[Essay] Too Close to The Sun: How the creative industry fails mental health — Jack Williams

During lockdown, I’ve been lucky enough to have had the time to reread David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a book I enjoyed but mostly misunderstood the first time I read it, around five years ago. Since its publication in 1996, the novel has remained at the forefront of debates in contemporary literature, the subject of innumerable essays, podcasts, forum discussions, references in American sitcoms, and memes, so many memes, that are being created all the time.[1] Before Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), Infinite Jest was the book annoying undergraduates read and talked about non-stop as a not-so-gentle flex to remind others that they’d done something that was, in reality, not particularly impressive. I include myself in this category.

Infinite Jest is a special book, simultaneously the cleverest and the dumbest novel I have ever read. In all his major works, Wallace examines the life of the young, unappreciated, mentally unwell (and usually male) prodigy, sometimes extremely well in the case of short stories such as “Good Old Neon”, Hal himself in Infinite Jest, and The Slacker in The Pale King (2011), all characters who are nuanced and complex beyond their despair or emotional isolation, but are still readable in a way that few considerations of this topic in postmodern lit are. We care about Hal, even if his predicament is ridiculous in the way that only characters in ‘Hysterical Realism’ could be. Wallace also writes characters appallingly, especially when they are female with the focus shifting from an intellectual exploration of their existential dread to their physical appearance and romantic function (or the lack thereof). A prime example is Joelle Van Dyne, one of the main characters in Infinite Jest, whose entire growth is hinged upon her being beautiful and then being made ugly by an accidental acid attack.

Infinite Jest’s depiction of addiction and mental illness can be beautiful: slathered in irony and deep-fried in a consideration of the American obsession with entertainment in all its forms. Wallace’s attempts to characterise a person speaking African-American vernacular English in the novel, however, are not. They are especially damning when you consider Wallace’s comments in ‘Authority and the American Language’, an essay in which he tells a black MFA student that he is going to ‘make’ the student learn SWE (Standard White English) as a form of assimilation.[2] This and other moments in Infinite Jest, from the eye-rolling scene in which an older woman gets her bottom stuck in the bathroom window of a moving bus to the horrific, throwaway description of the rape of a male prostitute with AIDS, demand a re-consideration of Wallace’s life and his work—both of which were propelled further into the zeitgeist by the author’s suicide in 2008.[3]

Suicide urges a re-examination of life and work in ways that few other causes of death do, forcing readers to pause while reading certain sections and think: ‘oh, yeah, that makes sense now’, in the same way that photographs of someone smoking cigarettes after they die of lung cancer ultimately take on a deeper meaning. For example, the moment in which Wallace famously compares suicide to jumping from the window of a burning high rise suddenly takes on a new and extremely sad meaning, becoming a precursor to a tragedy rather than an attempt at catharsis; a warning sign that suddenly looks like a cry for help rather than a consideration of acute mental illness.[4] His work takes on this new meaning because it ultimately forces us to consider just how appropriate, accurate, and authentic this analysis is.

When it comes to fiction, audiences clamour for real-life authenticity. The recent controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt (2020) highlights this, with the American author accused of appropriating Mexican immigrant experiences.[5] The debate does more than simply raise the question ‘who gets to tell which stories?’ Rather, it shows that the contemporary reading public values the author, at least in part, for their ability to demonstrate a personal link to their work. If Wallace only ever wrote books about precocious tennis stars with dubious mental health, no one would question for a moment that he had the experience to have at least some authority on the topic.

But what happens when having that authority, that experience, that ‘authenticity’, means constantly being in harm’s way? And what happens when people make money from your capacity to speak about the experience of mental illness? Unfortunately, if you work in any kind of creative industry, being in this precarious position also has value. The recent uptick in consideration around the topic of mental health has seen business attempt to cash in on an ‘in vogue’ topic. If your work engages with a topic that businesses are attempting to demonstrate (or virtue signal) that they care about, your creative expression quickly gains value. It becomes a commodity. And where there is a commodity, there will be those looking to capitalise on it.

In the vast commentary on Wallace, two names appear consistently: D.T. Max, author of the best-selling biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is A Ghost Story (2012); and David Lipsky, who published his own biography of Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010), based on his experience touring the U.S while Wallace publicized Infinite Jest. It was later made into the (extremely average) film The End of The Tour (2015), the making of which was never approved of by Wallace’s family. Both consider the issue at the heart of this essay: whether it is appropriate for individuals and companies in the media, publishing and film industries to benefit, both financially and professionally, from Wallace’s well-documented struggles with depression and addiction.[6]

It is inappropriate that two of Wallace’s close associates have been able to make their careers and large amounts of money in the last decade writing essays and books and making movies about their friend’s struggle with mental illness. But it is not surprising. After any artist dies in this way, those involved in the publication of creative work immediately attempt to capitalise on these experiences. The culture-imbibing public has a morbid fascination with a romanticized understanding of mental illness that the industry feeds into, while simultaneously being disgusted by it. Yet, if a creative decides to stay out of the limelight, like Thomas Pynchon, they are called a ‘recluse’ by the media that attempts to objectify artists even in their privacy.[7] They are seen as outsiders for not wanting to be in on the game, when actually, in Pynchon’s case, they’re just people with the perfectly normal wish to be left alone.

In one chapter of Infinite Jest, marijuana addict Ken Erdedy sits in his Boston apartment waiting for a woman he half knows to bring ‘200 grams of unusually good marijuana for $1250 U.S.’[8] It is a wonderful section of the novel, perfectly capturing the ennui of addiction while also bringing to light the reality of cannabis dependency. Wallace considers the anxiety, the desperation of the moment, and drags out a couple of seconds into pages and pages of boredom and apprehension. This close, detailed description moves Tom Bissell, author of The Disaster Artist (2013) and another friend of Wallace, to wonder in his introduction to the 2013 edition of the novel: ‘What did it cost Wallace to create [Ken Erredy]?’[9]

This is exactly what I’m talking about. The language used by Bissell heavily implies that creativity, when writing about mental illness, is a sort of trade-off for the real-life mental wellness of the creator. Bissell posits that Wallace writes well about dependency because Wallace was himself dependent, not because of his creative abilities. For Bissel, the cost of a good piece of writing is the stability of the author.

This romanticisation of the trade-off between mental illness and creativity isn’t new. Artists have always been told to ‘turn their pain into art’. The link between ‘divine’ inspiration and mental illness was made by Plato, who wondered in the Phaedrus whether ‘Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings… Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.’[10] Despite a 2011 study in the British Medical Journal debunking the myth of increased risk of death for musicians at the age of 27,[11] the idea of the ‘27 Club’ continues to romanticise the anguish caused by drug addiction and suicidal urges in young musicians.

Van Gogh, one of the most popular examples of the ‘Mad Genius’ trope, painted beautifully his entire life. The gun that he may have shot himself with (we are not certain as a couple of contenders have popped up over the years) sold at auction for £144,000 last summer.[12] Kierkegaard, whose philosophy profoundly influenced existential psychology, even believed that ‘with every increase in the degree of consciousness…the intensity of despair increases… the more consciousness, the more intense the despair.’[13]

The idea is not anything old, either. When Les Plesko, author of No Stopping Train, died in 2014 after a long battle with mental illness, his novels finally received the attention he always wished for. His final novel sold well and was favourably reviewed after his death, despite having been rejected multiple times by Plesko’s publisher during his lifetime. It took the author’s death for the work to be considered worthy of publication and it was only published when Plesko’s students shopped the same work to a different publishing house once the author had died.[14]

In 2002, when James Frey attempted to sell A Million Little Pieces as a novel to multiple publishers, he was told not to let the door hit him on the way out. But as soon as he placed himself within the context of the story, making it a ‘biography’ with large swathes of the book being total fiction, it was not only published by one of the largest houses in the world, but became one of the most popular books in America.[15] In the act of making his novel a ‘biography’, he legitimised his mental illness enough in the eyes of literary gatekeepers and the public to be considered worthy of being read.

There is no denying that there is statistical evidence of the prevalence of mental illness in the creative sphere. Kay R. Jamison’s 1989 study involving several highly successful creatives expanded on a 1974 study at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Both found that around 38% of creatives had been treated for a mood disorder of some kind, compared 12% of non-creative workers.[16] Anyone looking at this would argue there is a link to be found here.

But there is a dilemma of causality. Does the creative lifestyle, which offers more freedom and the ability to make money from work you enjoy, attract those with poor mental health? Or is the creative sector so poorly maintained for both struggling and successful artists that many working within it become sick? If there’s even a chance the latter is true, then what needs to change?

There comes a moment when, any type of creative that has achieved some sort of fame stops being just a person with a passion and becomes an extension of the brand which purchases and sells their work. The bottom line is that the brand comes to rely on the person’s creative output: it needs your creative assets to sell the fruit of your labour. How are businesses meant to react to losing the creative for any amount of time if their value is dependent on their work? And how are they meant to react to losing the creative, who at this point has become an asset, to the very thing that the culture-imbibing public sees as making your work special?

I am not saying that the creative industry should not work with mentally unwell people out of fear of handling this issue incorrectly. The opposite is true, and stories of mental health told from the viewpoint of the mentally unwell are vital and need to be understood.

There is a level of care missing before, during, and after the work is completed. The idea of benefiting from the untimely death of the creative either as a business or as a fellow creator poses a serious moral question for those in the industry. Employers need to recognise that they operate in an employer’s market, reconsider the values of their leadership, and not just put wellbeing policies in place, but make them an absolute priority: improve mental health training for HR teams (or just even establish a HR department in the first place), work to recognise and combat substance dependency as a way of coping with work-related pressure, and put the mental health of workers, both full-time and part-time, ahead of profits. Meanwhile, fellow creatives and critics need to recognise when criticism is valid—or when it is just jumping on the bandwagon of the illness, like ambulance chasing made even worse by the fact that they are an acquaintance of the person involved. If changes are not made, we are going to lose more important voices in literature, the arts, and the wider creative industries.

But the industry is not solely to blame. As a society, we need to stop romanticising the relationship between mental health and creativity. When the Karolinska Institute found that writers were twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves in 2012, the media had a field day.[17] When the study was redone and found to be reductive by the same Institute in 2014, there was silence.[18]

The idea that mental illness somehow makes you more creative is not just a damaging myth but a highly profitable one. Studies conducted in 2008 and 2009 show that mood is one of the most important factors when it comes to creating work.[19] Anyone who has gone through a bout of depression will tell you that focus is one of the first things to go. You’re going to struggle to do any work when struggling with it.

But beyond the objective argument, there are two wider points that I always make in discussions on this topic. There’s the slightly cynical side of me that asks if the likes of van Gogh, Wallace, or Plesko had access to the right medication and treatment, what work would we have from them now? Rather than viewing the work they did create as the product of, or the trade off from mental illness, what about all the poems, paintings, and creative outputs we lost as a result?

But this argument hinges on the assumption that the life and the work are of equal value, when in reality no work of art, no matter how canonical or life-changing, is worth a human life. Yet, the industry is prepared to let creatives fly too close to the sun so it can benefit from their fall.

Publicly, there are initiatives that are being put in place to help this problem. A large portion of Thrive LDN, specifically their “creativity and wellbeing week”, aims to bring light to this exact issue, while charities and organisations such as the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine and Equity both offer support to creatives.

Yet, despite the kindness and hard work of these mostly privately funded groups, one can’t help but look at the mental health services offered in the Scandinavian countries and think that some of the issues here come from an overworked and underfunded section of the NHS where just 11% of the budget goes to handle 23% of reported ailments.

But a large portion of the responsibility goes to hirers. So, if you regularly hire creative workers, then I have some small favours to ask:

Hire creatives with a history of considering this topic and their own relationship with it, whether that relationship is personal or not. Publish their work and champion it. But think about the line between their work and their lives. Think about what comes after you put it out into the world, and you both return to your own reality. How will the creative react to you selling their work?

There are some incredible voices working in different mediums across the creative industries. The businesses that work with them will have the chance to create amazing work, but they must be mindful of the responsibilities that come with it.

*

Jack Williams is the founder and editor of the UnderPinned Online Magazine. His previous bylines include Intern Mag, Screenshot, and the HarperCollins website. He lives in London.

Notes

[1] B. Evans, ‘Last Night’s ‘Parks and Rec’ Was Full of References to ‘Infinite Jest’, Vulture, April 5 2013 (https://www.vulture.com/2013/04/last-nights-parks-and-rec-was-full-of-references-to-infinite-jest.html)

[2] David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Abacus, 2007), 77.

[3] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (New York: Back Bay Books, 2016), 576; 946.

[4] Wallace, Infinite Jest, 696–697.

[5] Rebecca Alter, ‘Why Is Everyone Arguing the Novel About American Dirt?The Cut, February 7 2020.

[6] D.T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (London: Granta, 2012), 134–135.

[7] George Plimpton, ‘Mata Hari with a Clockwork Eye, Alligators in the Sewer’, New York Times, April 21 1963; J.K. Trotter, ‘Thomas Pynchon Returns to New York, Where He’s Always Been’, The Atlantic, June 17 2013.

[8] Wallace, Infinite Jest, 18.

[9] Tom Bissell, ‘Introduction’, Infinite Jest, xiv.

[10] Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 52.

[11] Adrian Bennett, ‘Is 27 really a dangerous age for famous musicians? A retrospective cohort study’, British Medical Journal, 20 December 2011.

[12] ‘Van Gogh “suicide gun” sold at Auction’, BBC, 19 June 2019.

[13] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 345.

[14] Nancy Spiller, ‘Suicidal Thoughts: The Creative Lives and Tragic Deaths of a Prince and a Pauper’, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 30 2014.

[15] Laura Barton, ‘The man who rewrote his life’, The Guardian, September 15 2006.

[16] Kay R. Jamison, ‘Mood Disorders and Patterns of Creativity in British Writers and Artists’, Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological, 52:2 (1989), 126.

[17] Ingrid Spilde, ‘Creativity linked to mental illness’, ScienceNordic, 21 October 2012; Michelle Roberts, ‘Creativity ‘closely entwined with mental illness’, BBC, 17 October 2012.

[18] Simon Kyaga, ‘Creativity and Pyschopathology’, PhD thesis, Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, v.

[19] Maathjis Baas, ‘A Meta-Analysis of 25 Years of Mood-Creativity Research: Hedonic Tone, Activation, or Regulatory Focus?’, Psychological Bulletin, 134: 6 (2008), 780; Mark A David, ‘Understanding the relationship between mood and creativity: A meta-analysis’, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 208:2 (2009), 26.

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