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Condemn the Writer, Not the Writing

25 May 2018

From The National Review:

Recent allegations of sexist misconduct against author Junot Díaz have reignited an old debate: Should we engage the work of artists whose personal conduct or belief systems are reprehensible? At the Washington Post, Sandra Beasly has weighed in on this question; she wonders whether she should “continue to teach the work of people we now suspect of behaving unethically or abusively.” Her answer to the question is nuanced, so I won’t attempt a brief and therefore unsatisfactory summary.

My response, though, is an unequivocal yes: We should read the books of flawed writers who produce great art.

. . . .

Between artists and the art they produce should be erected a large and nearly impenetrable wall. An author’s personal misconduct should not distract us from questions of literary merit — and neither should the sorts of obscenities that appear within the books themselves. When a novelist writes, he creates a voice, the voice of a narrator who does not exist in the real world. Such a voice must be judged on its own; it must be separated from its authorial creator and be given the freedom to explore even the more monstrous aspects of the human experience.

This insight about separating author from narrator seems to have been forgotten in much of the conversation surrounding Díaz. One writer called his books “sexist and regressive,” suggesting that we should refrain from reading that which our culture has deemed verboten. Having read most of Díaz’s fiction, I can confirm that there is certainly a great amount of misogyny depicted. That does not mean that his oeuvre as such encourages sexism, any more than Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serves as an apologia for slavery, any more than James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room endorses homophobia, or any more than Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon promotes segregation. Twain, Baldwin, and Morrison are masters of their craft, able to depict bigotry and intolerance in all their vile and irrational glory; the same is true of Díaz. We shouldn’t condemn authors for portraying the truth of life’s brutalities.

Feminist literary critic Roxanne Gay reviewed Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her back in 2012. She got it exactly right: “The influence of [sexism] is plainly apparent throughout This Is How You Lose Her. Women are their bodies and what they can offer men. They are pulled apart for Yunior’s [the protagonist’s] sexual amusement. There’s nothing wrong with that, the fact that Yunior is a misogynist of the highest order . . . that none of the men in this book are very good to women. This is fiction and if people cannot be flawed in fiction there’s no place left for us to be human (emphasis mine).

. . . .

Dickens was a writer who cared deeply about the poor of England but was simultaneously contemptuous of the Indian victims of British imperialism. What are we to do with him? Should we read him because of his sympathy for the poor or dismiss him because of his racism? Neither, I argue; instead we should read him because he is a monumental figure in the history of British writing. And, of course, we can read him even as we keep in mind that he was a complex human, capable at the same time of making abominable moral judgments and of producing lasting works of fiction.

Link to the rest at The National Review

PG will note that he does not always agree with the content of everything he posts about on TPV.

The OP is not the first to raise the question of whether we must expose ourselves to evil in order to gain an understanding of evil. As with many questions of this type, PG believes the answer is yes and no.

In some cases, exposure can be beneficial to our understanding. Reading Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto and the writings of Mao Zedong underpinning Land Reform, The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution may be examples of such beneficial exposure and increases our understanding without negative side-effects.

On the other hand, direct exposure to hard-core and child pornography and snuff films may be examples of exposure that doesn’t really help to increase our understanding of these evils and may have continuing detrimental effects.

 

Books in General

28 Comments to “Condemn the Writer, Not the Writing”

  1. And if we disagree with the author we can just make-up lies to get them kicked out of cons.

    (For those that are unfamiliar with the reference, search for John Ringo and Larry Correia.)

    • Felix J. Torres

      Orson Scott Card.
      I’ve seen more than a few readers vilify him for his religiously-motivated viewpoints.

      I’ve also seen authors vilified for what their *characters* do. (Donaldson, Stirling, Heinlein, among others.)

      Even Asimov.

    • It’s not enough to virtue signal anymore. Now, you have to destroy a person’s career for trying to flirt with you, or greeting you in public with a hug.

      Or is that the newest form of virtue signaling?

      • Felix J. Torres

        It’s Procustean justice, 21st century style.

        Virtue signaling is too passive for these times since it allows non-conformers to survive. It’s all about rewarding your friends and punishing all others. Preferably by grinding them to dust.

  2. That’s just the beginning of their books being burned in a bonfire and the authors if alive sent to gulag.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Gulags are expensive.
      Rope is cheap.

      • But gulags can provide slave labor

        • Felix J. Torres

          Slaves you have to house and feed.
          Interns forage.
          Free range labor is much cheaper.

          Slavery isn’t really viable in modern economies. That one of many things that stories about android rebellions get wrong.

          • [points to human trafficking stats]

            • Felix J. Torres

              I’ve seen them.
              (Disgusting, really. And nobody does much about it. Just lots of handwringing and tsk-tsking. You actually see more meaningful action on poachers than slavers.)

              It’s not driven by economics, though.
              It’s all about power.

              • How recently have you looked at it? Most of that is false. Awareness is spreading, and action is happening. Even folks who work in transportation are learning what to watch for and interceding.

                Laws are lagging behind, but that’s always the case; the attitude of entitlement behind slavery causes other crimes, too, the victims of which are also getting increasing help. It’s still all headed in the right direction.

                It’s also very much an economic thing. The entire purpose is generating profit for the owner.

                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwnbzcRZmi0

                • Felix J. Torres

                  It’s not that exploiting the weak can’t be made to turn *a* profit but rather whether it is the *most* profitable way to go. And it isn’t. Not by a mile.

                  And it hasn’t been, for nearly two centuries now.
                  Slavery is inherently suboptimal in a modern context and can only be “justified” as an exercise of power or when the “service” obtained is illegal. And even that is limited because the slaveholder becomes dependent on the slave and the cost of missed opportunities exceeds any apparent profit.

                  Automation and economies of scale have long since outstripped slave labor rendering suboptimal in any rational economic framework.

                • Felix, I feel like you’re trying to logic away human trafficking. The fact that so many women and children are being kept and sold as sex slaves in this modern world pretty much disproves everything you’re saying about it being unprofitable. If it was unprofitable, it would be far less of a problem than it is. The problem is that so many people (men) are willing to pay so much money to have sex with people who would not choose to have sex with them and who don’t get the option of refusing. If there wasn’t a huge market for it, sure, some people would still keep their own sex slaves for their personal use, and that would be horrible. But that’s not the major problem. The major problem is all the money to be made in selling other people’s bodies.

                • I’ve seen reports of gangs switching to human trafficking because it’s more profitable and can have less penalty when caught than other options.

                  If the primary motivator in trafficking were power, folks would stick to abusing others without violating the law in such a way. Plenty of parents do that to their children already, taking advantage of societal expectations for children to care for their parents and assumptions that parents necessarily support their children. Some will even openly call their children retirement plans. (Hi, cyberstalker.)

                  Would the economy as a whole benefit from a lack of human trafficking? Possibly.

                  Would the slave owners themselves net as much or more profit without the human trafficking? Probably not.

                  Trafficking also happens for jobs that a lot of folks don’t want, not just for commercial sex. Sometimes it’s “hidden” as peonage. See https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/113612.pdf.

          • Slavery isn’t viable as the base for modern economies. There are, however, niches where it can be quite profitable.

  3. In the main, I don’t consume “entertainment” because it is not entertaining, nor informative. Which leaves out the subject of the OP, as well as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and the like.

    There are only one or two people that I will absolutely not give any support to, or have their products in my home, no matter what it is, or whether I directly benefit them by consuming such. Such creatures as MZB or Jane Fonda. There is (to me) such a thing as evil that taints everything it touches.

  4. A beautiful example is Harvey Weinstein.

    The movies and documentaries that his various companies put out are some of my favorites. I am not going to throw out hundreds of DVDs just because he’s an asshole.

  5. Evil is relative. We are all failed saints. Your humanity will not turn me away IF I like your art.

  6. I was raised in a kosher household and went to Hebrew School, so I was made very well aware at a young age that Hitler loved Wagner, who was an anti-Semite, and that Roald Dahl and T.S. Eliot weren’t exactly lovers of my people, either. Some of my favorite musicians are/were unrepentant jerks. Some of my favorite actors and actresses, too.

    Yet the art stands on its own.

    What are you gonna do? You decide where to draw your own lines and appreciate the works on their own merits. Otherwise, there won’t be much left to listen to, read, or watch.

  7. When I was a kid, I remember thinking that machinist’s Jo blocks, blocks of hardened metal or ceramic used to calibrate precision measuring instruments, were perfect but boring compared to the instruments that depended on them for accuracy.

    When I learned a little more about physics, I realized my ignorance and graduated to the view that imperfection is more interesting than perfection, but it cannot be appreciated without standards, however imperfect the standards.

  8. Terrence OBrien

    Condemning the writing is moral exhibitionism.

  9. interesting all comments so far are from men only. WOnder what the women here think…

    • From a female pov: Pragmatically, realistically, I quote, “Let those who are without sin throw the first stone.” No one is without human flaws and failures, but sometimes their creations rise above their flaws. There are no perfect people. If we insist on perfection in artists/creators/authors, we would have nothing left.

    • Speaking for myself … I rarely take an interest in a creator’s personal life, or even know what flaws they might have. If a writer is loudly saying they don’t want me as a customer, I will oblige and make sure they don’t get royalties from me. Otherwise? I don’t go seeking the information.

      I think I said once that I don’t care if creators had opinions that were congruent with the era they lived in, but that we look down on now in our Enlightened Times. I do care if an artist uses their art to accomplish evil, so Leni Riefenstahl is strictly academic, like Mein Kampf. I don’t condemn filmmakers from using her techniques; I’d only care if they used their art for similar purposes.

    • Since you asked … Personally, I rarely know much about an author’s personal life. I don’t typically care enough to go find out. But our stories come from our hearts and minds, and there are sometimes things that I can tell about a person from what they write which makes me not want to spend time the product of that mind, so I avoid their books in the future. I’m not saying that I think every author promotes the activities they write about. This goes deeper than that, and if a reader doesn’t know the difference, then I can’t really explain it. I think that you can tell even more about a person from reading what they choose to write–from examining the fruit of their mind and heart–than from knowing them personally. (Unless you’re a very close friend/relative of theirs.) Most of the time, I don’t form a very solid opinion of people as people based on their writings. Sometimes, it makes me really like them and think I’d probably like them as a person. Sometimes, it convinces me that they’re kind of a twisted, messed up person and I probably would not want to know them.

      In any event, I wouldn’t try to sabotage someone’s career because their writing made me think they’re a bad person. That’s just lunacy.

  10. Within the past few years I’ve read biographies of Patrick O’Brian, John Cheever, Truman Capote, John LeCarre, and Gore Vidal. None of them were particularly nice men – Capote probably came closest while Vidal was the worst. If we clear the libraries and museums of the works of those who are considered “not nice” by today’s hysterical standards, we’re going to have a lot of empty buildings on our hands.

  11. In every man – and woman – there is good – and evil. For you cannot know or understand good or evil if you don’t have some of both in you to compare between them, much as you cannot have love without hate, one without the other leaves you with just a shallow impression of what others might feel or think.

    And sometimes some of us get a little wake-up call, when something happens and we discover we had no idea what real evil – or real good for that matter – really looked like. Some try to forget or hide away from the new depths, others prepare themselves in case they have to deal with it again.

    Then there is what you ‘do’ with what you have known/learned. Some will turn to evil, it is often easier than trying to be good. Some will use what they know to write realistic evil into their stories – after all, the hero needs a proper foe to battle – doesn’t she? 😉

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