Patti Smith, Where’s Your Critical Distance?

PattiSmithEditedJulia Felsenthal in Double X:

In his piece for the New York Times Book review on Just Kids, Patti Smith’s new memoir about her long-term relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Tom Carson writes:

Peculiarly or not, the one limitation of “Just Kids” is that Mapplethorpe himself, despite Smith’s valiant efforts, doesn’t come off as appealingly as she hopes he will. When he isn’t candidly on the make — “Hustler-hustler-hustler. I guess that’s what I’m about,” he tells her — his pretension and self-romanticizing can be tiresome.

Carson’s criticism is well-deserved. At first read, Smith’s memoir tells a pretty romantic story: Two 20-year-old dreamers arrive penniless in New York, find in each other kindred spirits, and build a life together in pursuit of art. The messy little details—like that Mapplethorpe turns out to be gay, or that he eventually dies of AIDS, or that their pennilessness forces them to steal, hustle, and compromise themselves in manifold ways—don’t really get in the way of Smith’s message: that this is a love affair for the ages. Smith is a seductive storyteller. She has at her disposal an enviable range of allusions and references. But her greatest asset as a writer is the clarity with which she sees herself and the people around her—a clarity that is compromised only by a gigantic, Robert Mapplethorpe-shaped blind spot.

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