Tom Sutcliffe: It's a mystery how, but even the greatest artists can turn out the occasional dud


I don't know how you would go about quantifying these things, but last week I found myself standing in front of what must certainly be a candidate for the worst painting ever produced by a significant artist.

It features in Tate Modern's current show about Edvard Munch and it's called To the Sweet Young Girl, one of a set of interior scenes painted in a room with acid green wallpaper. The title is obviously ironic, given the porcine features of the main character in the painting. But there isn't enough irony in the world to rescue the picture from ignominy. It's just terrible at every level, and it got me thinking about what you might call “achievement spread”. Some artists are pretty consistent in their finish and delivery. Others are more erratic, the graph of their artistic success flickering like a stock-market chart. And still others are all-time champions of variation.

This is true in all art forms, naturally. The fact that I'd also seen William Friedkin's Killer Joe last week underlined the idea, not so much because that film is at either extreme, but because it reminded me of a director with some real stinkers in his filmography. I'm not sure that Friedkin would win any prizes for disparity though, in part because his heights aren't quite high enough. For my money, the unchallenged titleholder here would be David Lynch, with Blue Velvet in the plus column and Dune in the debits. I'm quite hard pressed to think of any serious director who's made a worse film than that. But then with movies, the question will always be a little muddied by the whole issue of studio interference. Does Lynch really deserve the credit for this benchmark cinematic atrocity, or should it perhaps go to some genius of incompetence in the back office?

With novels, the matter is much simpler. Yes, an editor can have an effect on a writer's work, but praise and blame are still likely to go to the author. One friend suggested Norman Mailer as a potential leader in the field here – with The Executioner's Song providing a zenith and Ancient Evenings as the nadir. You might quibble about her selections (I'd dither between Executioner's Song and Harlot's Ghost as the high point and make a case for The Castle in the Forest as the low), but you'd be hard pressed to deny the suggestion that Mailer has a solid claim to the status of Least Reliable Great Talent.

All of this is highly subjective. I proposed David Bowie to a colleague as a candidate in the field of music (with “The Laughing Gnome” down in the Marianas Trench of pop and “Queen Bitch” up there in the Himalayas), but he replied that the former had “a certain charm” and suggested Paul McCartney instead (“We All Stand Together” and “Eleanor Rigby” as opposite extremes). And a suggestion that Wordsworth should take the laurel in poetry (with “The Thorn” at one end of the scale and “Tintern Abbey” at the other) only made me think about what a daring and odd poem the former is.

The really interesting thing, of course, is how you would account for such variation. Does it undermine the case for genius or consolidate it, by suggesting a talent consistently working on the edge of the achievable? And do the failures call the successes into question or enable them to shine more brightly? In Munch's case, I'm still trying to work it out. But I honestly doubt that any painter could beat him when it comes to the vertiginous gap between the best and the worst.

Austen's the pride of Amazon

I didn't know until this week that Amazon offers a ranking of its most highlighted e-books and most highlighted passages, aggregating the electronic underlinings of Kindle users. Predictably, the Bible comes top of the Most Highlighted Books list, with Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography coming second. But neither are anywhere to be seen in the top 25 of the Most Highlighted Passages list. Depressingly, 19 of these quotes are credited to The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Less depressingly, Jane Austen is runner-up, with the opening line of Pride and Prejudice having been highlighted by 9,260 Kindle readers. I wouldn't have thought you really need to highlight an opening line myself. It's not exactly hard to find later. But there's still something consoling about her appearance there.

Spanish story's on the right track

It can't be easy using one language to describe a speaker's lack of fluency in another but Ben Lerner manages it wonderfully in Leaving the Atocha Station, his debut novel about Adam, a neurasthenic young poet on an arts foundation trip to Madrid. It's an odd, utterly distinctive book and much of the comedy in the early sections centre around Adam's frustrations with understanding. What Adam does discover though is that his lack of fluency can be exploited to make him appear far deeper and more thoughtful than he actually is. This is partly a matter of mechanics and partly a calculated opacity. But there is a problem. He starts to get better and he finds that worrying: “I wondered,” he confesses, “how long I could remain in Madrid without crossing whatever invisible threshold of proficiency would render me devoid of interest.” I do recommend the book.

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