People are perennially curious about the personalities of artists, healthy and dysfunctional alike. Small wonder the biographies of authors capture my attention. Easy example: I dug up not one but two separate biographies of Yukio Mishima — one by John Nathan, the other by Henry Scott-Stokes. Nathan’s was shorter but that much more precise and insightful; the Scott-Stokes work was more rambling and speculative, with a great many digressions about Japanese society that Nathan’s book dealt with a good deal more succinctly.
Aside from the way Nathan’s book dives headfirst into Mishima’s life — he was given an unprecedented level of access to the man’s world by the author’s widow — what caught my fascination the most was Mishima’s compulsive way of contrasting himself against other writers. In his early years, right after WWII, he met Osamu Dazai and told him, flat-out, “I don’t like your writing.” Mishima was downright straight-edge compared to Dazai, a compulsive dissolute whose suicide attempts, extramarital dabblings and drug addictions were already the stuff of legend. But as Mishima admitted later on in an interview, much of his outward “health” was itself a contrast: he was healthy on the outside so he could afford the luxury, as it were, of being sick on the inside.
No society exists without some level of tension between it as a whole and its artists, and the way it manifests in Japan in particular is fascinating to me. I suspect one way Japanese society deals with the artist as an unpredictable quantity is to make it possible to be an artist in a way that is at least marginally predictable. Hence the way, for instance, a manga artist will have the direction of his work planned and dictated to a fair degree by his editor. I’d guess it’s a lot easier today, as opposed to thirty years ago, for a novelist or artist-in-the-abstract to not only make a living but earn a measure of respect from everyone who’s not an “artist” themselves.
It probably helps if you’re a best-selling author — or, as Mishima’s father put it to him, if he was going to quit a good government job and become a writer, he had to become the best in the land. He certainly gave it his college best. Mishima had a six-volume collected works edition published before he was even thirty. Had he not elected to turn the last few years of his life into an extended deathwish, he might well still be writing today (he’d be 83 or so by my math), and most likely fulminating at what he perceived as the further decline of his country. In a revised edition of his book on Mishima, Scott-Stokes speculated about that; he had no doubt Mishima would be shaking his head at the rise of anime and manga as the most immediately visible expression of Japanese culture in an international context.
Most successful artists — whether from Japan or anywhere else — tend to adopt a workmanlike attitude about what they do best. This isn’t an argument that more is better; rather, more creates more opportunities to be better. Manga-ka — and the new breed of light novelists like NISIOISIN, come to think of it — produce at a pace that would have made Mishima proud. Prolificacy is solid evidence of hard work, and if you’re in a field as commercially volatile as writing, the more you can do and the more you have done, the better you’ll survive tough times. (I’m not sure if any Japanese authors ever approached the staggering level of volume produced by Georges Simenon, though, but I’d think of him as a fluke in any country.)
(On a side note, I’m not sure I ever subscribed to the warmed-over romanticism that dictates all artists must be Suffering Beasts that Transmute their Agony into Glory, or somesuch nonsense. It’s a thinly-disguised bit of revenge, really — a way to keep the act of creation something mystical and deliberately weird, instead of something commonplace and ordinary but no less wonderful regardless.)