From The Guardian:
As soon as the news of VS Naipaul’s death broke a few weeks ago, a thousand think pieces rose as one, as though to take his place. His legacy was both attacked and defended, his misogyny and racism condemned and forgiven. This frenzied conversation crystallised around a question readers have been grappling with for years, but with increasing urgency: to what extent should we consider an artist’s personality, politics and ethics relevant to our appreciation of their work?
It seems that almost no one can separate the writer from the books when it comes to Naipaul. The same is true of our response to work by authors who have recently been accused of various levels of misconduct following #metoo. In the past week alone, compelling and devastating reports of abuse by lauded authors have appeared in the media: Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s second wife, detailed his sadism and womanising in a memoir that has recently come to light; author Joyce Maynard has written of her experiences with JD Salinger, who summoned her to live with him when she was 18 and he was 53.
Practical criticism – the academic approach to texts that aims to consider words on the page independently of their author or the reader’s preconceived ideas – began almost 100 years ago; now, in 2018, such “death of the author” talk appears to be dead itself. While the takes on Naipaul were diverse, and some argued that Naipaul’s bad character was irrelevant to his work, the fact of his bad character was always front and centre. It could not go unmarked– but what remains to be decided is the extent to which it marks the legacy of a Nobel prize-winning author.
I am in favour of removing monuments erected to celebrate individuals whose life work was to destroy the happiness or lives of others. I think the statue of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, belongs in a museum with a lengthy note about Rhodes’s horrific legacy and the cultural circumstances under which the statue was first erected. The same is true of the many tributes across the US to Robert E Lee. But a book is not a statue. A story is not necessarily a tribute to, or celebration of, its author. I am left reaching, instead, for the correct metaphor to evoke the relationship between work and creator. Is a book its author’s child, innocent of its parent’s wrongdoing? Or is it a hologram of its creator, representing all that its author was and did? Of course neither of these is correct; I’m still searching for an analogy that lies between these two extremes.
Link to the rest at The Guardian
PG suggests if you can’t separate the author from the book, your mental, emotional and analytical self-discipline may need some work.
PG is reminded of a quote that he suspects begins (or began) every first-year semantics class, “The word is not the thing.”
Although S.I. Hayakawa popularized it, at least in the US, PG understands the phrase originated with Alfred Korzybski, who also said, “The map is not the territory.”
Here is a longer quote from Hayakawa:
Citizens of a modern society need […] more than that ordinary “common sense” which was defined by Stuart Chase as that which tells you that the world is flat. They need to be systematically aware of the powers and limitations of symbols, especially words, if they are to guard against being driven into complete bewilderment by the complexity of their semantic environment. The first of the principles governing symbols is this: The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for.
PG also suggests that the book is not the author and vice versa.
If a reader comes to a book having pre-judged it by its author, he/she may well fail to understand the book. If the author had written this particular book anonymously, using a pen name, would the book be different?
The idea that one should pre-judge a book by what one knows (or thinks one knows) about the author seems totally bizarre. One is not supporting Naipaul by reading his books. What we know or think we know about an author does not change the words the author wrote.
A bit of perspective on the history of a society’s popular thought and accepted truths might help today’s critics of people who lived in a much different time and culture that attitudes and understandings change and today’s verities can well be tomorrow’s disdained falsities.