In 1977, Black Sparrow Press published a book of poetry called Love is a Dog from Hell. America was in the ambitiously termed “post-civil rights era”, second wave feminism was firmly in the public eye, and the author, Charles Bukowski, was making a stable living as a writer for the first time in his storied life.
Hold that thought.
Somehow Bukowski got lumped in with the 1960s Beat poets, even though he hated pretty much everything about them. The Beats were trust-fund babies who ran around the country playing “transient” and trying to free themselves of the pressures of their privilege. Bukowski came from the background that those guys aspired to. He lived roughly, and he wrote roughly. He struggled against this perception his entire career.
Alongside the Beats, Bukowski’s brand of Dirty Realism democratized the poetic form in America. He took it out of the stuffy, academic world of pastorals and rigid form, and just told life as it was. He made poetry (and poets) accessible to the average Chinasky. He also embodied a self-centered, adolescent machismo that he expressed through his autobiographical hero, the brooding victim of highly-objectified women who never stuck around. His writing is all about sex, drugs and violence that can be achingly poignant and introspective, but also includes graphic scenes of sexual assault, racism, and pedophilia. Fifty years after his death, it seems to influence new generations of white, straight, college-age men to perpetuate the kind of toxic bravado Buk assigned to his characters.
There’s a lot to unpack there about masculinity, the ethics of art, and whether an artist can be held responsible for the behavior of their fans, but there isn’t room for that here. What is clear is that his intention was not to write self-help books for fuckboys. His only goal was to help himself, for better or worse.
The way Bukowski has become seated in modern culture likely has a lot more to do with the audience's perceptions than the work itself. It is in this construct that Bukowski has become a controversial figure in the never-ending discourse that questions whether we should engage with art on its own terms.
Are we required to continue to grant space to problematic artists just because they’re “honest” or “self-aware” about it? Do we need to give grace to outdated art, or should we be able to critique it through the lens of modern experience? Is there a difference between valuing male vulnerability and holding men accountable for their unapologetic misogyny and harmful depictions of both men and women? Does separating the art from the artist excuse bad behavior?
Enter, social media. At its best, social media creates dialogue and supports free expression. Anyone with a computer can lend their opinions to millions of discussions all over the world. At its worst, it breeds paranoia, enables bias confirmation, and provides a sense of anonymity that makes us forget we're speaking to other human beings.
I found this out when I accidentally went viral.
I bought a used copy of Love is a Dog from Hell online. When it arrived, it contained some amusing annotations from the previous owner. I posted a few of my favorite excerpts to highlight how clearly you could track her arc from innocent curiosity, to gradual disgust, to outright abandonment of the book—something we can all relate to. Through the magic of the internet, she found me (her name is Katherine, noted with a 'KE'). It became a cute feel-good story about connecting past and present readers through marginalia.
Katherine Esters: "The reception was generally positive; people saw and appreciated the serendipity in two readers connecting over a book that had unknowingly travelled across the country. They got a laugh out of the personal notes I never thought anyone beyond a buyer at my local Goodwill would see. Actors, professors, and writers whose work I respect began to interact with ... me on social media. Eventually the tide of compliments and heartwarming encouragement made way for harsher comments though, as it always does. I began to see users calling my writing lifeless and hollow, questioning the complexity of my interior life, and posting memes that made fun of the original tweets. The consensus was that I was too much of a social justice warrior to meaningfully engage with a text because my notes had to do with the author rather than his writing, that this was an example of a lowbrow consumer who could only enjoy art if they liked the artist."
If Charles Bukowski was controversial, the Cult of Bukowski is something entirely its own beast. The marginalia conversation quickly moved into people’s personal feelings about Bukowski as a human, and depending on which side of the divide they fell, how they felt about Katherine and I as humans. Every piece of our identities was scrutinized, as well as our character, intellect, and right to continue living. Not to mention the ominous DMs that said, “I know you did it …” as if I was covering up a murder.
KE: "Cartoonist and writer Tim Kreider prompted the discussion around being perceived in 2013 with his article, “I Know What You Think of Me.” He wrote that accidentally encountering people’s observations of you can be painful, that it’s like seeing a photo of yourself that you didn’t pose or prepare for. It is proof that we exist beyond our egos. I could see how the pictures of my notes—immediate thoughts that were jotted down and forgotten just as quickly—would lead people to have varying opinions of me. I finally saw myself being seen; as a funny notetaker with nice handwriting that people liked, but also as the kind of asshole that writes marginalia in pen and doesn’t even have anything worthwhile to say. Even as a person with a small online following, even in the short time it takes for a tweet to lose its virality, being seen can feel humiliating. Before you realize it’s not that big of a deal, it feels like having your biggest insecurities confirmed by a bunch of strangers and realizing the ugly parts of yourself that were hidden were obvious all along."
While self-reflection is a healthy response, it's not your responsibility to own criticism that doesn't fit. Art is political. People are allowed to think what they are going to think, and I don't begrudge anyone their loyalty to an author. But taking snippets out of context and making a value judgment on the person is the equivalent of reading the headline and commenting on it.
We have both been called liars, illiterate, too young, too old, told we owe the world a more rigorous analysis, that we are hateful, and that we are worthless. This is a prime example of the way women—especially women of color—are disproportionately punished for having opinions. I've been told I should not be allowed to read because I found humor in some margin notes. The message here is that Bukowski should be celebrated for his flaws, while women shouldn’t have them.
KE: "Kreider also wrote that we assume we’ll be redeemed or forgiven when posed in a bad light, which is ironic because we refuse to give other people the same grace. Although I knew this was a situation I couldn’t control, I found myself wanting to say something in response; but attempting to clarify or defend yourself online is never the right choice. Having any sort of response prolongs a situation that may hurt now, but it will end eventually, if no fuel is added to the fire."
It has been interesting to track the life span of a viral tweet. While it felt like a month of constant bombardment, all of this joy and pain and laughter and surprise and outright chaos lasted maybe three days. And it’s been a very effective tool for connection. I found old friends and long lost family members. We met from across the country, which would have been completely impossible pre-social media. It was all the good and bad of this year in concentrated form: there were awful moments of isolation, but it also felt a bit like that influencer artifice gave way to some genuine relationship building.
KE: "Instead of trying to make our lives look pretty in neat little squares, a lot of us stayed inside ... We baked bread and laughed at out-of-touch celebrities who thought singing a John Lennon song (instead of emptying their wallets) was a clever way to respond to a global pandemic. We mobilized and protested in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and countless other Black lives that have been stolen across the country, although others made a political statement via black square on Instagram without doing much else. Maybe not wanting to be perceived, at least online, is a ‘screw you’ to the shallowness of social media and expresses a desire to get back to the real world. It’s an attempt to gain control where there is none. We can take the best parts of the Internet—the stuff that feels informative, inspiring, or hilarious—and leave the rest."
So, what’s the lesson? Is there a lesson? I guess the up-side of this whole experience was not in being perceived, but in being seen. A lot of women came forward and said, "This is my experience, too." There was noise, but there were also groups of people who were relieved to know that they didn't have to like something just because it's canon—because an old, white guy wrote a book and other old, white guys called him a genius for it. There were people who didn’t agree, but had meaningful conversations about what they found important in this random piece of marginalia and told intimate life stories. It was all so ridiculously human.
KE: "As awful as it is to be seen in a way you can’t control, it’s a passing feeling for most of us, something to briefly feel embarrassed about and eventually take with a grain of salt. Being vulnerable can be worth the cringe, and it was for me. The universe has given me a mixed bag of life experiences—with this one sitting high on my list of most fortuitous moments—and I’d be remiss not to appreciate it for what it is, perception be damned."
It has been a beautiful fight. Still is.
*Feature Image: Mannaggia (Adobe)