me much at all.   S. emailed me later and said “I’d love it if you had some thoughts to share about the film,” to which I said (thankful that it’s easier to lie in print) “I guess I just don’t have that critical faculty activated when I go to see something by a friend.”  Which isn’t an outright lie but contains less truth than falsehood.

The friend/fan line is an itchy garment.  What do you do with it?

Another case study: A. is a conductor, the Leonard Bernstein of plinky plonky music.  I am reasonably adventurous in my tastes but often don’t enjoy the stuff he programs.  Sometimes I go and enjoy his obvious virtuosity.  Sometimes I stay home.  Once, A. asked why I wasn’t coming to the plinkiest, plonkiest concert of all and we hashed it out a bit.  I told him I took great satisfaction at his success and his skill, but wasn’t always going to be there to watch it. I told him I couldn’t totally understand his (minor) sense of friendship foul, because I don’t paint or put on shows for a living.  I will never invite you or anyone else to watch me interview drug addicts and then express your enthusiasm or fake it—“oh hey, F.P., Some interview!  You really, yeah, that was, uh huh!  Never seen anything like it!”  At most I will write things on a blog you may read, and if you skip it one week, I’ll never know.

[I don’t hate everything!  I promise!  My two novelist friends wrote things I thought, after forcibly disengaging my love for my friends and my wish to approve, were wonderful.]

I asked a playwright friend about what you do in these cases when we went to see a musical starring someone he knew that turned out to be, unlike S’s perfectly competent screenplay or A’s doubtless brilliant but not for me Bang on a Can crazyness, simply terrible.  We were supposed to go up after the show and express enthusiasm.  We had already exchanged horrified looks at intermission and maybe already quietly mocked one of the songs.  I said “what do you say when it’s like this?” and he said “you lie.”

To some extent you can love things because you love the person that made them.  Parents know this more than I ever will, because nobody is inherently stoked about macaroni art.  To some extent you can offer friends gentle criticism on what they’ve wrought, but there is always a chance of friendship disaster.

It’s not that I’m convinced my aesthetic judgments are important or sacrosanct; it’s just that I don’t have much control over them and I’m, seriously, a very bad liar.

What do you do?

*not a euphemism!

18 responses to “On Why I No Longer do Shots with the Authors of Left Behind”

  1. LP says:

    When I lived in DC, many of my friends were theater actors / directors / etc., so I saw many shows, not all of them good. There was a running joke about this very topic, with people’s favorite phrases in that time of need being, as I recall, “Wow! That was something,” and “You sure did leave it all out there.”

    If ever I end up at something absolutely abominable, I will usually find something good to say about it, then offer some carefully-chosen-and-expressed criticism. After all, you can generally find SOMETHING good to say about just about anything. A little sugar helps the medicine go down. And often, the performers know the production isn’t so great anyway, so they seem to appreciate a little gentle criticism rather than a whitewash.

  2. Edward Burton says:

    a true problem. compounded by the creator’s self doubt.

    if S. and A. identify as “creator’s” it might end the friendship, over the medium run. And in the long run, beyond that Bloomington thing, you didn’t have that much in common.

    They need to be friends with each other, those “artist types” and cross-disciplinarian friendships of similar “creator” people (who are not in direct competition with each other) are better for them. poets hang out with dancers? Or, if they can stomach the critique about their work, S. and A. can hang out with other nasty-inbred-competitive-needy artists types that do what they do, like for like. Let them watch each others bad movies, and make them figure out how to get published, and then yeah . . . if you don’t like it? distance and lie.

    That person’s life is that bakesale. Just as yours is . . . whatever it is. The key difference is, you might “work” and then “live” where that poor character has fused the two, temporarily, and is figuring out how to make the next film.

    Publishing houses are huge things once they’re inside. They’ll meet everyone in there. And you’ll be left behind.

    LIke the end of Sex and the City when Bariznikov let’s go of Carrie’s hand as he walks to greet the light of his first Parisian exhibition. Artists are assholes.

    When they ask you what you think … “well i don’t know much about theater… but…yeah, i’ve never seen anything like that.” They made the commitment to understand THAT lie. It’s their problem, and your tiny window on that process gives you no responsibility to “support” that. That’s a problem in the realm of family and therapy.

    Cause that’s what the bakesale is REALLY about… family and therapy.

    The friendship will take care of itself.

  3. k-sky says:

    Sometimes it’s possible to find something intelligent or precise to say about something that isn’t praise. “There are some echoes with Huck Finn in there that I thought were really interesting.” “There’s an anger in that that really comes through.” Careful about comparing to other works, though; bad artists fetishize their originality. (OK, good artists do too.)

  4. SG says:

    Honesty can do nothing but to act in the furthering of better art (and yes, there is good and bad art). Since as time goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer (to me anyway) that art in many forms is really the biggest and baddest thing there is, so why not throw caution into the wind and have a respectful and serious conversation with any artist about the merits and shortcomings of her/his work?

    Of course, the artistic ego is a fragile one, and mine has been crushed several times, but, speaking from my own perspective, I’ve learned and grown more from honest criticism (especially the negative type) than any type of hollow praise.

    I say all of these things as someone whose subjected many friends (including Whatsitsers) who I’m sure were less than thrilled about one or another of my projects, but remember that art isn’t always supposed to make people feel good or happy. For the viewer or listener this can make for a less than pleasurable experience, and this is a tough line for the artist to walk — self indulgence lies closely on either side of the tightrope.

    Anyway, it’s a fraught subject…

    BTW, I’d love to watch you interview a drug addict — seriously.

  5. SG says:

    Just reread my comment and it made me think, “speaking of self indulgence.”

  6. AWB says:

    Oh, man, I have lost friends over this. I was very close, for a very long time, with a singer-songwriter whose music is really competent and even interesting, but not my particularly personal favorite kind of thing. I kind of liked bland croony songwritery stuff a little when I met him at 18, but I think that was just a phase of trying to fit in with other girls or a Jeff Buckley hangover or something. I was also, it must be said, trying to sleep with him at the time.

    We dated a little, but ended up being mostly friends for about eight years, during which time it became clear that he met all of his friends through playing music and people trying to sleep with him, which he always, always confused, permanently, for a deep longing to commit money, time, and resources to his future career. At every show he played, there was the same little crowd of people willing to pay $25 to get into some shitty little club, and the guy who had put up money to produce the new EP would be there to put his arm possessively around my friend’s neck. I didn’t have the money, or even the interest, to go to every single show. I didn’t want to sell CDs, or manage his creepy hangers-on for him. I didn’t want to have to guess which lie I was supposed to tell about him to make him more potentially interesting to this or that asshole.

    Being friends, to him, meant that not only was I to expect that every conversation was always two seconds from becoming a Self-Marketing Situation (hell no–if you want me to never talk to you again, start talking too loudly to me about how fabulous you are so the important person at the next table overhears you), but that I was expected to be his primary commercial agent. Let’s agonize over the photos for the CD. Let’s not have opinions about the war in front of someone whose politics we don’t know. Let’s be sure no one knows our sexual orientation. We have to remain as exciting as possible to everyone as possible.

    It’s not like we were trying to get funding for, I dunno, cancer research or something. We were trying to get funding for my friend to not have a job doing something other than writing songs and being famous, and I didn’t even particularly enjoy the style of music he played.

    Anyway, I think it was pretty embittering for me because it’s not like I ever asked anyone for a dime to fund my dream of writing books about obscure issues in historical rhetoric. I was making $10,000 a year in New York when the friendship started to go bad. No, I can’t cover the tab. No, you can’t eat all my groceries. No, I can’t remember which lie about you I’m supposed to repeat to which potential donor to the totally important project of funding your dream.

  7. AWB says:

    I recently went to a one-person show all about this woman’s memories of being unloved as a child (acted out by petulantly squawking, “Oh my God, I’m like totally a little kid right now and no one seems to love me or care!”), running away to New York (“I guess I’ll go to New York and follow my dream and become a big star and everyone will love me then!”), and being somewhat disappointed (“Like oh my God now I’m playing this shitty little club; I guess it’s not like exactly what I was hoping for!”), before resigning herself to her fate as long as the audience promised that they loved her (“But you guys think I’m a big star, right? And that I should keep following my dream?”).

    She was obviously quite new to the city, but besides having the least compelling stage presence imaginable, I felt the whole time that gross bitterness that you get from being in a city where everyone expects you to fund their dream for them. Who the fuck is funding my dream? I don’t know, lady, maybe have an idea about what you want to do artistically other than acting gratingly needy and saying the name of your website as many times as possible?

    I think maybe it was supposed to be ironic, but hearing someone blather for two hours about how amazing dreams are and how good it would be to finally finally be loved by everyone alive like she deserves—it was like having a terrible artist friend.

  8. lane says:

    seriously, it all started with painting behind plexiglas… the colors were never meant to get that loud. it turned out good for kids glass! but… omg… one can just hate what one plays sometimes….

    and on that note…, back to making BLACK AND WHITE PAINTINGS!

  9. lane says:

    that is a steak in the heart AWB. brutal. true and brutal…

  10. AWB says:

    It should be a comfort to my friends, I hope, that I stopped being able to lie about shit like this long before I met most of you. I don’t want to be lied to, and I assume my friends don’t either. I don’t want to be torn down for no reason, either, but I don’t think I’m friends with the kind of people who expect me to bullshit to them about art.

  11. F. P. Smearcase says:

    OMG suddenly so much to respond to and I should be working. For now I will just say to LP: I don’t know, I don’t have the feeling there was any sense that my friends thought this was not great, and they had a room full of people saying “this was just so terrific” so…maybe it was? But I kind of think it wasn’t? Question marks added to denote the intonation of uncertainty? I probably should have gone the “find one thing I liked and be enthusiastic about it” route but it felt…I don’t want to say disingenuous, because I think there are situations where honesty isn’t that important or helpful. I guess it felt like it would be obvious. I’m not sure.

  12. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I have to be careful with this, because it’s going to sound like I’m ascribing to you something that your comment merely reminded to ascribe to me, AWB: I realize that my reaction is, in part, jealousy. I feel like I was somehow made aware early on that my creativity was fairly limited; that not only would I not make a living creating pictures or plays or songs, but that I just don’t have the ability to do these things convincingly at all.

    I mean it was gradual. When I was in elementary school, what I would have said if you asked me what I wanted to be for a living was (believe it or not) “an artist.” And in junior high my beloved art teacher always said she wanted to be an architect, and I was good at the very basic drafting we did in Industrial Arts, and I somehow knew how to settle for a more prosaic thing, and for those few years I said I wanted to be an architect (which felt less creative, though I don’t know that it is.) And then that, too, was dismissed.

    So I’m afraid there may be, in my reaction to other people giving it a shot, some element of regressed, tantrumy “why don’t I get to do that?”

  13. AWB says:

    Huh. I guess I’m arrogant enough that I have thought several times that if I really devoted my life to… writing novels or singing or acting, I could, you know, actually make some things. But having seen way too many friends go down that road only to be told that they have to sell sell sell themselves if they want to be “loved,” I realized my heart wasn’t in it. If I wanted to be a saleswoman I could at least make some decent money doing it.

    A good friend from high school moved to NYC to become an actor, only to find that a size 16 black woman in NYC will exclusively be cast as “sassy fat black mama,” despite the fact that she could not have more of a plucky midwestern cheerleader personality. She went to auditions constantly, worked full time as a temp while schlepping from audition to audition, trying desperately to get roles that were right for her. Once, she got cast as the lead in a romantic comedy play, and was delighted, until the playwright met her and decided it would be “so funny” to rewrite the character of the shy, sweet ingenue into, “you know, more of a ‘sassy fat black mama’ type thing.”

    She’s tougher than I am, and I’m jealous of her for that. She ended up leaving to go to a city with less racist attitudes toward casting, but she’s still a working performer. My work also involves all kinds of indignities and insulting interview processes, but at least no one feels the right to say to my face that, well, it’s just that I’m not the right kind of *pretty* for this job. Shudder.

  14. F. P. Smearcase says:

    SG: Blogging is all about self-indulgence!

    If I wanted to think of myself as soem sort of artist, I think I might say that my work isn’t what it once was, i.e. I used to interview drug addicts better.

    I think, for better or worse, in the end I’m more invested in protecting my friendships than interested in helping friends make better art. I’d rather let them take critiques from people who aren’t dual-purpose in their lives. I may be projecting my own insecurity, but I just think it can be too crushing to have your creation picked apart, maybe especially by people you’re already emotionally engaged with.

  15. Self-indulgent singer-songwriter says:

    FP, I struggle with this constantly, the idea that any or all of my friends are merely being polite if they give me any compliment after seeing me perform. I can’t really get past the idea that performance is inherently a self-indulgent act, even though it seems that “true” artists/performers see what they’re doing as a gift to the world rather than a gift to themselves. On the one had, I would love it if, as SG suggests, people who came to my shows would give me honest feedback rather than the whitewash that I suspect I’m getting, but on the other hand, I’m not so sure I could handle the truth. As it is, I tend to avoid performing altogether, in part so as not to participate in the ruse.
    It seems like the best artists are the ones that lose themselves in what they’re doing and don’t bother with being self-concious about what other people think.

  16. Self-indulgent singer-songwriter says:

    ….and yes, I have several friends who are amazing musicians, and I tell them so as much as I can, but you bring up a good point about the ability to separate the friendship from the artist – it’s hard to do. However, I also have some friends who are great people but I’m not that into their music. I suppose I lie as much as the next guy in those situations.

  17. Googly-eyed fan of self-indulgent singer-songwriter says:

    The first time I heard you sing, I got a bit weepy with relief because I knew I didn’t have to lie politely about your show. You’ve got an amazing voice and can write a helluva song!

  18. Googly-eyed fan of self-indulgent singer-songwriter says:

    Uh, Dave, I’m home.