#004 Donna Tartt and The Confessions of a Lifelong Fantasist
and Compassionate Living (it connects, I promise)
Bennington College in the 1980s was one of those mythic times that produced multiple influential artists at once, like Paris in the 1920s or New York in the 1950s. The biggest names were Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Lethem, and Donna Tartt.
Donna Tartt is one of my favorite writers. When I admire an author, I usually listen to several interviews with them. If only a few are available, I listen to them multiple times. I want to know about their life choices and their daily habits. I often (perhaps subconsciously, perhaps not) emulate them a little bit.
Tartt doesn’t reveal much about herself. Her interviews are limited to when she’s promoting a book (which happens once every ten years). When she talks about her work, it’s usually in general terms, and she doesn’t say much about her daily routine that’s very mind-blowing.
I’ve driven past Bennington, Vermont several times, and the isolation there is pretty profound. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to imagine it as a hotbed of creativity. A few months ago, a journalist named Lili Anolik created a podcast called “Once Upon a Time... at Bennington College,” in an attempt to make sense of it.
Tartt declined to be interviewed for Lili Anolik’s podcast. Instead, her lawyer sent a warning letter. I’m guessing that the letter was less than what Tartt wanted to send, but I assumed she was overreacting. She probably didn’t want anyone to know about the clothes she wore back then, or how dorky she was about something.
After listening to it, I saw that Tartt wasn’t overreacting. She’d based her second novel on the tragic death of the brother of a close friend. She didn’t mention this to the friend, and she knew that the friend was writing about the tragedy herself. Two people can write about the same incident and end up with very different results, but it was her friend’s brother, and she didn’t even warn her ahead of time. That was the worst (in my opinion), but not the extent of it. A good number of people walked away from Tartt feeling used.
After I listened to the podcast, I was sadder, let down.
I’d believed that every once in a while, the fates, genetics, the gods, or whatever, gifts us with a phenom, and that phenom reminds us that unspeakable wonder and beauty can come from anyone, anywhere. I thought my life overlapped with someone on the level of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and that it was Donna Tartt.
Of course, that’s just me. When I don’t know about something, I have a natural inclination to speculate positively about it. Perhaps wildly. A glimpse into her process changed not only my view of her books but the finished product of every other supposed genius. What were the hidden costs of their work?
Since listening to that podcast, I’ve often wondered whether the real reason she wouldn’t participate in the podcast had nothing to do with the origin of her work. Tartt seems to have an old-fashioned sensibility, like she’s trying to maintain a time when it was normal to know little about the creators of the art we consumed.
The public was once free to worship celebrities without complication, and I’ve since wondered whether she’s right. Mystery allows us to invent whatever fantasy most aligns with our own worldview, which is both comforting and alluring.
Is it ever a good idea to uphold a fantasy, though?
Hope is a form of fantasy, and it keeps us from collapsing in total despair. On the other hand, there are also destructive mass fantasies, like conspiracy theories.
I’m up most nights frozen with fear over the state of the planet and our society, but mostly, the callousness of people. That eats at me more than anything because I’m so afraid of what’s to come if we can’t learn compassion for one another. This is a self-harming fantasy, but maybe one that helps me make better decisions.
I have avenues to pursue my most hopeful fantasies, but I feel helpless to do much about any of my scariest ones. So instead, I wonder whether I’m better off knowing about Donna Tartt’s past. Maybe this is why we spend so much time evaluating ourselves and each other, like I mentioned in my previous issue. It’s easier than focusing on our real problems.
My only non-fantasy option is to extend compassion to everyone I can, including Donna Tartt, and I find that to be pretty easy. She is human, after all, and humans are fallible. If we demand perfection from everyone, then we have no place for anyone. Most of her misdeeds were either a lie of omission or a failure to meet interpersonal challenges head-on, which isn’t great, but it’s not the crime of the century, either.
I can imagine myself in her shoes. She’s shy. Maybe she’s not even sure what other people want to know about her work. Her life is dedicated to serving what she sees as a greater purpose—her writing.
Plus, I still really like her books.
With a little bit of effort, I can accept the hurt feelings of Tartt’s friends and still wish her well. More importantly, my worldview still holds. Artistic genius is still a real thing, and if anything, Donna has made it a little more accessible.
Which celebrity/artist has disappointed you? Do you wish you didn’t know or are glad to know the truth? How has it affected your enjoyment of their work? Please comment.