When turkeys take flight

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Herman Melville, infamous in his lifetime as the author of turkeys
  • Herman Melville, infamous in his lifetime as the author of turkeys
Broadly speaking, failed creative efforts that get labeled turkeys fall into one of two categories. There are the purely insipid movies, books, songs, et cetera, that convey incompetence more than anything else; they're generally unambitious, but their sheer lack of craftsmanship or good taste situates them outside the familiarly bad. Then there are the overreaching failures, which feel particularly embarrassing because they fall so short of their obvious aspirations. These turkeys have the distinction of being the more interesting to think about; in considering what went wrong, you end up better aware of why other artworks succeed—or, at the very least, don't offend.

Yet history has shown that popular ideas about artistic success and failure don't always stick. For instance, Herman Melville's last three major novels—Moby-Dick; Pierre, or the Ambiguities; and The Confidence-Man—were such critical and commercial flops that Melville abandoned his literary career just two years after the publication of Confidence and took a job as a customs inspector on Wall Street, which he held until retirement age. When he died in 1891, most of his novels had been forgotten; nearly 30 years would pass before a new generation of writers proclaimed him one of the great American authors. Vincent van Gogh's artistic reputation experienced an even greater turnaround in the half century after his death.

At their most visionary, Melville and van Gogh stood so far outside the artistic conventions of their time that it's understandable why their contemporaries would consider them failures. (The same can be said of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, whose first Parisian run lasted less than a week!) It's easier to dismiss a novel or painting for failing to meet existing expectations than it is to grapple with the new set of aesthetic rules that the work lays out. That process takes time, sometimes an entire generation. It often requires the assistance of sympathetic artists with a better handle on the popular audience, who can assimilate the stranger ideas of that mislabeled turkey into something more familiar. In the case of Moby-Dick, the mosaic-like nature of much modernist fiction provided a belated context for Melville's fragmentary approach.

This is another reason why those overreaching turkeys can be so fascinating: there's always a chance that our children or grandchildren will consider them masterpieces. Sure, those chances must be slimmer now than they were a century ago, as the Internet allows for dissenting opinions about art to spread faster than ever before. (Drew Hunt addressed this phenomenon in his recent Reader piece about Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil movies.) But you never know. Every era likes to entertain the fantasy that it represents the height of sophistication, when in fact even the idea of sophistication mutates over time. I try to keep that humbling thought in mind when I look at some of my own negative reviews.

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